The most powerful Atlantic hurricane ever recorded is set to wreak havoc in the Caribbean in the next few days having reached landfall early this morning.
Hurricane Irma passed over Barbuda in the early hours of Wednesday, heading towards the neighbouring island of Antigua. The storm is predicted to be the most dangerous category four or five until Saturday, with winds having already reached 185mph.
Irma is due to head westwards over the next few days, affecting the Virgin Islands then touching Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, the Turks & Caicos and Cuba before reaching the Florida Keys and the Orlando area on Sunday.
The hurricane is then likely to head north along the eastern US coast. The crisis may continue, because the weather system behind Irma, tropical storm Jose, is forecast to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Jose is currently tracking further east than Irma, but will affect the eastern Caribbean.
British Airways and other carriers have already cancelled some flights to the region.
“We sent out empty aircraft to collect people last night,” said a BA spokesperson. “Antigua and St Kitts airport is shut today and consequently, our Antigua-St Kitts flight is cancelled.”
She added: “We are in touch with all our airport partners in the region and are guided by them. We have offered all customers due to travel to the Caribbean and Florida in the coming days a range of re-booking options and are keeping our flights to the entire region under review.”
Virgin Atlantic has cancelled Thursday’s Antigua flight but said others “are scheduled to operate as normal” but could be subject to change.
It added: “The safety and comfort of our customers is our top priority and any booked to travel to, from or through Antigua, Havana and Miami between today and 11th September may rebook their flights to an alternative date or alternative destination travelling on or before 14th October (subject to availability), or receive a full refund.
“Customers currently in any of these resorts also have the option of returning home early.”
Caribbean specialist ITC Travel Group said it had been in contact with clients due to depart imminently to make alternative arrangements.
Helen Tabois, senior product and marketing manager, Caribbean and cruise, said: “Over the weekend, we arranged the early return of clients from the British Virgin Islands and they are now back in the UK.
“We have a number of other clients in the Caribbean at present, but none are on the islands that are expected to bear the brunt of the hurricane. We are closely monitoring the impact the hurricane may have on neighbouring regions, including Florida, and are ready to assist our clients if required.
“We are also in the process of re-checking the travel arrangements for clients due to visit the affected islands within the next six weeks, as it may be necessary to make alternative arrangements, subject to the damage that has been sustained in the resorts we feature.
“In the meantime, our thoughts are with our colleagues and friends across the Caribbean. The Caribbean is our biggest-selling destination and we will do all we can to support our valued partners in the region.”
Thomas Cook has sent 18 Special Assistance Team members to Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
A spokesperson said: “The safety of our customers is always our first priority. We continue to monitor this powerful storm and its possible impact on Florida.
“We are offering free amendments or cancellations for customers travelling to these destinations up to and including Sunday 10 September.”