Sep 4, 8:02 AM EDT

Eastern Caribbean battens down as Hurricane Irma approaches


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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) -- Government workers on the islands of the northeast Caribbean are clearing drains and pruning trees as authorities urge residents to prepare for Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm that grew stronger Monday and will likely begin buffeting the region Tuesday.

The Antigua and Barbuda weather service said Irma was expected to bring heavy rains, rough surf and high winds, and the government closed schools Monday. Hurricane watches were posted for Antigua and Barbuda, Anguilla, Monserrat, St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Martin, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, and St. Barts.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said islands farther north, including the U.S. British and Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, should monitor the progress of the storm and be prepared for Irma possibly to head their direction.

Long-range forecasts indicated Irma likely would curve to the northwest beginning late Monday and skirt to the north of the islands in the eastern Caribbean on a path that could potentially take it to the U.S. East Coast, but it was too early to make a definitive prediction.

Antigua's prime minister, Gaston Browne, urged people to take preventative measures in case the storm should keep on its current arc, saying that should include cleaning drains and removing objects that could be sent flying by high winds. Workers began pruning trees and shrubs to reduce chances for branches to tear down power and phone lines.

"The passage of a hurricane is not a matter to be taken lightly, but we must not panic," Browne said in a statement.

The U.S. hurricane center said Irma had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) Monday morning and some strengthening was expected through Tuesday night. The storm was centered about 610 miles (980 kilometers) east of the Leeward Islands and moving west-southwest at 14 mph (22 kph).

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said government agencies in the U.S. territory were prepared to deal with any emergencies caused by the storm but warned of flooding and power outages. He said 4 inches to 8 inches (10-20 centimeters) of rain were expected, as well as winds of 40-50 mph with gusts of up to 60 mph.

"We have established protocols for the safety of all," he said as he urged islanders to take precautions.

In the Dominican Republic, Public Works Minister Gonzalo Castillo said workers there were clearing away road works and also cleaning out blockages of sewer drains. He said President Danilo Medina would hold a meeting with emergencies agencies Monday to discuss storm preparations.

Meteorologists on Monday issued an alert for the Dominican Republic's entire eastern coast from the island of Saona to the town of Cabo Frances. Officials said the effects of Hurricane Irma would be felt Thursday.

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