At least eight reported killed as unprecedented hurricane continues towards Haiti, Cuba, and possibly Florida, leaving devastation in its wake
September 7, 2017 — The death toll from Hurricane Irma, the most powerful storm ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, has risen to eight as the category 5 storm advanced across the northern Caribbean towards the US mainland on early Thursday morning.
Irma’s 185mph winds and 20ft storm surge left the French part of the island of St Martin “95% destroyed”, according to a local official, with six people reported killed.
The death of a two-year-old child was confirmed in Barbuda, where the monster storm first made landfall at 1.47am on Wednesday, as well as one fatality on British-controlled Anguilla.
American authorities ordered mandatory evacuations from Miami Beach and other areas of Miami-Dade county, effective Thursday morning local time, as the US National Hurricane Center said it was increasingly likely Irma would strike Florida by Sunday afternoon.
The record-breaking hurricane moved over Puerto Rico on Wednesday night, leaving 965,000 people without power and 50,000 without water. 14 of the island’s hospitals were left running on emergency power.
The Antigua and Barbuda prime minister, Gaston Browne, said 60% of the island’s 1,400 people were now homeless after 90% of structures were destroyed.
In French-controlled St Martin, the northern section of the island that is split with the Netherlands-administered St Maarten, officials said government buildings were destroyed and roofs ripped from homes in St Barts, areas of which remained under water.
Michel Magras, senator for St Barts, said in a text to a media company in France that the island had suffered a catastrophe. “I am shocked by the monster that covers us,” he wrote. “The island is devastated. It is apocalyptic, a lot of damage, many roofs destroyed.”
Gerard Collomb, the French interior minister, observed that the four wrecked government buildings in St Martin were the sturdiest on the island, “which means that more rustic structures have probably been completely or partially destroyed”.
From the Dutch half of the island, known as St Maarten, video posted on social media showed yachts smashed together in a marina and cars submerged in several feet of water. Dutch interior minister Ronald Plasterk said he believed the destruction on the island was “enormous”.
Elsewhere across the region, including in the British overseas territory of Anguilla, power cuts were widespread and tens of thousands of people remained in shelters.
The first damage assessments from the northern Leeward Islands emerged as Irma continued its record-breaking westerly march, lashing the British and US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon.
In Puerto Rico, thousands were taking haven in shelters opened by city authorities in San Juan and across the island. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of the capital, said such voluntary action was a sign of how on-edge islanders were about the storm, the eye of which was expected to come within 50 or 60 miles.
“This is the first time since I became mayor almost five years ago that people have come to the shelters without anyone have to ask,” she said. “People are concerned, they are scared. Puerto Ricans cannot fathom what a category 5 hurricane is about – it’s something we’ve never heard of.”
The mayor was speaking to the Guardian from her home in San Juan without any electricity – large parts of the city and surrounding towns had been cut off from power in advance of Irma in order to try to protect the island’s grid.
“Power infrastructure is very, very fragile and we are expecting to be without power for the next four to six months,” she said.
The hurricane is the strongest Atlantic storm ever outside the Caribbean Sea and Gulf of Mexico and the most powerful since Hurricane Wilma, which tore into south Florida in 2005. By Thursday morning, Irma had also recorded winds at its eyewall at 180mph or greater for more than 33 successive hours – another record.
Next in its path on Thursday are the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba and the southern Bahamas. In its 5pm advisory Wednesday, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) in Miami warned that Irma was then expected to take a hard turn to the north, lining up an increasingly likely strike on southern Florida, home to 7 million people, by Sunday afternoon.
“Irma is a very powerful, very dangerous storm,” said Michael Brennan, a senior hurricane specialist at the NHC. “It’s a scary sight to see this kind of system affecting people.
“It’s a very dangerous situation for the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and much of the Bahamas, and everyone on the Florida peninsula and in the Florida Keys will want to keep an eye on this.”
Donald Trump approved a request from the Florida governor Rick Scott to declare a state of emergency, adding to declarations for Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.
In a tweet, Trump said he had spoken to Scott and the governors of the US territories. “We are w/ you all,” the president wrote, following earlier tweets in which he promised the support of the federal government in recovery efforts.
By late afternoon on Wednesday, more than 25,000 people had responded to a mandatory evacuation of the Florida Keys, the 100-mile chain of low-lying islands that lies south of the mainland. On Wednesday evening, officials said that all hospitals in the Keys would close by 7 am Friday.
Authorities also ordered the evacuation of coastal areas from Miami to north of Fort Lauderdale, fearing the effects of a considerable storm surge. Traffic quickly filled I-95 and I-75, the two major highways north.
At an earlier briefing, Scott said he had ordered 7,000 members of the state national guard to report for duty and had lifted tolls on state highways to ease evacuations.
“Get prepared, know your evacuation route,” he said. “This storm has the potential to devastate our state and we need to take it very seriously.”
The NHC continued to warn of the dangers from the storm surge on coastlines along Irma’s expected path. In Puerto Rico, a team of scientists from the US Geological Survey installed nine storm-tide sensors to measure the height and intensity of the hurricane’s surge.
“The researchers will assess beach erosion, overwash or inundation at local level and along the entire coastal zone in the hurricane’s path,” the agency said in a statement.