SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Fearsome Hurricane Irma cut a path of devastation across the northern Caribbean, leaving at least 10 dead and thousands homeless after destroying buildings and uprooting trees on a track yesterday that could lead to a catastrophic strike on Florida.
The death toll, however, is expected to rise once rescue teams get on the ground in the badly affected islands.
British and Dutch rescuers yesterday rushed to aid the heavily damaged string of Caribbean islands as Hurricane Irma spun toward Florida for what could be a catastrophic blow this weekend.
Warships and military planes were dispatched with food, water and troops after the fearsome Category 5 storm smashed homes, schools and roads, laying waste to some of the world’s most beautiful and exclusive tourist destinations.
The Trinidad and Tobago Government, at the same time, announced plans to send a helicopter and crew to Antigua and Barbuda to assist the twin-island state in relief efforts following the passage of Hurricane Irma.
On the island of Barbuda, over 90 percent of the buildings have been destroyed.
Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda Gaston Browne, who toured the island late Wednesday, declared Barbuda a disaster zone and implemented a state of emergency.
The most potent Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever, Irma weakened slightly yesterday morning but remained a powerful Category 5 storm with winds of 180 mph (285 kph), according to the US National Hurricane Center.
The storm was increasingly likely to rip into heavily populated South Florida early Sunday, prompting the governor to declare an emergency and officials to impose mandatory evacuation orders for parts of the Miami metro area and the Florida Keys. Forecasters said it could punish the entire Atlantic coast of Florida and rage on into Georgia and South Carolina.
“This could easily be the most costly storm in US history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, alluding to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey in Texas.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb told France Info radio that eight had died and 23 injured in the country’s Caribbean island territories, and he said the toll on Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands.
“The reconnaissance will really start at daybreak,” Collomb said.
At a news conference, Collomb also said 100,000 food rations have been sent to the islands, the equivalent of four days of supplies.
“It’s a tragedy, we’ll need to rebuild both islands,” he said. “Most of the schools have been destroyed.”
French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said he will go to the islands as soon as weather conditions permit. Macron said France is “grief-stricken” by the devastation caused by Irma and called for concerted efforts to tackle global warming and climate change to prevent similar future natural disasters.
In the United Kingdom, the Government said Irma inflicted “severe and in places critical” damage to the British overseas territory of Anguilla. Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan said the Caribbean island took the full force of the hurricane. He told lawmakers yesterday that the British Virgin islands also suffered “severe damage”.
Irma blacked out much of Puerto Rico, raking the US territory with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea, and it headed early yesterday toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
To the east, authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands devastated by the storm’s record 185 mph (298 kph) winds. Communications were difficult with areas hit by Irma, and information on damage trickled out.
Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane’s core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday and about 60 per cent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told The Associated Press.
“It is just really a horrendous situation,” Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighbouring island.
He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery would take months, if not years. A two-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.
One death also was reported in the nearby island of Anguilla, where officials reported extensive damage to the airport, hospitals, shelters and school and said 90 per cent of roads were impassible, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
The agency also reported “major damage” to houses and commercial buildings in the British Virgin Islands.
In St Thomas in the nearby US Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and one-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside. They emerged to find the lush island in tatters. Many of their neighbours’ homes were damaged and once-dense vegetation was largely gone.
“There are no leaves. It is crazy. One of the things we loved about St Thomas is that it was so green. And it’s gone,” Strickling said. “It will take years for this community to get back on its feet.”
Significant damage was also reported on St Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded. France sent emergency food and water there and to the French island of St Bart’s, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out electricity.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the storm “caused widescale destruction of infrastructure, houses and businesses.”
“There is no power, no gasoline, no running water. Houses are under water, cars are floating through the streets, inhabitants are sitting in the dark, in ruined houses and are cut off from the outside world,” he said yesterday.
More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power, leaving 900,000 in the dark and nearly 50,000 without water, the US territory’s emergency management agency said in the midst of the storm. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and trees and light poles were strewn across roads.
Puerto Rico’s public power company warned before the storm hit that some areas could be left without power from four to six months because its staff has been reduced and its infrastructure weakened by the island’s decade-long economic slump.
President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the US Government.
Meanwhile, Hurricane Katia yesterday hovered in the southern Gulf of Mexico, threatening to hit the vulnerable Mexican coast as a Category 2 or 3 hurricane, possibly late today or early tomorrow. It had winds of 80 mph (130 kph) and was located about 210 miles (335 kilometres) east of Tampico, Mexico.
And a third hurricane, Jose, was growing far out in the Atlantic. It was no immediate threat to land, though the forecast track showed it could affect the Irma-blasted Leeward Islands over the weekend. Hurricane Jose had winds of about 90 mph (150 kph). It was centred about 815 miles (1,310 kilometres) east of the Lesser Antilles and moving west-northwest at 18 mph (30 kph).