Hurricane Irma made its first landfall Wednesday, battering Antigua and Barbuda, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy islands.
By late Wednesday afternoon, the Category 5 storm was showing no signs of weakening, continuing to register maximum sustained winds of 185 mph.
Irma was hitting Puerto Rico at press time and is expected to strike the northern edge of the Dominican Republic Thursday morning.
Eric Blake, a scientist for the National Hurricane Center, said on Twitter Wednesday that Irma was the first hurricane in the Atlantic or eastern Pacific Ocean to register 185 mph winds over a 24-hour period. Only one recent western Pacific hurricane – Haiyan in 2013 – has been able to match that statistic.
Hurricane Irma reached Antigua and Barbuda overnight Tuesday, and a wind-measurement device based on the latter island registered winds of 118 mph before the instrument was broken.
No fatalities were recorded on Antigua, but ABS Television/Radio in Antigua and Barbuda reported Wednesday afternoon that Prime Minister Gaston Browne witnessed widespread destruction on his trip to Barbuda. One fatality was reported, and Mr. Browne apparently indicated that much of Barbuda’s housing stock was destroyed by Hurricane Irma.
Officials on Antigua indicated the island’s airport would reopen at 2 p.m. Wednesday.
Overturned cars, ripped off roofs, structural damage to even the sturdiest buildings and widespread flooding were seen in St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, which suffered a direct hit from the hurricane. Motor yachts and sailboats lay overturned and piled up in the marinas.
The airport of Saint Martin was devastated by the storm, with sand and debris on the runway and terminals, and jetways severely damaged. According to French media reports, French Minister of the Interior Gerard Collomb said after a meeting of the Cabinet in Paris: “The four most solid buildings on Saint Martin have been destroyed, which means that the more rustic dwellings have probably been destroyed as well.”
He added, “Emergency planes have been requested to bring aid to those affected.”
St. Martin’s government offices were among the damaged buildings. In addition to widespread power cuts, one of the island’s fire stations was flooded and a local police station lost its roof, according to a government press release.
French Minister for the Overseas Territories Annick Girardin was quoted in media reports as saying that authorities were “preparing for the worst” and announced that she would fly to Guadeloupe to monitor rescue efforts.
Ben Meade, editor of local sports publication Cayman Sports Buzz, told the Cayman Compass he spent a few anxious hours Wednesday trying to get in touch with family members on the affected islands. His sons, age 10 and 12, returned to Antigua last week after spending the summer on Grand Cayman. Mr. Meade had not reached his sons as of press time, but he had spoken to friends and cousins who indicated they are OK.
Mr. Meade spent the early morning hours on Wednesday watching news reports of the storm, and it took him hours to get in touch with his mother, who lives on the Dutch island of St. Maarten. Her home was damaged and lost electricity, but he was relieved to hear that she was otherwise all right.
“It felt like an elephant was lifted off my chest,” he said. “I almost cried.”
The National Hurricane Center in Miami indicated that the Northern Leeward Islands, southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos could be subjected to as much as 8-12 inches of rain over the next few days. Turks and Caicos and the southeast Bahamas may also be affected by as much as 15 to 20 feet of storm surge.
— midian (@midian09) September 6, 2017
With no side shutters on their apartment, British Virgin Islands resident Freeman Rogers and his girlfriend Deon Morgan decided to head to one of the BVI’s hurricane shelters, a small concrete building on the island of Tortola that used to be a schoolhouse.
That is where they were with about 20 other people when Irma hit around 11 a.m.
The building protected them from the elements at first, but gusting winds began tearing sheets of tin off the roof, causing water to leak inside, Mr. Rogers told the Cayman Compass by phone from BVI.
When the eye of the storm was over them, the group left the building and ran to a nearby church. Though some of the windows were blown out of that building, they took shelter in a choir loft inside and waited out the remainder of the hurricane in relative safety.
“Luckily, the second half of it wasn’t as bad,” said Mr. Rogers.
With the storm past the island by 2 p.m., BVI residents were just coming to grips with the untold millions of dollars in damage they will have to deal with in the coming days. Photos on Facebook show flooded streets, mudslides, and yachts strewn about marinas like toys. One resident even posted that her “cars have blown away.”
Mr. Rogers is the editor of the territory’s local newspaper, The BVI Beacon, and he said he still was not sure how he and his staff are going to balance covering the disaster’s aftermath with getting their own lives back together.
“I have no idea,” he said. “It’s going to be a while before we get power and essential services back.”
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear what damage has been done some 90 miles west of the BVI in Puerto Rico.
A-Shae Bowman, a U.S. Navy yeoman stationed in San Juan, told the Compass Wednesday morning that she boarded up her windows, stocked up on food, and was bracing for impact.
Ms. Bowman said she was not sure whether the military will be assisting in dealing with the fallout of Irma, but that she’s “definitely willing to help.”
Air travel to San Juan, Puerto Rico, has been affected ahead of the storm. A few flights reached Puerto Rico from New York and Miami-based airports Wednesday morning, but 18 flights from those cities were canceled. Two flights from Miami and Fort Lauderdale attempted the trip before turning around and returning to Florida. Eight flights from Orlando to San Juan were canceled, and eight flights from Tampa Bay made it to Fort Lauderdale and Miami only to have their connecting flight canceled.
The website cruisecritic.com said that 28 cruises had been canceled, shortened or had their itineraries changed as a result of the hurricane.
The National Hurricane Center advisories indicate that Irma will strike the Dominican Republic early Thursday and the southern edge of the Bahamas that evening. The storm appears set to hit Cuba as it arcs northwest and heads toward Florida, and it could potentially make landfall in southern Florida early Sunday. Experts now worry that Irma could rake the entire Florida east coast from Miami to Jacksonville and then head into Savannah, Georgia and the Carolinas, striking highly populated and developed areas.
Tropical Storm Jose was reclassified as a hurricane Wednesday night and is forecast potentially to strike the islands affected by Irma later, at the weekend. Jose appears to be arcing northwest into the Atlantic at a steeper angle than Irma, but could strike the Leeward Islands on Saturday.
Cayman Compass reporters Michael Klein and Ken Silva contributed to this report.