SAN JUAN – Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm, caused extensive damage when it made landfall in the Lesser Antilles and is heading toward Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, officials said Wednesday.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said on social media that the two islands had been devastated by Irma, although without providing details on the damage or indicating whether there had been any reported fatalities.
He said the structural damage had been severe and urged people to exercise maximum caution.
Even though the islands of both Antigua and Barbuda both took nearly direct hits from Irma’s eye wall, he said God had protected the country’s people from the worst of the hurricane.
The electrical system has been severely damaged, phone service has been lost, and local media says there has been practically no information about what is happening on those two islands of the Lesser Antilles for several hours.
In nearby Barbados, the storm surge caused severe flooding and forced authorities to launch rescue efforts.
Daniel Gibbs, president of the Territorial Council of Saint Martin, an overseas collectivity of France, told local media that people there had never experienced anything similar, adding that the walls of some buildings were shaking.
Both Saint Martin and nearby Anguilla took direct hits from the eye wall.
Irma has maximum sustained winds of 295 km/h (185 mph) and is moving to the west-northwest at 26 km/h, according to the latest public advisory by the United States’ National Hurricane Center.
It is the most intense hurricane to form in the Atlantic since 1980, when Allen – a storm that battered the Caribbean and parts of Mexico and the US – achieved maximum sustained winds of 312 km/h (194 mph).
The NHC’s 11 am (1500 GMT) advisory said the “eye of potentially catastrophic Category 5 Hurricane Irma (is) closing in on the Virgin Islands.”
A hurricane warning is currently in effect for numerous Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico and the northern part of Hispaniola, which comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The NHC’s latest forecast indicated that both of those islands would avoid a direct hit from Irma’s eye wall, saying the powerful weather system would “pass near or just north of Puerto Rico (Wednesday) afternoon or tonight and pass near or just north of the coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday.”
Haiti, an impoverished country that suffered at least 573 deaths and severe damage when it was battered less than a year ago by Hurricane Matthew, issued a nationwide red alert on Wednesday.
Schools are closed and will not open until next week.
Even so, many people on the streets were unaware of the threat and complained that government had not adopted sufficient preparatory measures ahead of Irma, which threatens the provinces of Nord, Nord-Est, Nord-Ouest, Artibonite and Centre.
“Port-au-Prince (in Ouest province) is not in the path of the hurricane, but we’re vulnerable. Any rain can cause severe problems,” Carole François, a 29-year-old mother of two, told EFE, alluding to extremely high levels of deforestation that make the hillsides around the capital vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.
Meanwhile, streets were deserted in San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, which is bracing for the arrival of Hurricane Irma’s outer bands at approximately 8:30 pm (0030 GMT) on Wednesday evening.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello thanked residents of flood-prone areas for having begun relocating to shelters starting Tuesday; he urged the rest of the island’s inhabitants to remain at home and stay off the streets.