Updated at 5 p.m. ET
As Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, makes its way west through the Caribbean Sea, "the extremely dangerous core of Irma will continue to move over portions of the Virgin Islands" Wednesday afternoon, bringing maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, the National Hurricane Center says.
Irma, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Atlantic outside of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, is expected to pass "near or just north of Puerto Rico this afternoon or tonight," forecasters at the NHC say.
The storm maintained its 185-mph winds after making its first landfall on Barbuda early Wednesday. As of Wednesday afternoon, hurricane-force winds were extending up to 50 miles from Irma's center, with tropical-storm-force winds extending up to 185 miles.
"Irma is a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane and will bring life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall hazards" to areas it affects, the National Hurricane Center says. The agency urges the completion of any emergency preparations and evacuations in the storm's path.
Irma's path has been the subject of speculation, particularly as it nears the U.S. East Coast over the next three days. The NHC's 2 p.m. ET forecast shows the storm's path tracking up the east coast of Florida — rather than through the center or Gulf Coast, as in earlier projections.
In Florida, where the hurricane could make landfall on Sunday, a mandatory evacuation order for the Florida Keys was expected to be issued Wednesday night and Gov. Rick Scott warned that Irma "is bigger, faster and stronger than Hurricane Andrew," the 1992 storm that killed 65 people and caused more than $25 billion in damage.
South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster declared a state of emergency
Rain from Irma began hitting parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico early Wednesday, the National Weather Service office in San Juan reports.
The eye of the hurricane has passed over several islands Wednesday morning, hitting Barbuda, St. Barthelemy, and St. Martin, the British and U.S. Virgin Islands. The edge of the eyewall also hit Anguilla. On Barbuda, wind speeds of 118 — and a gust of 155 mph — were reported before the sensor failed. The island saw a storm surge of nearly 8 feet.
"The Lord has protected us and we have been spared the worst of Irma," read a tweet from Prime Minister Gaston Browne of the nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which is composed of several Caribbean islands.
A massive storm surge could bring perilous flooding and destructive waves, with a surge of 15 to 20 feet predicted for the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas. Northern Leeward Islands could see a surge of 7 to 11 feet, the hurricane center says.
For the next 12 hours, Irma's maximum sustained winds will stay at or above 180 mph — posing a dire threat to islands in its path. By Wednesday morning, it had prompted hurricane warnings in the Bahamas, the Dominican Republic and other areas.
The chance that Irma will make a direct impact on Florida "continues to increase," the National Weather Service says, adding that it's too early to specify the timing and magnitude.
In Key West, Fla., visitors were told to leave on Wednesday, under mandatory evacuation orders that took effect at 7 a.m. ET. For residents and business owners, the county's mandatory evacuation order takes effect at 7 p.m.
NPR's Hansi Lo Wang reports that Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Giménez is encouraging visitors to leave as soon as possible if they aren't planning to stay through the storm. All public schools in the Miami-Dade County area are closed on Thursday and Friday. Gov. Scott has also activated 1,000 Florida National Guard members.
On Wednesday morning, Irma was moving west-northwest at 16 mph. As the threat posed by the large, powerful storm has been clarified this week, the governors of Puerto Rico and Florida declared states of emergency.
With a tightly defined eye, high maximum winds and gusts of up to 195 knots — or 225 mph — Irma has left weather forecasters flabbergasted.
"I am at a complete and utter loss for words looking at Irma's appearance on satellite imagery," NHC scientist Taylor Trogdon said Tuesday night, reacting to images of the storm's tight and powerful spiral.
Irma is expected to remain a major hurricane for at least five days, including when it makes a predicted landfall on Florida and the U.S. mainland this weekend. According to some forecast models, Irma looks set to make landfall, then make an abrupt turn north, skirting the east coast of the state. But forecasters stress that the expected path could shift in the coming days.
With maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, Irma is a Category 5 — the most serious type of major hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale.
Describing the kind of destruction a Category 5 storm can cause, the National Hurricane Center says, "A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse." The agency adds, "Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months."
By tonight, forecasters say, another hurricane will follow in Irma's footsteps. Tropical Storm Jose is expected to become a hurricane by Wednesday night. Its winds are expected to top 100 mph within the next two days.
Hurricane Jose, which was upgraded Wednesday after becoming a named storm the previous day, is trailing Irma's path in the Atlantic, moving toward the Caribbean. But Jose's track is predicted to veer north earlier than Irma's, glancing off the Leeward Islands and potentially sending it over the open sea. There are no watches or warnings currently associated with the storm.
There also is a third named storm being tracked in the area, after Tropical Storm Katia formed inside the Gulf of Mexico. The storm off of the southern Mexican state of Veracruz has 40-mph winds.