MIAMI (CBSNewYork/AP) — Hurricane Irma strengthened to a Category 5 storm with maximum sustained winds near 180 mph as it approached the northeast Caribbean on a path toward U.S.
The storm was centered about 270 miles east of Antigua and moving west at 14 mph early Tuesday.
Authorities warned that the storm could dump up to 10 inches of rain, cause landslides and flash floods and generate waves of up to 23 feet. Government officials began evacuations in certain islands.
Floridians took advantage of the Labor Day holiday to empty many store shelves of drinking water and other supplies in advance of Hurricane Irma. By mid-day Monday, many grocery stores across South Florida had been emptied of bottled water and stores were hoping to restock beginning Tuesday morning.
“Think right now it’s a little bit early to tell, but it’s a good time to be prepared,” said Ovide Val, who was preparing for the storm.
“Expect the worst and if nothing else bad happens, you can have a great party in your backyard after the storm is over,” resident Joe Schwartz said.
Video of Irma from a hurricane hunter plane that flew directly into the storm to gather weather information shows the cloud cover thickening as the plane gets closer to the stronger force of the hurricane. Eventually the clouds completely obscure the plane’s view.
States of emergency were declared in Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and all of Florida.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that all decisions taken in the next couple of hours would make a difference between life and death.
“This is an extremely dangerous storm,” Rossello said.
Many New Yorkers living in East Harlem were growing more and more worried about family trapped in the storm’s path.
“My family, they live on the coastal side of Puerto Rico. So I’m hoping they actually get to safety, or they get to a place where it’s not going to be as bad,” Richard Molina said.
Mary Colon said she’s especially concerned about her 83-year-old father who lives alone in a small woodframed home.
“I spoke to my sister, and said if she can go pick my daddy up and take him to her house, hers is more stronger, and his is in the camp,” she said, “With the wind, it’ll take all the house down.”
Juanita Woods has been in regular contact with her sister since Puerto Rico’s governor declared a state of emergency.
With 185 mph winds inching closer to the island, and the threat of as much as 10 inches of rain, Woods is terrified her family could be in danger with potential flash floods.
“My sister lives by a mountain, so I’m afraid of landslides and all of that,” Woods said.
Bronx residents shared similar concerns with CBS2’s Jessica Layton.
“It’s hard because I feel I can’t do nothing for them,” Catherine Lora said.
When she spoke with her family this morning they were stocking up at the grocery store, and bracing for the storm barreling through the Caribbean. The Dominican Republic was under a red alert, and mandatory evacuations were in place for the eight coastal provinces.
“We ask everyone to take this threat seriously and prepare,” Administrative Minister, Jose Ramon Peralta said.
Preparations in Puerto Rico were going at full speed as residents rushed to board up their homes, stock up on gas, and gill shopping carts with water. There’s potential for power to be out for months, leaving Puerto Rican New Yorkers feeling helpless.
“If electricity goes out, the phone lines are out, how are we going to be able to get in contact with family,” Maegan Montolvo said.
The potentially catastrophic category 5 hurricane presented a double whammy for Cristin Andrea Medina’s family. Her mom’s side lives in Puerto Rico, but she also has an aunt in Houston where thousands are still recovering from Harvey.
“There’s a prayer chain within our family. We just want to make sure everybody is safe,” she said.
As CBS2’s Ted Scouten reported, Florida Keys residents were gassing up and getting out — emergency managers ordered that tourists begin their evacuation at sunrise, but many were getting on the road early to beat the crush of traffic.
Eric Bradway was visiting Key West from Philadelphia, he’s out of here.
“It’s going to be crazy getting out of here, gridlock,” he said, “Getting out of the keys, there’s only one way in and one way out. It’s going to be crazy.”
Locals will also be asked to leave, and many were already on their way out.
“I’m scared. Category 5, never been through one, been through a 4, but never a 5, and I don’t want to be here,” Elizabther Prieto said.
Prieto lives in Marathon, and was evacuating for the first time in 51 years.
“I’ve been through George, been through Andrew, been through Wilma, but I’m no staying for Irma,” she said.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency for the state’s 67 counties to give local governments “ample time, resources and flexibility” to prepare for the storm. He also urged Floridians to stay vigilant and monitor weather conditions.
Irma could impact Florida as early as Saturday.
“We’ll know more as the week progresses, what kind of a threat it really poses to Miami-Dade County,” Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez said. “The storm surge is really the thing that kills the most people. That’s what we are worried about.”
Storm surge is when the sea level rises during intense storms, pushing water ashore leading to flooding. A recent study found Florida has 2.7 million properties at risk, the most in the U.S.
Miami Beach averages around 4 feet above sea level and fights flooding at high tide on a regular basis.
Last month, heavy rain turned the city streets into rivers after the anti-flood pumps failed during a power outage.
The city has ordered portable backup generators, but Mayor Philip Levine warned the pumps may not be enough.
As officials prepared for the storm, residents were getting ready as well.
“I’m a little nervous,” Natalie Lozano said.
Her family lives on the 44th floor of a high rise — next door to another high rise under construction.
“We’re supposed to have high impact windows, but I just heard about the cranes,” she said.
Buildings officials in Miami said 20 to 25 construction cranes in Miami are designed to withstand winds of up to 145 mph, but not a category 5 hurricane.
The crane structure can collapse, causing it to fall and crush something on the ground, or slam into an adjacent building.
Officials were not advising anyone to stay in a building next to a construction crane, and will probably order an evacuation fro downtown Miami.
It has been more than 100 years since two category four hurricanes made landfall in the u-s in the same year.
With Harvey fresh on everyone’s minds, there is concern throughout south Florida that if Irma does make U.S. landfall it could be disastrous.
If Irma hits Florida, the Keys would be the first region to enact evacuation orders.
(© Copyright 2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)