As Hurricane Irma descended on the Caribbean and moved toward Puerto Rico late Wednesday afternoon, reports and images emerging from the storm’s path showed widespread destruction. Reports of the region’s death toll varied between three and six.
Around 5 p.m., the Category 5 hurricane was churning away from the northernmost Virgin Islands as tropical storm and hurricane conditions hit parts of Puerto Rico, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted late Wednesday afternoon that close to 2,800 residents had evacuated to shelters. Earlier in the day, Rosselló reported that 20 percent of households were without power.
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The eye of the storm passed directly over the British Virgin Islands Wednesday afternoon. Pictures posted to social media showed roofs stripped to their frames, bald and broken palm trees and shredded awnings.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, a U.S. territory and popular tourist destination, residents said strong winds were knocking over palm trees and sending debris flying. An unofficial observation on Buck Island in the U.S. Virgin Islands reported sustained winds of 106 mph with a gust of 131 mph around 2 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the National Hurricane Center reported.
Texas resident Vanessa Lucio was in communication with her family in the U.S. Virgin Islands as the storm approached. She said her family had hunkered down in their home near the ocean and that flooding quickly reached the second floor. Unable to leave due to strong winds, Lucio’s family put on life jackets to wait out the storm.
“I’m terrified for them!” Lucio told the Miami Herald in a message.
Lucio said another friend in the U.S. Virgin Islands reported collapsed buildings and cellphone service outages in the late afternoon.
In St. Martin, where the eye of the hurricane passed around 8 a.m. Wednesday, images posted on social media showed massive flooding, submerged and overturned cars and destroyed homes, with doors ripped off their hinges. Princess Juliana International Airport appeared to have suffered major damages, with images posted by the French weather observatory Keraunos showing flooding inside the airport and debris on the tarmac.
France sent emergency food and water to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where the hurricane knocked out power, according to the Associated Press. The regional authority for Guadeloupe and neighboring islands said rescue vehicles on Saint Barthelemy were stranded Wednesday morning after more than 3 feet of water flooded the fire station, the AP reported.
French authorities were still assessing the extent of the damage Wednesday evening. Overseas Minister Annick Girardin said at least two people had been killed and two others gravely injured on Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, CNN reported. French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted Wednesday afternoon that damages “are extensive”.
The storm hit the northern end of the Leeward Islands overnight, hammering Antigua and Barbuda, where a NOAA weather station reported a 155 mph gust before failing Wednesday morning, according to forecasters.
Late Wednesday, the Antigua government reported minimal damage and no deaths from Irma in a press release. Asot Michael, the country’s minister of tourism, economic development, investment and energy said “our country can resume normal life within hours.”
In Barbuda, Prime Minister Gaston Browne told local news outlet ABS Television that one person had died and there was widespread destruction on the island with “95 percent” of homes damaged.
Irma’s furious trek through the islands sparked deep anxiety for Miami-Dade prosecutor Frank Ledee, a native of St. Barth’s.
Ledee’s elderly parents and uncles rode out the storm in their sturdy house on a bluff overlooking the main town of Gustavia. About 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, they spoke with Ledee via satellite phone and reported “a lot of debris” flying and a lot of hits on the the roof of the house.
“The howling of the winds was just incredible, deafening,” Ledee said. “They were scared — and my mother is a veteran of three Cat 5 hurricanes. She’s never experienced anything like this.”
His brother was also in a precarious position — riding it out on the Dutch side of St. Martin, less than two miles from Philipsburg Harbor, an area prone to water damage coming from the south. Ledee had yet to hear from his brother.
“I’m more worried about my brother,” Ledee said. “St. Martin’s does not have the same infrastructure as St. Barth’s.”
Puerto Rico started to feel the advancing storm Wednesday morning. The National Weather Service advised residents to shelter in place, cautioning that winds in excess of 150 mph would likely hit the island around noon.
By 10 a.m., the storm was already too strong for planes to land. Agdamis Carrazana, a doctor at Mayagüez Medical Center on the western end of the island, took a flight from Fort Lauderdale to Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning in the hopes of making it back in time to help hurricane victims. As the plane approached the island, the sky turned black, Carrazana said. The pilot made two attempts to land in strong wind, but was unable to reach the airport.
“I thought, ‘My God, we’re going to die,’” Carranza said.
After circling the area, the pilot turned the plane around and headed back to South Florida.
In the Dominican Republic, authorities warned that rains and strong winds would likely begin Wednesday night as the hurricane approaches. Officials from the Emergency Operations Center told residents to brace for flooding in the center of the country. The civil defense force has already started to evacuate residents from the most vulnerable areas and has more than 3,000 shelters ready, the head of the country’s Civil Defense said at a press briefing early Wednesday afternoon.
The National Hurricane Center reported that Irma would pass just north of Puerto Rico Wednesday tonight, passing near or just north of the coast of Hispaniola Thursday, and nearing Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening. The Turks and Caicos could see storm surge of up to 20 feet, according to forecasters.