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Hurricane Irma causes 'major damage' in the Caribbean

Category 5 storm causes floods, cuts phone lines in French-run islands as it heads towards Puerto Rico, Cuba and Haiti.

Miami, Florida

A powerful Atlantic Ocean hurricane has slammed into the French Caribbean islands, causing "major damage" en route to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba before possibly heading for the US state of Florida.

Hurricane Irma has "blown the roofs" off of buildings, caused flooding and cut communications between Paris and the French-run islands of Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin, Annick Girardin, French Overseas Territories minister said on Wednesday. 

As the rare Category Five storm barreled its way across the Caribbean, it brought gusting winds of up to 294 kilometres per hour, weather experts said.

READ MORE: Officials warn of 'powerful' Hurricane Irma impact

The hurricane made landfall just before 06:00 GMT in Barbuda, part of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda.

There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Garfield Burford, director of news at government-owned broadcaster ABS TV in Antigua and Barbuda, said that the country has been spared the worse from the "ferocious storm" as emergency services assess damages. 

"It was quite a bit of an experience overnight for us, but all things considered Antigua and Barbuda missed a bullet," he said from Antigua's capital, St. John. "It could've been much worse." 

Burford added: "There have been a few minor injuries that were treated at the hospital but thankfully, no deaths or serious injuries and that itself is a miracle when you consider the ferocity of the storm."

'Historic hurricane'

The French weather office said Irma was "a historic hurricane (with) an unprecedented intensity over the Atlantic." 

With the islands on maximum alert ahead of the arrival of the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic, France had raised the alarm over the fate of some 7,000 people who refused to seek shelter. 

"People don't know phenomena of this scale in this part of the Caribbean," Girardin said.

Hurricane Irma carries the potential for coastal storm surges of up to six metres above normal tide levels, the Miami-based National Hurricane Centre said on Wednesday.

The National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma's magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

Warm water is fuel for hurricanes and Irma is over water that is 1C warmer than normal.

The 26C water that hurricanes need goes about 80 metres deep, Jeff Masters, meteorology director of the private forecasting service Weather Underground, told The Associated Press agency.

Its forecast late on Tuesday was for the winds to fluctuate slightly but for the storm to remain at Category Four or Five strength for the next day or two.

Dangerous winds

The most dangerous winds, usually nearest to the eye, were forecast to pass near the northern Virgin Islands and near or just north of Puerto Rico through Wednesday.

Other islands in the path of Irma include the Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying territory of about 15,000 people.

US President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

"The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen," Ricardo Rossello, Puerto Rico governor, said.

"A lot of infrastructure won't be able to withstand this kind of force."

The director of the island's power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for about a week and other, unspecified areas for four to six months.

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