Apocalyptic scenes of flattened buildings and ruined airports emerged from once-lush Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma, as the deadly storm began to lash vulnerable Haiti on Thursday and another powerful storm, Hurricane Jose, followed fast in its wake.
About 95 percent of the tiny island of Barbuda sustained damage, according to Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda. Ghastly photos and videos from St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, also known as St. Barts, showed buildings in ruin and cars and trucks almost submerged in the storm surge.
Irma’s death toll reached 10, a figure expected to rise as its punishing winds hit Hispaniola and moved closer to a potentially disastrous assault on Cuba and Florida. Islands ripped apart by its Category 5-force winds were left with little time to regroup. The National Hurricane Center warned that Jose was churning toward the Leeward Islands, expected to threaten them as a major hurricane by Saturday.
“We are very worried about Hurricane Jose,” Browne said Thursday in a phone interview, adding that Irma had left about 60 percent of Barbuda’s nearly 2,000 residents homeless.
When Craig Ryan, a 29-year-old tourism entrepreneur who lives in Antigua, reached Barbuda by boat Thursday morning, the scene of residents flocking onto the beach seeking help struck him as a “Caribbean version of Dunkirk,” the famous evacuation of Allied troops from a French coastal city during World War II.
“It’s such a level of devastation that you can’t even see structures standing,” he said in a telephone interview.
Ryan’s family business, Tropical Adventures Antigua, dispatched a 75-foot motorboat to ferry people off the island before Hurricane Jose arrives. Phone and Internet communications are down on Barbuda, he said, and some residents remain stuck in isolated areas blocked by impassable roads.
“We really are in a rush against time,” Ryan said.
On St. Martin, there was little sense that authorities had the situation under control. Witnesses said supermarkets were being looted, with no police visible in the streets.
“It’s like someone with a lawn mower from the sky has gone over the island,” Marilou Rohan, a European vacationer on the Dutch side of the island, which is split with France, told the Dutch NOS news service. “Houses are destroyed. Some are razed to the ground. I am lucky that I was in a sturdy house, but we had to bolster the door, the wind was so hard.”
Occasionally, soldiers have passed by, but they were doing little to impose order, Rohan said.
“People feel powerless. They do not know what to do. You see the fear in their eyes,” she said.
U.S. and European countries scrambled to send ships and aid to the battered Caribbean islands. The Pentagon deployed three Navy ships, nearly two dozen aircraft and hundreds of Marines to the isolated U.S. Virgin Islands, where they were needed to relocate hospital patients and others displaced by the storm and haul in relief supplies. The U.S. military was also bringing water-purification systems and tools to clear roadways choked with storm debris, according to U.S. Northern Command.
French Foreign Minister Gérard Collomb said that “even the strongest buildings are destroyed” on the French side of St. Martin, while French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe said that four people had been found dead there.
In addition, three people were reported killed on the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to authorities there who described “catastrophic” damage, the Associated Press reported. There was at least one death reported on the British island of Anguilla, another on Barbuda and one on the Dutch part of St. Martin.
In Puerto Rico, residents expressed relief that the storm did not leave a trail of death. Still, Irma knocked out nearly half of the 1,600 cellphone towers on the financially strained island, leaving many residents without service, local media reported. More than 1 million people lost power. The island’s power authority had warned before the storm that damage could leave some neighborhoods without electricity for up to six months because of precarious infrastructure.
In the Dominican Republic, which shares Hispaniola with impoverished Haiti, the civil defense director, General Rafael Carrasco, said at least 2,721 homes have been damaged. The government said nearly 7,000 people had been evacuated from their homes, and 7,400 tourists had been moved from beachside hotels in Bavaro, Puerto Plata and Samana to the capital, Santo Domingo.
As night began to fall Thursday, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean was punishing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere – Haiti, a nation still recovering from a massive 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew last October. That storm, bearing Category 4 force when it made landfall Oct. 4 along Haiti’s southwest coast, killed more than 500 people on the island and injured more than 400 others.
Although the nation of 11 million appeared to avoid a direct hit, authorities and aid groups warned that the storm’s glancing blow was already flooding highways and bridges, bringing mudslides and toppling rickety housing.
The government ordered schools closed and warned citizens to leave work by noon to prepare for the storm. Concern centered on the flood-prone north, where Irma’s torrential rain brought knee-deep water to the fishing and agricultural city of Fort Liberty. Mayor Louis Jacques Etienne said rising water had already drenched bedrooms and kitchens, and flooded fields of rice and plantains.
The ferocity of the storm, he said, sent many of the city’s 37,000 residents scrambling to get to last-minute shelters set up in a Catholic church, two schools and the public library.
The evacuation effort unfolding in Haiti, critics said, was happening far too late. But Etienne as well as national officials insisted that locals would not have heeded warnings until they saw the power of Irma firsthand.
“Look, they don’t believe you when you tell them there’s a hurricane coming,” Etienne said in a phone interview. “They need to see it for themselves.”
Jerry Chandler, director of Haiti’s National Protection Agency, said he was working with projections that as many as 600,000 people would be severely affected by the storm, with potentially 400,000 people facing the destruction of their homes.
“It’s a slow-moving hurricane, and as it moves toward us, I’m afraid it will slow even more,” Chandler said.
Even in the teeming capital of Port-au-Prince, officials warned that floods might come to some of the city’s low-lying slums. Gusty winds and rain began to kick up in the late afternoon. Earlier, some residents – though not many – stocked up on powdered milk and bread at grocery stores and markets.
But many, like fruit seller Nadeige Jean, 35, said she felt helpless to do anything but struggle on with her daily routine.
“I guess we are worried, but we are already living in another hurricane, Hurricane Misery,” said the mother of three, who was selling fruit at the Olympic Market. “So they say I should board up my house? With what? Wood? Who’s going to pay? With what money will I buy it? Ha! I don’t even have a tin roof. If the winds come, I can’t do anything but hope to live.”
In Haiti, Irma’s toll could be felt long after the wind and rain are gone. Infrastructure could collapse, and livestock herds and crops could be wiped out. In addition, aid workers fear the potential spread of a cholera outbreak that has already killed thousands.
U.N. agencies and humanitarian groups said they were in northern Haiti, poised to distribute medical and food aid to affected communities as soon as the storm allowed.
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anthony Faiola, Lindsey Bever