Hurricane Irma howled past Puerto Rico with 185mph winds after reducing the tiny tropical islands of Barbuda and St Martin to rubble and claiming at least seven lives.
The category 5 storm – the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic – left a trail of deadly devastation through the Caribbean when it struck on Wednesday on a potential collision course with south Florida.
Barbuda and St Martin suffered the storm’s full fury with roughly 95 percent of properties damaged on both islands.
Officials said at least six people died on the French part of St Martin – a pristine resort known for its vibrant nightlife.
‘It’s an enormous catastrophe. Ninety-five percent of the island is destroyed,’ top local official Daniel Gibbs said. ‘I’m in shock. It’s frightening.’
The island, which is divided between the Netherlands and France, was left without drinking water or electricity, and the death toll is expected to rise.
Barbuda, part of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, also suffered ‘absolute devastation’ with more than 90 per cent of dwellings completely destroyed and one child killed.
‘It is just a total devastation. Barbuda is literally rubble,’ Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told ABS TV Radio in Antigua.
He added that the island, which is home to 1,800 people, was left ‘barely habitable’.
‘The entire housing stock was damaged… Some have lost whole roofs. Some properties have been totally demolished,’ he said.
‘We have estimated the rebuilding efforts to be no less than $150 million. That is conservative, because we’re talking about rebuilding everything, all of the institutions, the infrastructure, the telecommunications, the roads… Even the hotels on the island, those are totally demolished, as well. It is terrible.’
Aerial footage of the Barbuda after Irma passed through showed a flattened, flooded landscape.
The child who was killed, aged two, was trying to escape a damaged building with its mother at the time.
Irma passed to the north of Puerto Rico just before 10.30pm on Wednesday lashing it with heavy rain and powerful winds.
‘The winds that we are experiencing right now are like nothing we have experienced before,’ Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN. ‘We expect a lot of damage, perhaps not as much as was seen in Barbuda.’
On St. Thomas, in the US Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside.
LATEST FLORIDA EVACUATION ORDERS:
Florida Governor Rick Scott has ordered the emergency evacuation of Miami’s coastal zones as Hurricane Irma approaches the United States mainland.
Mandatory evacuation orders were issued for all of zone A and the zone B barrier islands in Miami-Dade County.
This is the first evacuation in 12 years and saw 100,000 residents of mobile homes, barrier islands and low-lying mainland areas ordered to leave the city starting 9am on Thursday.
Thursday morning’s order applies to the county’s zone A, which covers Key Biscane, and the coast-line along Southeast Miami-Dade and just north of Miami – but only to the barrier islands of zone B.
That includes Bal Harbour, Bay Harbour Islands, Golden Beach, Indian Creek Village, Miami Beach, North Bay Village, Sunny Isles Beach and Surfside.
Tolls on all highways have been suspended and evacuation had already begun in the Florida Keys
They emerged to find the lush island in tatters, with many of their neighbors’ homes damaged and the once-dense vegetation 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,’ said Strickling, who moved to the island with her husband three years ago from Washington, D.C. ‘It will take years for this community to get back on its feet.’
Significant effects were also reported on St Martin. 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 rations there and to the French island of St. Bart’s, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to St Martin and two other Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
In Cuba, a state of alert was declared in several eastern and central provinces, with at-risk residents advised to move in with relatives or reach government shelters.
Haiti’s northern coast was on hurricane alert, although in the town of Cap-Haitien residents appeared mostly unaware of the impending storm.
The US National Hurricane Center said Irma’s winds would fluctuate, but the storm would likely remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as it roared past the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.
Evacuations from high-risk areas were ordered throughout the path of the storm.
By early Sunday, Irma is expected to hit Florida, where Governor Rick Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard soldiers by Friday and warned that Irma is ‘bigger, faster and stronger’ than Hurricane Andrew.
Andrew pummeled south Florida 25 years ago and wiped out entire neighborhoods with ferocious winds.
Billionaire Sir Richard Branson bunkered down with staff at his private island in the British Virgin Islands to ride out the storm on Wednesday night. His son revealed on social media that the home had been completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma.
British holidaymakers on Caribbean islands have described barricading themselves into hotels and villas as authorities in other areas order mass evacuations.
Alex Woolfall, who is staying on the island of St Maarten, told how he and other holidaymakers huddled in the concrete stairwell of their hotel as the ‘apocalyptic’ noise of the winds roared outside.
He tweeted: ‘Still thunderous sonic boom noises outside & boiling in stairwell. Can feel scream of things being hurled against building.’
Experts said Irma was so powerful it was registering on devices designed to detect earthquakes. Scientists picked up the background noise of winds causing trees to move and crashing ocean waves on their earthquake-detecting seismometers.
In addition to Irma, Tropical Storm Jose has now formed behind it in the open Atlantic and is expected to develop into a hurricane. A third tropical storm – Katia – has also formed in the Gulf of Mexico with winds but is expected to stay offshore until Friday morning.
Hurricane Irma roared into the Caribbean with record-setting force early Wednesday, shaking homes and flooding buildings on a chain of small islands along a path to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and eventually south Florida.
Irma passed almost directly over the island of Barbuda, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
The Red Cross this morning said it is preparing for ‘a major humanitarian response’.
‘The forecast as it stands right now is extremely worrying,’ said Walter Cotte, the agency’s Regional Director for the Americas. ‘We are anticipating major impacts on a number of islands, and we are preparing to respond to needs that may arise.
‘One of the main challenges is going to be logistical, given the isolation of some the islands. We need to ensure a reliable channel for relief efforts in the aftermath of the hurricane.’
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