Saint Martin (AP,Sept 6,2017): Heavy rain and 295 km/h winds lashed the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico’s northeast coast Wednesday as Hurricane Irma roared through Caribbean islands on its way to a possible hit on South Florida.
The strongest Atlantic Ocean hurricane ever measured destroyed homes and flooded streets across a chain of small islands in the northern Caribbean, passing directly over Barbuda and leaving the island of some 1,700 people incommunicado.
France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
While France received no immediate reports of casualties, the minister for French overseas territories, Annick Girardin, said: “We have a lot to fear for a certain number of our compatriots who unfortunately didn’t want to listen to the protection measures and go to more secure sites … we’re preparing for the worst.”
To the north and west, the storm also knocked out all electricity on Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy. Video on social media from the island of St. Maarten, a Dutch territory about 100 kilometres northwest of Barbuda, showed a tropical landscape almost entirely obscured by high winds and rain.
By early Wednesday afternoon the centre of the storm was 35 kilometres east-southeast of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands and 150 kilometres east of San Juan, Puerto Rico and heading west-northwest at 26 km/h.
The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”
Puerto Rico’s public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a deep economic crisis, and the agency’s director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already detehuriorated so badly. Power outages were reported in some neighbourhoods well ahead of the storm.
The federal government has stepped in, with U.S. President Donald Trump this week approving an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.
‘This is going to be bad’
State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo killed dozens of people in Puerto Rico in 1989.
“I expect the same from this storm,” he said. “It’s going to be bad.”
The U.S. 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 Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, the Turks and Caicos and parts of the Bahamas.