Three New Zealand ecologists are bracing for one of the worst storms on record as it bears down on the tiny Caribbean islands of Turks and Caicos.

The eye of the ferocious Category 5 Hurricane Irma is set to pass directly over the tiny islands, hitting some time today (NZT) and bringing storm surges of up to 6 metres.

Kiwi seabird scientist Elizabeth "Biz" Bell is in the Turks managing a project to conserve iguanas, tropicbirds and terns on islands such as Pine Cay.

With her are Kiwi Kelvin Floyd and Chatham Islander Hamish Chisholm along with 12 staff from the UK who work for Blenheim-based Wildlife Management International.


Her brother Mike Bell - who owns WMIL - said he and family members are "confident" the group will be okay.

"This is a serious situation, but the team have prepared well. There has been good warning, and time to prepare. The locals have been fantastic," he said.

"It's going to be a brutal few days, but the team will be safe and secure. So I'm confident all will be fine."

Sadly their conservation project is unlikely to fare well. The low-lying island is likely to be overwhelmed by the sea when the monster hurricane arrives, with possible wind gusts of more than 300km/h.

Bell's team were evacuated from the little offshore island on Wednesday where they had been doing field work to a larger island, where locals helped them find a hurricane-secure home.

For two days they have been barricading the house against the impending hurricane's destructive winds and stocking up on supplies. "The team expect it to be a rough ride but are comfortable that the house they are in is able to cope," he said.

"They have boarded up windows, secured loose objects and got lots of food and water ... They are cramped, 15 people in a 3-bedroom house, but spirits are high. Of course there is a little nervousness."

In this satellite image released, Hurricane Irma reaches Puerto Rico. Photo / NASA
In this satellite image released, Hurricane Irma reaches Puerto Rico. Photo / NASA

As a Chatham Islander, team member Hamish Chisholm "is used to pretty rough weather, so he has helped settle the nerves of some of the volunteers who haven't experienced weather like this", Bell said.

"There is a feeling on the Turks that this is a serious one, and that they need to be prepared. So [we] are taking it seriously."

As of last night Irma had killed 10 people and destroyed thousands of homes - by some estimates flattening 95 per cent of properties in St Martin.

One of those killed was a 2-year-old girl in Barbuda, where the storm first made landfall. Prime Minister Gaston Browne said 90 per cent of the island's properties had been destroyed and 60 per cent of the 1400-strong population was now homeless.

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman Matt Torbit said among the millions of people displaced or bracing for the storm were 135 New Zealanders who were registered on the SafeTravel website as being in the storm's path. None have asked for consular assistance.

Irma is the strongest hurricane ever recorded over the Atlantic outside the Caribbean and yesterday broke another record, becoming the first known hurricane to sustain windspeeds above 300km/h for more than 24 hours.

Last night the eye of the storm was passing north of Puerto Rico, where most of the population had no power. Cuba, Haiti and the Dominican Republic were set to be spared the worst as the storm's expected track was adjusted northwards, toward the Turks and Caicos.

The change also increased the danger for Miami and the heavily populated east coast of Florida. Millions of residents were told to stay put but have since been told to get out.

Kiwi Anna Wilding, a Cantabrian, moved this week to Palm Beach with her husband.

She's now one block from the Florida coast where Irma is expected to hit. Authorities have warned of 6-metre storm surges that could wash for miles inland and the pair face abandoning their new home to the elements.