Hurricane Irma destroyed government buildings, tore roofs from houses and left islands without power Wednesday as it barreled through the northern Caribbean, packing devastating winds and rain.
Barbuda, St. Martin/St. Maarten and St. Barthélemy have all felt the fury of the Category 5 storm, one of the strongest ever recorded in the Atlantic, according to updates from the region.
French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said four of the most solid buildings in St. Martin, where about 75,000 people live, had been destroyed, boding ill for weaker structures on the tiny island.
“In terms of material damage, the four strongest buildings on the island of St. Martin (prefecture, police department, barracks) have been destroyed, which means that the oldest buildings have undoubtedly been totally or partially destroyed,” he told reporters.
The firehouse in St Barthélemy is under a meter of water and is out of service, according to an update posted to Twitter by the local government of the neighboring French territory, Guadeloupe.
“Firefighters have taken shelter in an upstairs room. A number of houses have suffered damage, roofs have been ripped out. Total loss of electricity,” it said.
The mayor’s office in St. Martin has been partially destroyed, the update from Guadeloupe said, and the mayor and 23 others are taking shelter in a concrete-walled room.
The island has been without electricity since 6 a.m. local time, it said. There is no information on injuries at this time, it added. St. Martin and St. Barthélemy are both French overseas collectivities.
Virginia Barreras told CNN she was riding out the storm in a hotel in St. Martin.
“The palm trees are bent over and (I) can’t see anything but white,” she said early Wednesday, before Irma’s core passed over the island. “The walls shake when the wind blows hard, and we can hear debris being thrown around.”
Footage posted to YouTube by PTZtv.com from Maho Beach, St. Maarten, showed winds so powerful they reportedly took out the webcam filming the scene.
Fallen trees, flash flooding
Irma’s core, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph — well above the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5 — slammed Barbuda early Wednesday before hitting St. Martin and Anguilla.
Keithley Meade, director of the Antigua and Barbuda Meteorological Services, said the extent of the destruction on Barbuda was hard to determine as communications were completely down.
“Barbuda was heavily damaged by Irma. So badly damaged that there is no communication, so we don’t know how much. There has been no communication with the island,” he said.
The islands are experiencing heavy rain at present, and flash flooding is expected, Meade said. Authorities will go out later to assess the damage and send crews to clear a large number of fallen trees, he said.
A later statement from the Antigua and Barbuda Meteorological Services said there had been no reports so far of deaths and that “the preliminary report is indicating that damage across Antigua and Barbuda is minimal.”
Before communications went down about 12:30 a.m. local time, it said, “the Barbuda Weather Station, monitored by the Met Office, recorded sustained winds of 119 mph and gusts of 150 mph.”
After slamming St. Martin, Anguilla and St. Kitts and Nevis on Wednesday morning, the storm was expected to move near the British Virgin Islands and northern US Virgin Islands.
The storm’s center is then expected to pass near or just north of Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon or night.
Forecasters warn that Irma’s likely path will be near the Turks and Caicos Islands on Thursday and the southeastern Bahamas on Friday — and that the destruction could be devastating.
In the Bahamas, emergency evacuations have been ordered for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.