Hurricane Irma, the most powerful Atlantic storm in a decade, was churning its way across the northern Caribbean after battering the Leeward Islands on Wednesday, with one person confirmed dead on the tiny island of Barbuda and unconfirmed reports of two other fatalities in the French speaking St Martin, which were among the worst-hit.
As Irma moved away from the area and took aim at Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands, residents on the upper end of the Caribbean island chain still could not fully breathe a sigh of relief with the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) reporting at 5p.m. (local time) that another hurricane – Jose – had formed just east of the Leeward Islands.
However, Jose was said to be packing winds of 75 miles per hour compared to the 185 miles per hour winds that Irma — a deadly Category 5 — had battered Antigua and Barbuda with between Tuesday night and Wednesday morning as part of its dreaded onslaught.
By the time the heavy winds and rains had receded on Wednesday morning, prime minister Gaston Browne wasted no time in expressing his personal gratitude that his two-island nation had been spared the worst.
“My first words must be of thanks. Thanks to Almighty God in all his forms for standing at our side at a time of great adversity.
“There is no doubt that the good Lord is on our side,” he said in a statement released in the immediate aftermath of the storm’s passage.
“We in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean. And we have done so with stunning results.
“The forecast was that Antigua would be devastated, our infrastructure demolished, people killed and our economy destroyed.
“In the light of day, the picture is very different.
“In Antigua, no life has been lost – all the people survived,” the statement added.
However, at that time communication had been cut with neighbouring Barbuda and it was later confirmed that one person had died there as Irma vented its unmistakable fury, downing trees and popping out communication and power lines, putting paid to Browne’s boast that “our preparedness led to impressive resilience”.
In fact, after flying over to Barbuda on Wednesday afternoon, the prime minister reported that the housing stock there had simply been “decimated” and that other critical infrastructure was destroyed with residents left in the dark with no electricity or running water.
Preliminary estimates were that the damage to the 61 square mile island with less than 2,000 inhabitants was in the order of EC$150 million with official assessment still continuing.
In the meantime, the French government said it was worried that thousands of people had refused to seek shelters on St Martin and St Barthélemy, where Irma devastated homes, hotels and government buildings. While there was no immediate news of casualties, the government of France dispatched emergency food and water supplies to the affected areas, including some in which Irma had ripped off roofs and knocked out electricity.
Next door, in Dutch St Maarten the Princess Juliana International Airport was also not spared. Television footage showed the storm ripping through its safety fences. Sand was flung onto the runway and huge rocks smashed into planes as Irma swept over the territory. Huge chunks of debris were also strewn across the runway and a jet bridge snapped in half. The storm also battered the nearby Maho Beach.
Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands were also hard-hit. However, officials at the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) said it was still difficult to fully assess the level of devastation.
“We don’t have all the full details from the British Virgin Islands at the moment but given that the eye passed directly over Tortola, given the physical geographical conditions . . . we anticipate there should be significant needs being generated by the impact of the most severe aspects of the storm,” CDEMA’s Executive Director Ronald Jackson acknowledged during a regional news conference earlier today.
“We expect to see significant damage as a result,” he said, adding that CDEMA was now working to deploy teams into Antigua, hopefully by Thursday “mindful that our plans may be varied somewhat by the fast advancing storm Jose, which is moving within the wake of Irma and showing some signs that it could move along similar path.
“This means that there is a potential for secondary impacts for the north Leeward Islands [and] that is being factored into our plans for the moment, but for now we are hoping to deploy into Antigua as our focal point to serve the needs of Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands from that point,” he explained.
However, Dominica and St Kitts and Nevis were mostly unscathed.
Dominica’s Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit reported today that while there were “one or two little landslides and some fallen trees and so forth, I think we were spared the ravages”.
After touring some of the areas affected by the storm, his Kittitian counterpart Timothy Harris was equally relieved and thankful that there was no report of loss of life or significant injury to anyone.
“My view is that St Kitts and Nevis has been spared the ravages of what could have been total devastation given the magnitude of the hurricane—the size and expanse of it as it approached St. Kitts and Nevis.
“A category five hurricane is the most dangerous of hurricanes, and yet today we can come to film, to video and to speak about the sparing of our lives, which is of critical importance because with spare lives we can now move on to pick up the pieces, as several families within my constituency, and I suspect throughout the country, would have to be doing,” Harris said.
But with Irma still on the rampage, the United States Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico simply cannot afford to let down their guard.
CDEMA said today it was also positioning teams to respond to potential impacts in Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas, as both Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago indicated a willingness to assist the affected countries.
“This is a period of assessment and planning to ascertain what Jamaica can do to assist our Caribbean brothers and sisters who have been significantly impacted by the most powerful hurricane to have emerged in the Atlantic Ocean,” Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness said.
Trinidad and Tobago Acting Prime Minister Colm Imbert also said in a statement that his country was willing to “do what we can to assist should that occasion arise”.
Today, authorities in Haiti, which is still recovering from the passage of Hurricane Matthew last year, closed all schools in anticipation of an impact by Irma. Police officers were also ordered back to work until further notice and the National Urgent Operation Center (COUN) was up and running at the residence of Prime Minister Dr Jack Guy Lafontant.