Super Typhoon Ioke, a Category 5 storm and the strongest to hit the Pacific in more than a decade, slammed into tiny Wake Island Thursday, threatening to submerge the U.S. territory, U.S. Navy weather forecasters said.
The storm, packing sustained winds of more than 165 mph, with some gusts topping 190 mph, came ashore at about 10 a.m. ET, and was slowly tracking west, gaining strength over the warm tropical waters, the Joint Typhoon Warning Center reported. Wake Island is located about 2,300 miles west of Honolulu.
The U.S. Navy evacuated the island's 188 residents on Monday, flying the mostly military personnel and their families to Honolulu. Wake Island is home to a U.S. Air Force base and a scientific outpost, roughly midway between Hawaii and Japan, and serves as a key refueling stop for U.S. military aircraft in the Pacific.
Forecasters expect the monster storm to destroy everything on the 2.5-square-mile island that is not made of concrete.
Air Force officials said they plan to send planes over the island after the storm passes.
“We’re hoping everything turns out well,” said Maj. Clare Reed, spokeswoman for the 15th Airlift Wing at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii. But she said senior Air Force officers would decide what to do with the facility if Ioke causes so much destruction that troops and workers couldn’t return immediately.
“This thing is so strong that it’s just going to clean things out, unfortunately,” said Tim Craig, National Weather Service lead forecaster in Honolulu.
Ioke is the first Category 5 hurricane to develop in the central Pacific since record keeping began in the early 1960s.
It also is the most powerful storm to pass through the central Pacific since hurricanes Emilia and Gilma, both in July 1994.
Forecasts called for the storm to head northwest toward Japan over the open ocean after it passes over Wake Island. It is likely to gradually lose more of its power in coming days. No populated islands lie in Ioke’s immediate path.
The low-lying coral atoll also is the site of one of the most well-preserved military battlefields in the world. U.S. forces came under fire from the Japanese at the same time Pearl Harbor was attacked, sparking the U.S. declaration of war against Japan. The wreckage of at least four sunken Japanese warships sit off the coast, and numerous Japanese aircraft and other battle remnants are scattered about the island.