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September 20, 2017

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Hurricane Irma's eye passes north of Puerto Rico

WASHINGTON - The eye of Hurricane Irma was swirling just north of Puerto Rico Wednesday night after passing over the northern Leeward Islands, with forecasters predicting it would rake over Hispaniola, the Bahamas and Cuba before turning north toward Florida.

Irma remained a category-5 hurricane with 295-kilometres-per hour (kph) winds, the US National Hurricane Center said.

It was expected to maintain that strength at least until it reached the Bahamas, the Weather Channel had said earlier.

The US territory of Puerto Rico had declared a state of emergency, and mandatory evacuations were under way in parts of Florida.

The storm - one of the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean - pummelled the northern Virgin Islands after smashing several small northern Leeward Islands, where at least two people were killed.

The eye of Irma, where the strongest winds were recorded, slammed Barbuda before moving over St Martin and Anguilla.

Two people were killed on the islands of Saint Barthelemy and Saint Martin, said Annick Girardin, France's minister for overseas territories. Two more people were seriously injured, she said in Paris, making clear that the numbers could change.

The French portion of French-Dutch St Martin was 95 per cent destroyed in Irma's wake, local official Daniel Gibbs said Wednesday evening, according to RFI.

Irma destroyed several of St Martin's strongest buildings, local media reported.

In Barbuda, utilities and physical infrastructure were damaged and roofs were taken off some buildings as Irma hit, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne said.

"From my observation, having done an aerial survey, I would say that about 95 per cent of the properties would have suffered some level of damage," Browne said in an interview with local broadcaster ABS.

"Some properties have been totally demolished," Browne said. "It is absolutely heart-wrenching."

Mosquito-borne illnesses are now a concern, he said, as is the path of Hurricane Jose.

Jose had developed into a hurricane in the Atlantic, as had Katia in the Gulf of Mexico, the National Hurricane Center said.

As Irma moved forward, power outages had occurred in the capital of Puerto Rico, San Juan, according to media reports from the island, which has a population of about 3.4 million people.

As many as 37 million people could be affected by Irma, the United Nations said. UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said a UN aid team had been sent to the Caribbean island of Barbados, and additional teams were standing ready.

UN workers stationed in Haiti also have been preparing.

The hurricane was moving to the north-west at about 26 kph, the National Hurricane Center said in its 8 pm (0000 GMT) advisory.

US President Donald Trump warned that the storm could be "record-breaking" and the governor of Florida warned residents that Irma could be more powerful than the strongest storm ever to hit the southern state.

"The storm is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew," Governor Rick Scott said, pointing to a storm that devastated the state 25 years ago, in August 1992. That storm was the largest to hit the state and the costliest in US history until Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

Scott warned the entire state to be prepared, stressing the path of the storm was unclear after it was due to hit the Florida Keys, islands off the state's south-west coast, on Sunday.

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