Hurricane Irma slammed northern Cuba on Saturday, continuing its path of devastation through the Caribbean towards the US state of Florida.
A string of small islands to the east have been left reeling in the wake of the massive hurricane, which strengthened to a Category 5 storm as it made landfall in Cuba overnight, before being slightly downgraded to a Category 4 storm early Saturday.
At least 24 people are known to have died in the Caribbean as a result of Irma. Many islands are still assessing the damage even as they try to prepare for the arrival of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.
St Martin/St Maarten and St Barthélemy, also known as St Barts, remain under a hurricane warning for Jose, expected to blast close by the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday afternoon local time as a Category 4 hurricane. However, Barbuda and Anguilla now appear in less danger, having been downgraded to a tropical storm warning by forecasters.
Blinding rain and powerful winds began pummeling Caibarién in Cuba late Friday as the outer bands of the massive storm made their entrance, knocking out power in a town that would normally be busy with tourists.
By dawn, the town’s main street had waves rolling down it and buildings 50 yards (46 meters) or more inland were flooded with three to four feet of water.
Many people had left Caibarién in the past couple of days, with all foreigners urged to leave for safer areas. Those who remained said they were prepared — but this is a storm like few have ever experienced before.
Conditions are expected to continue deteriorating into Saturday and those still in the town now have no other option than to stay put, with no way for help to reach them.
The Cuban government was putting emergency resources in place ahead of the storm’s arrival but it could take a long time before the full extent of the damage is known.
Cuba’s meteorological agency reported that Irma struck the archipelago north of Cuba’s Camaguey and Ciego de Avila provinces with gusts so strong they destroyed the instrument used to measure wind.
Hurricane-strength winds were then recorded in the northern half of Camaguey province, the agency said.
As Irma advanced over neighboring Ciego de Avila province, 16-foot to 23-foot waves (5 to 7 meters) were recorded. As the storm moves westward, the possibility of even bigger waves and flooding are high along the northern Cuban coast including in Havana, the agency said.
According to the state media radio station in Camaguey, Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the province in 85 years.
Damage is being reported in all municipalities in Camaguey, the station said, mostly in the form of torn-off roofs, damage to buildings, downed trees and loss of electricity.