Hurricane Irma is just starting its passage across the Caribbean but, judging by the first reports and images emerging on Wednesday, the destruction is already serious.
The Category 5 hurricane hammered the northern end of the Leeward Islands overnight, hitting Antigua and Barbuda, where a NOAA weather station reported a 155 mph gust before failing Wednesday morning, according to forecasters.
The eye of the hurricane passed over St. Martin around 8 a.m. this morning and began to impact Anguilla. It was closing in on the U.S. Virgin Islands on Wednesday afternoon.
Images posted on social media from St. Martin showed massive flooding, submerged and overturned cars and destroyed homes, with doors ripped off their hinges. Princess Juliana International Airport appears to have suffered major damages, according to images posted by the French weather observatory Keraunos, which showed flooding inside the airport and debris on the tarmac. A video posted by the European weather site Météo Express Wednesday morning showed wrecked boats and flooding in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of St. Martin.
In Anguilla, residents posted videos of forceful winds toppling trees.
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 after more than 3 feet of water flooded the fire station, the AP reported. There were no immediate reports of casualties or official damage assessments in the wake of the storm.
Irma’s furious trek through the islands sparked deep anxiety for Americans with family and friends in the Caribbean.
Miami-Dade prosecutor Frank Ledee, a native of St. Barth’s who continued working Wednesday.
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 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.”
Meanwhile, the National Weather Service advised residents of Puerto Rico to shelter in place Wednesday morning, cautioning that winds in excess of 150 mph would likely hit the island around noon. Public works brigades hurried to clean drain sewage to prevent flooding, FEMA reported.
There were some reports of thieves stealing wood panels and other protective materials and even a gas tank in Puerto Rico, according to El Nuevo Día.
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 Turks and Caicos could see storm surge of up to 20 feet, according to forecasters. Up to 20 inches of rain could drench parts of the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos and Cuba.