Latest: Here's the advice for Irish holidaymakers travelling to Caribbean as it is hit by Hurricane Irma

Update - 4.34pm: The Irish Travel Agents Association (ITAA) has issued advice to Irish holidaymakers travelling to the Caribbean and Florida as Hurricane Irma makes landfall there.

Pat Dawson, CEO of the ITAA, said: "Hurricane Irma is expected to hit a string of Caribbean islands before heading to Haiti and Florida over the next few days. Irish holidaymakers planning trips to the region are naturally very concerned and some of our members have received cancellations from their customers.

"The ITAA is working with its members and affiliate partners across Ireland to support holidaymakers travelling to the region. Aer Lingus are offering customers the opportunity to change the date of their flights to or from Miami and Orlando airports, for dates departing between the 9th and 11th of September, plus or minus seven days.

"Other airlines have not issued exact guidelines yet but we are expecting further announcements soon.

"Cruise companies are also monitoring the situation on a daily basis with some changing or shortening their itineraries to avoid affected areas."

He also advised Irish holidaymakers in the region or travelling there to keep in close contact with their travel provider or airline for more updates.

Mr Dawson said: "They should also monitor news reports and follow the advice from local authorities."

Any holidaymakers travelling to the region can check the Department of Foreign Affairs’ website for more information before travelling can also download the TravelWise app.

Update - 3.58pm: Hurricane Irma has torn off roofs and knocked out all electricity on the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean.

France has requisitioned planes and sent in emergency food and water rations.

The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighbouring islands said that the fire station in Saint Barthelemy is under 3ft of water and no rescue vehicles can move.

It said the government headquarters in Saint Martin have been partially destroyed and the island is in a total blackout.

Electricity is also partially down on the larger island of Guadeloupe, where the threat receded despite danger of heavy flooding.

French minister for overseas territories Annick Girardin expressed fear "for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn't want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites".

She added: "We're preparing for the worst."

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said his twin-island nation appears to have weathered its brush with Hurricane Irma.

He said there were no deaths in Antigua and preliminary reports indicated there were no deaths in Barbuda despite widespread reports of damaged buildings and downed trees. He said he plans to visit as soon as possible.

The US State Department has warning US citizens to reconsider travel to Cuba, Haiti or the Dominican Republic due to the expected impact of Hurricane Irma.

It notes that the Category 5 storm could bring life-threatening flooding, flash flooding, mudslides, and storm surge while travel and other services will be disrupted.

The department says it has authorised the voluntary departure of US government employees and their family members from the three countries due to the hurricane.

Update - 2.18pm:

Hurricane Irma has torn off roofs and knocked out all electricity on the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy in the Caribbean.

France has requisitioned planes and sent in emergency food and water rations.

The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighbouring islands said that the fire station in Saint Barthelemy is under 3ft of water and no rescue vehicles can move.

It said the government headquarters in Saint Martin have been partially destroyed and the island is in a total blackout.

Electricity is also partially down on the larger island of Guadeloupe, where the threat receded despite danger of heavy flooding.

French minister for overseas territories Annick Girardin expressed fear "for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn't want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites".

She added: "We're preparing for the worst."

Earlier: The plane flying Pope Francis to Colombia was forced to change its flight path to avoid Hurricane Irma.

The special Alitalia jetliner, which departed late this morning from Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport, had been originally scheduled to fly over Puerto Rico and Venezuela before entering Colombia airspace.

Instead, the revised route takes it south of the US territory and includes flying over Barbados, Grenada and Trinidad and Tobago.

The Vatican traditionally issues telegrams of papal greetings to nations he flies over while on pilgrimages, so the updated flight plan meant the Vatican had to draft new telegrams.

Heavy rain and howling wind raked the island of Antigua as Irma arrived, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes and government shelters.

The National Hurricane Centre's forecast was for the winds to fluctuate slightly but for the storm to remain at Category 4 or 5 strength for the next day or two.

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.

The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11ft, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and south-eastern Bahamas could see towering 20ft waves later in the week, forecasters said.

Caribbean islanders are riding out the storm as Category 5 Hurricane Irma rakes the region with heavy rain and howling 185mph wind.

The eye of Irma passed over Barbuda in the early hours, and residents said over local radio that phone lines had gone down.

The storm ripped the roof off the island's police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community centre that served as an official shelter.

Irma also knocked out communication between islands.

Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to assess the extent.

On the the neighbouring island of Antigua, debris was flying as people huddled in their homes and government shelters.

"I hear it's a Cat 5 now and I'm terrified," Antigua resident Carol Joseph said as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter. "I had to come back for more batteries because I don't know how long the current will be off."

On the 108-square-mile island, people who live in low-lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes.

None of the shelters have yet been tested by Category 5 winds.

Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs that are susceptible to wind damage.

Other islands in the path of the storm 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 northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11ft, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20ft waves later in the week, forecasters said.

"This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane," US Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp warned. "It's not time to get on a surfboard."

Bahamas prime minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge.

People there were being flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.

"The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm," Mr Minnis said.

Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said: "The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen. 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 up to four to six months. The utility's infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans had an island-wide outage last year.

Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalise all preparations as store shelves emptied around Puerto Rico.

"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Mr Rossello said. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."

In Florida, people also stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.

Governor Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 more National Guard members were to report for duty on Friday when the storm could be approaching.

On Monday, Mr Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation centre and urged residents to have three days of food and water.

AP


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