Mountainous Dominica, the southernmost of the Leeward Islands,escaped Irma’s wrath, but Hurricane Maria’s 160 mph winds overwhelmed the small island, even tearing the roof from the prime minister’s home and leaving devastation in its path.
“Initial reports are of widespread devastation. So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace,” Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on Facebook before communications with the island dropped. Maria made landfall on Dominica Monday night.
But beyond shredded foliage, downed trees and physical damages, what Skerrit said he feared most were injuries to Dominicans and possible deaths from likely landslides triggered by persistent rains. And that may not be apparent until rescue workers make their way into remote communities.
The first Maria-related fatality report came from neighboring Guadeloupe. Local officials said one person was killed by a falling tree in the overseas French territory and two others were missing after their ship sank near La Désirade, an island that is part of Guadeloupe.
Skerrit, who described the storm as “Rough! Rough! Rough!” was eventually rescued as the violent rains and winds battered the island, which boasts lush tropical rainforests and natural hot springs, including the volcanically heated, steam-covered Boiling Lake.
Video snippets posted on social media showed heavy rain and tree-bending winds.
On the island of Martinique, just south of Dominica, officials said about 25,000 households were without electricity. Maria’s winds and waves deposited large rocks and boulders on seaside roads, caused flooding in Fort-de-France and created a general mess but, for the most part, Martinique escaped major damage.
Dominica’s mountainous terrain only resulted in a slight weakening in the intensity of Maria, said forecasters at the National Hurricane Center. By Tuesday morning Maria had once again become a Category 5 hurricane as it continued on a course that will take it near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico by Wednesday. The area from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata on the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast also was under a hurricane warning.
With Hurricane Maria about 80 miles southeast of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, Tuesday evening, Gov. Kenneth Mapp said it was time for first responders to batten down. He cautioned residents that there would be no opportunity for help until sometime between mid-morning and noon Wednesday.
In the pre-dawn hours Tuesday, Skerrit posted that as soon as an all-clear is given, rescue workers would begin the search for those injured and trapped in rubble in Dominica.
But communication with Dominica went out shortly after Skerrit’s postings. Mapp said he tried reaching out to Skerrit to offer support to Dominica but couldn’t because lines were down. The International Federation of Red Cross said it hadn’t been able to communicate with its representatives on the island since Monday night.
About the only ones in Dominica talking with the outside world Tuesday were ham radio operators who reported flooding and many homes without roofs. A ham radio operator in the capital Roseau said that he would rate devastation around the city at 9 on a 1-10 scale. “Everything is down,” said another ham operator.
Governments were queuing up to offer help. Trinidad and Tobago, which is well south of Maria’s path, prepared to send a helicopter, supply ship and members of the Trinidad and Tobago Defence Force, and Telesur reported that Venezuela prepared to airlift 18 tons of humanitarian supplies to Dominica.
Caribbean solidarity seemed to be the spirit of the day. As he was reminding residents of St. Kitts and Nevis to stay indoors until a hurricane warning was lifted, Prime Minister Timothy Harris also tweeted that St. Kitts and Nevis “will be our brothers keeper.”
Rainfall, which the hurricane center said could cause flash floods and mudslides, continued to be a worry. Ten to 15 inches of rain was expected in the central and southern Leeward Islands and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands through Thursday with isolated accumulations of up to 20 inches. In Puerto Rico, 12 to 18 inches of rainfall was expected with isolated rainfall of up to 25 inches.
In 2015, Tropical Storm Erika dumped 12 inches of rain on Dominica and triggered flooding and landslides and was responsible for at least 20 deaths.
Mapp was also wary of rain. “Once the system passes through,” he said, “it is expected to rain continuously pretty much into next week. That's a lot of water. Many people could lose their lives because they are not careful.”
“We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds,” Skerrit said on Facebook before he went silent.
It is a message that could be echoed across the Caribbean as many small islands deal with the one-two punch of Hurricane Irma and now Maria.
Guadeloupe, just north of Dominica, was hit hard by driving rain and high winds when Maria’s eye passed near the southwestern tip. Social media posts showed water in the streets and submerged boats Tuesday morning. Rivers over-ran their banks, trees blocked roads and a dock split in two at a marina. The government reported that 80,000 homes lost power and about 25 percent of fixed-line phone customers lost service.
Although St. Kitts and Nevis were relatively unscathed by Irma, Minister of Foreign Affairs Mark Brantley tweeted that Maria was already making its presence known before dawn in the dual-island federation that marked its Independence Day Tuesday. “Being pummeled by howling winds and torrential rain. We pray for the morning sun and its revelations,” he wrote.
But through the day the rain kept up relentlessly. “This storm is very slow moving,” Brantley said in a telephone interview. “The rain is still coming down very hard. The wind is howling.” It was difficult to make damage assessments, but Brantley said preliminary reports indicated downed power lines and damage to infrastructure and homes.
Nearby Dominica was also in his thoughts. The damage “we have heard is horrific,” he said. “The situation there is quite tragic.”