Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, made direct hits on Barbuda, St. Barthélemy, St. Martin, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands, and raked the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
The death toll from the storm stood at 11 on Thursday morning, but authorities warned that it would rise as communications improved.
The Category 5 hurricane, which by 8 a.m. Thursday had slowed to 180 mph from 185, left Barbuda in shambles, damaging 95 percent of its buildings and leaving the island “barely habitable.” Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said 50 percent of Barbuda was homeless.
In Puerto Rico, nearly 70 percent of households were without power after hurricane-force winds and torrential rain, which otherwise left the island largely unscathed, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Thursday. About 17 percent of the island has no water as a result of the lack of electrical power, he said.
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Roughly 40 percent of the island’s hospitals were functioning, he said, and about 40 patients from the U.S. Virgin Islands were being transferred to hospitals in Puerto Rico, he added.
“We would like to start out thanking the Almighty,” Rosselló said after the island saw relatively little damage. “Our prayers were answered.”
On the main island, fallen trees and electrical poles made up the bulk of the damage. The Department of Public Works logged 198 incidents of roads blocked by trees or utility poles.
The governor said total rainfall on the island ranged from 2 to 8 inches, but that southern regions were still at risk of flooding because the rain there had not stopped.
Concern had been greatest for the small island of Culebra. The governor said that communication with the island remained difficult Thursday morning but that authorities had managed to speak with the mayor and the police lieutenant there.
“The information we have, again, thank God – because Culebra did see wind gusts above 100 mph – is positive,” he said.
The hurricane was expected to maintain powerful winds. Irma had wind speeds of 185 mph for more than 24 hours, the longest period ever recorded. The French weather service described it as the most enduring superstorm on record.
Around 8 a.m. Thursday, the storm’s eye was off the northern coast of Hispaniola, which is shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the National Hurricane Center said, and it is expected to remain a Category 4 or 5 storm through Thursday.
It is likely to then move near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night, before coming close to Cuba on Friday or Saturday.
All schools in Haiti – public and private – were closed Wednesday and Thursday in preparation for the hurricane.
President Jovenel Moise of Haiti said in a televised speech that his Cabinet had spent a week preparing for the hurricane, establishing shelters and sending drinkable water to northern areas expected to be hit. He said public safety workers had begun to move people away from the water and into shelters.
But Moise also outlined the challenges ahead, noting that 77 percent of Haiti is mountainous terrain, much of it inaccessible by road. He implored the population to take heed of the hurricane warnings and to get to a safe place.
“The hurricane is not a game,” he said.
The Turks and Caicos Islands, a British overseas territory, were preparing for Irma on Thursday, even as the British government came under criticism for not doing enough for territories hit by the storm, like the British Virgin Islands and Anguilla, where one person died.
Boris Johnson, the foreign secretary, defended the government’s record, however, saying that Britain had responded quickly to the storm. Priti Patel, the international development secretary, said a naval ship had been deployed to the region with 40 marines, army engineers, vehicles, tents and equipment to help deal with the devastation. Britain has also sent three experts in humanitarian interventions, she said.
Nevertheless, some critics said the British response had been tepid compared with France’s. Josephine Gumbs-Connor, a lawyer from Anguilla, told the BBC that the British government should have done more. “The French made sure they had military on the ground so the response given is timely, which makes it effective, which makes it helpful to our people,” she said.
The possibility of a major impact on Florida has increased, the National Hurricane Center said early Thursday.
The center said the storm was likely to be a Category 4 hurricane when it makes landfall in Florida early Saturday. Tropical-force winds were expected to batter the Keys, the Florida chain of islands under a mandatory evacuation order.
Gov. Rick Scott warned on NBC’s “Today” show on Thursday that the hurricane was “way bigger than Hurricane Andrew,” which hit the state hard in 1992, and that it could strike either coast.
“Everybody needs to listen to local officials about evacuation orders,” he said. “Make sure you have a plan.”
Appearing on CBS' “This Morning” minutes later, he said that fuel was a particular concern, one that he addressed while speaking to the White House and to Energy Secretary Rick Perry on Wednesday, and that highways were already starting to get crowded as people left their homes.
“We’re doing everything we can to get gas into these stations so that people can evacuate,” he said.
The governor reiterated his concerns about the storm surge, which he said could cover homes and would be unlike anything Floridians had seen before. “This storm surge can kill you,” he said.
Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, issued a mandatory evacuation order Wednesday. Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale, advised people to evacuate some areas. In South Florida, which has millions of people and only two major highways to take people farther north, traffic and fuel shortages were becoming problems as people tried to get out of the storm’s path.
Buses in Key West will begin evacuating residents at noon Thursday, and residents have been asked to go to their nearest bus stop, according to a government website. Pickups will continue through Thursday afternoon and will resume at 6 a.m. on Friday.
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French officials said Thursday morning that at least eight people had been killed in the French Caribbean and that rescue workers were just beginning to assess the damage Irma had inflicted on the islands of St. Martin and St. Barthélemy. At least three deaths were reported elsewhere.
“The destruction is massive,” Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said, noting that schools had almost all been destroyed.
“By chance, the airport in the north, the French airport, has not been hit too much, so we are going to be able to land helicopters and then planes,” he said. The southern airport, in the Dutch part of the island, was more severely hit, he added.
Collomb said that French authorities were sending barges filled with water and 100,000 French Army rations to the two islands, enough to sustain the populations there for four days.
He said that one of the main priorities was to restore electricity, to bring back the desalination plant that provides the island with drinkable water, and to get phone networks back online.
Daniel Gibbs, the president of the French territorial council on St. Martin, told Radio Caraibes International on Wednesday night that “95 percent of the island is destroyed.”
“There are shipwrecks everywhere, destroyed houses everywhere, torn off roofs everywhere,” Gibbs said. “It’s just unbelievable, it’s indescribable.”
Asked what the island needed, Gibbs said “everything” and noted that another storm, Hurricane Jose, was expected soon after Irma.
“I need the nation to send sufficient reinforcements, to evacuate those who can be evacuated,” he said. “Because if another hurricane hits us on Saturday, it just won’t be possible. It’s not the dead that we will be counting, it’s the living.”
French authorities have expressed particular worry over the past few days about the roughly 7,000 people who refused to evacuate and take shelter inland.
Collomb, the interior minister, said that rescue workers were still trying to reach remote parts of the islands, but that so far the death toll was lower than authorities had feared.