SAN JUAN (Puerto Rico) • Hurricane Irma killed eight people on the Caribbean island of Saint Martin and left Barbuda devastated as Florida population centres braced themselves for what was forecast to be a direct hit by one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century.
France, the Netherlands and Britain yesterday sent water, emergency rations and rescue teams to their stricken territories.
The worst-affected island so far is Saint Martin, which is divided between the Netherlands and France, where eight of 10 confirmed deaths took place. Television footage showed a damaged marina with boats tossed into piles, submerged streets and flooded homes. Power was knocked out on Saint Martin, Saint Barthelemy and in parts of the US territory of Puerto Rico.
The hurricane was on track to reach Florida tomorrow or Sunday, becoming the second major hurricane to hit the US mainland in as many weeks after Hurricane Harvey.
On Saint Martin, Mr Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council told Radio Caribbean International: "It is an enormous disaster, 95 per cent of the island is destroyed. I am in shock."
Local newspaper editor Paul de Windt told the Paradise FM radio station from the island, which is home to around 80,000 people: "Lots of people are just wandering around aimlessly, as they have no homes any more and don't know what to do. It's catastrophic."
The island of Barbuda is a scene of "total carnage" and the tiny two-island nation will seek international assistance, said Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda. Mr Browne told the BBC about half of Barbuda's population of some 1,800 were homeless while nine out of 10 buildings had suffered some damage and many were destroyed.
"We flew into Barbuda only to see total carnage. It was easily one of the most emotionally painful experiences that I have had," Mr Browne said in an interview on BBC Radio.
It is an enormous disaster, 95 per cent of the island is destroyed. I am in shock.
MR DANIEL GIBBS, chairman of a local council on the island of Saint Martin, talking to Radio Caribbean International.
"Approximately 50 per cent of them (residents of Barbuda) are literally homeless at this time. They are bunking together, we are trying to get ... relief supplies to them first thing tomorrow morning," he said.
Irma hit Puerto Rico early yesterday, buffeting its capital San Juan with rain and wind that scattered tree limbs across roadways. At least half of Puerto Rico's homes and businesses were without power.
The National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said it was the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean and one of the five most forceful storms to hit the Atlantic basin in 82 years. Hurricane watches were in effect for the northwestern Bahamas and Cuba.
In Florida, emergency management officials began evacuations in advance of Irma's arrival. Mr Ed Rappaport, the Miami-based NHC's acting director, called Irma a "once-in-a-generation storm".
Florida Governor Rick Scott said Irma could be more devastating than Hurricane Andrew, a Category 5 storm that struck the state in 1992 and still ranks as one of the costliest ever in the United States.
Billionaire Richard Branson, 67, his relatives and staff survived Irma by hunkering down in the concrete wine cellar of his home on his private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands, which he said "sustained extensive damage".
Playing board games and resting in bunk beds as the storm passed, he described the atmosphere as "eerie but beautiful".
REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG