AGENCIES. Hurricane Irma hammered a string of northeast Caribbean islands thrashing them with rain and winds of up to 180 mph and leaving at least nine people dead.
The hurricane battered Barbuda St. Martin and the British Virgin Islands, causing widespread devastation. Barbuda is barely inhabitable with nearly all its buildings damaged, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, Gaston Browne said.
Officials warn that St Martin is almost destroyed, and the death toll is likely to rise.
Puerto Rico was spared a direct hit, but it still got lashed by strong winds and torrential rains, leading to hundreds of thousands without power, officials said.
The eye of one of the strongest storms recorded in the Atlantic is making its way toward a possibly devastating hit on Florida, USA over the weekend. On Thursday morning, Irma was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic.
The centre of the storm will pass north of the coast of Hispaniola later Thursday, and near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas by evening, the National Hurricane Center said.
The tropical storm-force wind field from Irma stretches over 300 miles from end to end.
Hurricane watches may be issued for parts of South Florida and the Keys on Thursday.
In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and other cities north of Miami, a mandatory evacuation will go into effect at noon Thursday for some areas, Mayor Barbara Sharief said.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper has declared a state of emergency for all 100 counties while his Georgia counterpart, Nathan Deal, issued a state of emergency for six coastal counties. South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster also declared a state of emergency.
Bahamas orders evacuations
A hurricane warning is in effect for the central and southeastern Bahamas.
Emergency evacuations have been ordered for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.
“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.
“Some of the (Bahamian) islands aren’t more than 9 feet (above sea level). Storm surges there may be 20 feet,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Trail of destruction
Michael Coleman took shelter in a cement bunker in St. Thomas.
“The wind was so intense. Trees and roofs flying,” he said.
In Puerto Rico, about 56,680 customers are without water, with the US territory’s northeast hit the hardest, according to Jesus Poupart of the emergency operations center.
In San Juan, CNN’s Leyla Santiago said 900,000 customers are without power after strong winds hit the island. There were no immediate reports of injuries in the US territory of about 3.4 million people.
“It’s absolute devastation,” he said after flying over the island (St Martin), home to some 1,600 people. “The island is literally under water. In fact, I’m of the view that, as it stands now, Barbuda is barely habitable.”
He told the BBC that 50% of the Barbuda population were now homeless.
However, Antigua, with a population of 80,000, escaped major damage, with no loss of life.
St Martin, an island that comprises the French territory of Saint-Martin and the Dutch section Sint-Maarten, suffered terrible damage.
Officials have confirmed deaths in Saint-Martin and Saint Barthélemy, popularly known as St Barts.
“It’s an enormous catastrophe – 95% of the island is destroyed,” top local official Daniel Gibbs said of Saint-Martin.
Saint-Maarten’s airport, the third largest in the Caribbean, has been seriously damaged.
The Dutch defence ministry said: “The picture is of many uprooted trees, houses without roofs and pleasure boats on land.”
The Dutch navy has sent two ships from nearby Aruba and Curacao to assist locals but they have had trouble docking, according to media in the Netherlands.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said: “The island is not reachable at this point because of the huge damage to the airport and the harbour.”
In Puerto Rico, more than half of the island’s three million residents were without power.
British overseas territories Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands were also caught in the extreme weather.
One Anguilla resident told the BBC the island looked as if it had been struck by a nuclear bomb, with roofs torn off many of the main buildings, including the hospital.
UK Prime Minister Theresa May has arranged an emergency government meeting. She has spoken to French President Emmanuel Macron, pledging to work with him and the Dutch government to co-ordinate relief.
En route to the US
US President Donald Trump said he and his aides were monitoring Irma’s progress. “But it looks like it could be something that will be not good,” he told reporters at the White House. “Believe me, not good.”
Islands that have been hit by Irma
Antigua and Barbuda
Key facts: one of the Caribbean’s most prosperous nations, thanks to its tourism industry and offshore financial services
Hurricane report: Antigua reportedly escaped major damage, with no loss of life, but some 95% of structures on Barbuda were damaged or destroyed, the prime minister says.
Key facts: tourist destination celebrated for its beaches; divided between France, which calls its section Saint-Martin, and the Netherlands, which calls its part Sint-Maarten
Hurricane report: at least six people reported killed in Saint-Martin, according to the French interior minister. There has been serious damage to buildings, flooding, power cuts
St Barts (Saint Barthélemy)
Key facts: luxury tourist destination
Hurricane report: two reported killed; serious damage to buildings, flooding, power cuts
Key facts: British overseas territory and upmarket tourist destination
Hurricane report: at least one dead; extent of damage as yet unknown
British Virgin Islands
Key facts: more than 40 islands and islets
Hurricane report: Irma passed over the northern islands
Population: 3.7 million
Key facts: a tourist destination but plagued by debt, poverty and high unemployment
Hurricane report: Irma passed close by; wide-spread power cuts; extent of damage not yet known
Islands still at risk from Irma
Population: 10.2 million
Key facts: major tourist destination, shares island of Hispaniola with Haiti
Hurricane prediction: Irma expected to pass close by
Population: 10.2 million
Key facts: on the same island as the Dominican Republic; devastated by an earthquake in 2010
Hurricane prediction: not directly in the hurricane’s path, but remains on alert
Turks and Caicos
Key facts: enjoys one of the more dynamic economies in the region thanks to upmarket tourism, offshore finance and fishing
Hurricane prediction: the low-lying region is at risk of a storm surge with destructive waves up to 6m (20ft) higher than usual possible
Population: 11 million
Key facts: one of the world’s last planned economies; a producer of sugar, tobacco and coffee, with a big tourism industry
Hurricane prediction: Tropical storm conditions expected to begin on Thursday night (local time)
Key facts: an archipelago of more than 700 islands and islets, which attracts millions of tourists per year
Hurricane prediction: warnings for north-west, south-east and centre; some areas have risk of storm surge of up to 6m (20ft)
Are there more hurricanes to come?
Another storm, Jose, further out in the Atlantic behind Irma, swelled to category one hurricane strength and could be near major hurricane strength on Friday, according to the US National Hurricane Center.
Forecasters say Jose is expected to pass close to the Leeward islands, a collective name for islands from Dominica to Puerto Rico. Its exact path is as yet unclear but winds are not expected to be as strong. However, it may hit areas already devastated by Irma.
Storm Katia, in the Gulf of Mexico, was also upgraded to hurricane status, and a warning was in effect for the coast of the Mexican state of Veracruz.
Seeing multiple storms developing in the same area of the Atlantic in close succession is not uncommon at this time of year. Rarer though is the strength of the hurricanes.
Hurricane Harvey made landfall in the US as a category four less than two weeks ago. Irma is expected to be at category four when it arrives in the US in comings days.
There have never been two category four storms making landfall on the US mainland within the same season, since records began.