SAN JUAN – Hurricane Irma was continuing to move westward Thursday toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas, having already caused nine deaths and massive damage on two tiny northeastern Caribbean islands – St. Martin and Barbuda.
In Puerto Rico, authorities said there had been three hurricane-related fatalities.
The northern, French section of St. Martin – home to around 40,000 people – took a direct hit from the extremely powerful Category 5 hurricane, which killed eight people there, injured around 20 others and caused poorly constructed buildings to collapse.
In the southern, Dutch section of the island, the Princess Juliana International Airport suffered heavy damage, while one fatality has been reported on Anguilla, which also was hit by Irma’s eye wall, but not yet officially confirmed.
Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne, meanwhile, said in a provisional assessment that the smaller of the two islands – Barbuda, which took a direct hit from Irma’s eye wall in the wee hours of Wednesday – had been devastated.
Roughly 90 percent of all structures and vehicles on that island were destroyed, Browne said.
After lashing the Lesser Antilles, Irma continued to move in a westerly direction Wednesday and its eye passed just to the north of Puerto Rico, where Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the hurricane caused three deaths.
Rossello said Thursday that the island was spared heavy damage.
He cautioned, however, that although the Miami-based National Hurricane Center (NHC) had lifted its hurricane warning for the United States commonwealth, heavy rains associated with the storm could still trigger dangerous flooding.
The local National Weather Service estimates that between 20-30 centimeters (between eight and 12 inches) of rain fell in Puerto Rico’s mountainous eastern region. An additional 12 centimeters of rain is expected to fall on Thursday, including in the western portion of the island.
The governor warned that the ground was already saturated and that more rain could trigger mudslides and cause tributaries of rivers to burst their banks.
Some roads were blocked when Irma’s powerful winds downed trees and power pylons, while more than 1 million people, or nearly 70 percent of customers on the island were without power.
Irma is currently a Category 5 hurricane packing maximum sustained winds of 280 km/h (175 mph), the NHC said in its latest advisory at 11 am (1500 GMT).
In that advisory, the NHC put portions of South Florida and the Florida Keys under hurricane and storm surge watches for the first time, meaning there is the possibility of life-threatening inundation from rising seas and the possibility of hurricane conditions in those areas over the next 48 hours.
Late Thursday morning, the center of Irma was just off the northern coast of Hispaniola and bringing torrential rains and powerful winds to the Dominican Republic, where more than 5,500 people were evacuated and 1,106 houses were affected.
The rains were most intense in Santiago, the Dominican Republic’s second city. Some flooding has been reported there, as well as in the municipalities of Sosua and Cabarete and the tourist province of Puerto Plata, as well as other areas.
In Haiti, the other country that makes up the Caribbean island of Hispaniola, authorities closed Hugo Chavez International Airport in Cap-Haitien, the country’s second-largest city.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated from that city, which is under a red alert.
Rains were already beginning to pound northern Haiti, a country that is particularly vulnerable to flooding due to its extremely high levels of deforestation and which has not yet recovered from last year’s Hurricane Matthew.