Ireland has closed schools and put troops on standby as it braces itself for Hurricane Ophelia, with potentially the worst storm for 50 years threatening floods, violent winds and power cuts in a country unaccustomed to extreme weather. 

With the storm barrelling towards the southern coast, the Irish meteorological service moved on Sunday night to put the entire country under a red weather alert, its highest warning level, and called for emergency steps to protect lives and property before the hurricane reaches landfall on Monday morning. “There is potential risk to lives,” it said.

Air, ferry and bus services have been cancelled, court sittings have been postponed and local authorities have called in workers to prepare for storm repairs. 

Dublin airport, the country’s biggest, said that Aer Lingus, British Airways, Air France, CityJet and KLM had all cancelled some services on Monday.

Schools, colleges, and universities have been directed to stay closed. Troops are on standby in flood-prone areas and the national electricity service has said it expects “extensive damage” to the power infrastructure. 

Exceptionally warm temperatures for mid-October in western Europe have been linked to Ophelia. Met Eireann, Ireland’s national weather body, has said the storm is the most powerful hurricane so far east in the Atlantic on record.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish prime minister, took to Twitter to call on people to check in with older neighbours and those in need of medical care. “Defence forces being deployed in Red weather alert areas and on standby for further action tomorrow.”

Ophelia is forecast to hit County Kerry, on Ireland’s south-western coast, early on Monday morning and track directly over the country during daytime as it pushes towards Northern Ireland.

It is forecast to hit Scotland on Monday night, prompting UK weather officials to warn of strong winds there as well as in Wales and England. 

Michael Healy-Rae, an MP for Kerry, said the community was apprehensive. “All works and jobs are shut down from tomorrow, the transport has stopped, the buses aren’t running,” he said. 

“What we’d really like is that when this storm has passed the minimum amount of damage would have been done and that nobody will be hurt. That’s the most we can hope for.” 

Hurricanes are extremely rare in Ireland, whose mild and moist climate is known for plentiful rain. But the imminent arrival of Ophelia has drawn comparisons with Hurricane Debbie, which killed 11 people in 1961.

The service has warned that all areas of the country are at risk from violent and destructive gusts faster than 130km per hour, in addition to heavy rain and storm surges.

After a meeting on Sunday, the national emergency group on severe weather said all unnecessary travel should be avoided while the storm was passing. 

A woman carries her surfboard towards the rough sea at Lahinch, Ireland, where the tide should be out © Reuters

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