Apocalyptic scenes of flattened buildings and ruined airports emerged from once-lush Caribbean islands devastated by historic Hurricane Irma as the deadly storm lashed vulnerable Haiti, where one government official called it a “nuclear hurricane” – even as another potent storm, Hurricane Jose, followed fast in Irma’s wake.
About 95 percent of the islands of Barbuda and St. Martin sustained some damage or were outright destroyed, officials and local residents said. 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.
“Everything is a disaster, total devastation,” Dieter Schaede said by telephone from St. Martin, where he lives. “Roofs down, houses totally flown away, wiped out.”
Irma’s death toll has reached at least 22, according to the Associated Press, a figure expected to rise as its punishing winds moved over Cuba and begin a potentially disastrous assault on the Bahamas and Florida.
For those on the islands already ripped apart by Irma’s ferocious winds, there is little time to regroup: The National Hurricane Center said Friday that Jose, now a Category 4 storm, is churning toward the northern Leeward Islands whose residents should begin to experience its effects beginning Saturday.
In an urgent bulletin at 5 p.m. Eastern, officials announced that several areas previously under hurricane watch now face full-fledged warnings, including Barbuda, Anguilla, Saint Martin, St. Maarten and St. Barts. Antigua remains under hurricane watch.
“JOSE REMAINS A DANGEROUS CATEGORY 4 HURRICANE,” the National Hurricane Center said, noting that Jose’s sustained winds have been measured at up to 150 mph, with even stronger gusts. “… Some fluctuation in intensity, up or down, could occur during the next day or so.
Jose is expected to gradually weaken after that, forecasters said.
“I’m going to urge the residents, those who are defiant, to evacuate the island,” Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told the BBC. “We cannot afford a situation in which Barbuda is hit by yet another hurricane, Hurricane Jose.”
Antigua and Barbuda are part of the same country and gained independence from Britain in the 1980s. Browne said Irma had left the majority of Barbuda’s nearly 2,000 residents homeless. Initially, residents of Antigua weren’t immediately aware of the vast damage to Barbuda, since the storm disrupted communications.
When Craig Ryan, a 29-year-old tourism entrepreneur who lives in Antigua, reached Barbuda by boat, people lined the beach waiting for rescue. Others remained stuck in isolated areas blocked by impassable roads, he told The Post by telephone, saying, “We really are in a rush against time.”
Michael Joseph, president of the Red Cross in Antigua and Barbuda, told The Washington Post on Friday that “100 percent of the infrastructure is gone.” There’s no electricity, no running water, no communication system, he said.
“Imagine a deserted island in the middle of nowhere. Like that. No buildings, all the roofs gone, concrete ripped in half. Most animals died; I saw many dead animals,” he added.
Surprisingly, Joseph said, there was only one fatality on the island – a 2-year-old boy identified Friday as Carl Junior Francis. He was found by neighbors Thursday, having been swept away by storm surge as Irma pounded Barbuda the night prior, the Associated Press reported.
“At this point,” Joseph said, “everyone is more focused on making it through hurricane Jose.”
Eleven of the 22 known storm-related deaths occurred on St. Martin and St. Barts, according to the Associated Press. Four occurred in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four more in the British Virgin Islands and one apiece on Barbuda and Anguilla.
The first casualty appears to be a surfer who drowned Tuesday in storm-generated swells off Barbados.
French officials St. Martin was without electricity, fuel and drinking water, though there was a growing sense Friday that authorities were getting the situation under control. Witnesses said supermarkets were being looted before security personnel were moved in from nearby Guadeloupe.
Schaede picked his way through the rubble-filled side streets of Cole Bay, trying to absorb the scale of the destruction on St. Martin. Schaede, a longtime resident of the island and owner of a local realty firm, had difficulty putting into words the havoc before him.
“People are in shock,” Schaede said. “I’m in front of a house that was a house. The only thing you see is a kitchen wall.”
With electricity out and communications down, Schaede said the horror stories are just starting to filter through the community. “Houses have been totally wiped out, with people in it,” he said. “We don’t know the end of the disaster.”
He added: “It’s terrible. It will take a couple years to rebuild.”
President Donald Trump owns an 11-bedroom beachfront estate on St. Martin, perched on the sands of Plum Bay. The status of the property, which is for sale for $16.9 million, is unknown. But Schaede said that he has heard that other homes in the neighborhood were severely damaged.
“I’m sure it was probably devastated,” he said of Trump’s property. “He is on the Atlantic side. That got hit pretty hard.”
Schaede rode out the storm inside a bathroom in a concrete building with his five children. All are safe. His building has a generator that gets turned on only at night, to ration gas.
“We were one of the fortunate ones,” he said. “As along as we are alive, we can rebuild. We were very lucky.”
The United States and European countries have dispatched aid to the battered Caribbean islands, but it’s been slow to reach some of those hit the hardest.
The Pentagon deployed three Navy ships, nearly two dozen aircraft and hundreds of Marines to help with recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where they were needed to relocate hospital patients and others displaced by the storm, and haul in relief supplies.
One ship, the USS Wasp, has been off St. Thomas since Thursday coordinating medical evacuations. Two others, the USS Kearsarge and the USS Oak Hill, arrived on scene Friday.
The military is providing generators, fuel and gas, water-purification systems and tools to clear roadways choked with storm debris. The Army Corps of Engineers sent teams to both U.S. territories to help restore electricity, and National Guard personnel were activated to help with evacuations and search-and-rescue efforts.
At the White House Friday, Homeland Security Adviser Tom Bossert indicated the U.S. had begun evacuating American citizens from the French and Dutch sides of St. Martin ahead of Jose.
In Haiti, where more than 500 were killed by Hurricane Matthew one year ago, preliminary indications suggested that the hit had perhaps not been as bad as feared, though some communities clearly did sustain severe damage.
Houses in Malfeti, a municipality of several thousand near the northeastern city of Fort Liberty, were almost completely inundated, according to Fort Liberty Mayor Louis Jacques Etienne, who is also responsible for smaller nearby communities.
“It is completely underwater, until the roofs!” Etienne said by phone after surveying the damage himself.
Etienne, who dubbed Irma a “nuclear hurricane,” added that in Fort Liberty, a city of 37,000, houses had collapsed and roofs had been blown off homes.
“Crops are destroyed, cattle is dead, and my cities are broken. It is bad. Very, very bad,” he said.
Prime Minister Jack Guy Lafontant’s office issued a national notice advising citizens to return to work Friday, while saying the government “is implementing actions to help the population to adequately face this natural disaster.”
Haiti’s Civil Protection Agency reported early Friday that one person was missing and three were injured, including two in the northern town of Dondon when a tree collapsed on their house. A third person was injured in the northern city of Cap-Haïtien.
The agency reported “moderate flooding” in four northern provinces, and said a bridge linking Haiti to the Dominican Republic had collapsed in the border city of Ouanaminthe.
Gonaives, a low-lying northern city highly prone to devastating flooding, was a major concern in Haiti. But Mayor Neil Latortue said the damage had been “not too bad at all.” Some trees fell outside the city limits, and debris filled the streets. But he said no major damage had been reported.
“We are trying,” he said, “to get businesses back up and running today.”
(c) 2017, The Washington Post · Anthony Faiola, Lindsey Bever, Andrew Degrandpre, Matea Gold