cars piled on top of one another in marigot

‘It was like something you see in a horror movie’: Irma survivors tell of devastation

cars piled on top of one another in marigot
Cars piled on top of one another in Marigot, near the Bay of Nettle, on Saint Martin, following Hurricane Irma Photograph: Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

The worst-hit islands are barely habitable after enduring the destructive power of hurricane’s 185mph winds

September 7, 2017 — “We had cars flying over our head, we had 40ft containers flying left and right,” said Knacyntar Nedd, chairwoman of the Barbuda council. “People were literally tying themselves to roofs with ropes to hold them down.”

As Hurricane Irma blasted across the Caribbean in an arc of horror and destruction on Thursday, killing at least 10 and wreaking near-total devastation on islands at the eye of the storm, Barbudans recalled a night of misery that exceeded even their worst fears.

The trail of damage in areas first hit by the storm’s 185mph winds served as grim warning for those further west as they braced for its arrival hours or days later, with its intensity barely dimmed.

Among the worst hit were a string of small islands where the storm first made landfall, including the Franco-Dutch island of Saint Martin and nearby Barbuda. Barely a single Barbudan building escaped undamaged, around a quarter of properties were utterly obliterated, and half the population was left homeless by the storm.

Helicopter images showed stretches of flooded rubble that had been streets and homes crushed into piles of rubble or walls left without a roof.

On the beach-front in the Dutch side of Saint Martin, boats were crushed up against each other like damaged toys, rows of parked cars were submerged in flood water up to their roofs and the airport battered beyond use.

“What we experienced is like something you see in a horror movie, not something you expect to actually happen in reality,” Nedd told the local ABS television.

Among the most traumatised survivors were those who tried to ride Irma out at home. “When the first part came, it was like the whole house was ripping apart,” said Jacqueline Bisa, who was in her home with seven relatives.

They took shelter in a closet and the bathroom but the winds were so fierce they had to hang on to the door to keep it closed until they could be evacuated. “It was like it was sucking us up,” she said the next morning.

Several older residents with long experience of the fierce winds churned up by the Atlantic in hurricane season described Irma as unprecedented.

“Last night was the most devastating experience I have had in my life and I am almost 60,” said a man who gave his name as King Goldilocks. “Who hasn’t lost their roof, their house crumbled, like me? I am totally homeless.”

Barbudans initially struggled to reach the government on nearby Antigua, which was spared the very worst of the storm, said Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda.

“I’m of the view that as it stands now Barbuda is barely habitable,” Browne told ABS TV. “The island is literally under water and that in itself is a serious threat. We never anticipated this level of damage.”

The storm brought down telecoms towers and destroyed a back-up radio system so islanders could not report back on the extent of the damage. Rescue efforts on many islands are likely to be hampered by damage to airports as planes cannot currently land safely.

The winds were so powerful that even some of the island’s storm shelters were overwhelmed, said Barbuda’s fire station chief who gave his name as Sergeant George.

“The community centre, which was one of the designated shelters, did not stand up to the task, and the churches we used did not stand up to the task,” he said. “So we had to use St Thomas hospital but that stood up well.”

In other areas in the storm’s path, residents were rushing to storm-proof buildings or strengthen shelters while praying that Irma would change course and spare them a direct hit, as it did Puerto Rico.

“I have to start by thanking God, because although this was a strong event, it could have had a larger impact, and it is certain that the [prayers] of the Puerto Ricans and the people supporting them were heard,” the governor, Ricardo Rossello, said at a news conference after the worst of the storm had passed.

The damage to the island was still considerable, with three reported dead, up to a million without power, extensive damage from fallen trees, lamp-posts and other debris and ongoing risk of flash floods. Schools will remain closed on Friday.

On its current course, Hurricane Irma is predicted to pass by the northern shores of Haiti and the Dominican Republic on Thursday, directly over, or quite close to, the British territories of the Turk and Caicos Islands on Thursday night, followed by a brush with the southern islands of the Bahamas and Cuba’s northern coast.

On Friday night, the hurricane is expected to land at or pass near the archipelago of the Florida Keys, where the governor, Rick Scott, has ordered an evacuation.

It’s unclear exactly where the storm will strike along the coast. Scott warned that it could veer unexpectedly, and that its gigantic size meant that both Florida’s Gulf and Atlantic coasts are threatened by severe storm surges and category-four hurricane winds.

Cuba’s central and eastern provinces were put on alert, warning of everything from risk of burglaries during the storm to epidemics in its wake. In some areas schools were closed for Friday and state ration stores dolled out extra rice, oil and sugar.

“If you go to the shops, there’s hardly anything there – well that’s normal in Cuba, but there’s even less now,” laughed taxi driver Riccardo Hernández, 54.

Trees close to houses, electricity cables and phone lines were being felled and factories shut down. There were no mass evacuations planned on the mainland but tourists and workers were expected to be ferried off island resorts to safety.

In Havana, which is forecast to miss the worst of the hurricane, everyday life carried on mostly as normal but workers were clearing piles of broken concrete and rubbish that could be turned into dangerous projectiles, and unblocking drains.

people walk through damage in a sand-covered street of marigot on the island of saint martin
People walk through damage in a sand-covered street of Marigot on the island of Saint Martin Photograph: Lionel Chamoiseau/AFP/Getty Images

“I’ve bought bread and a lot of candles in case the gas goes out, and my wife’s been boiling water all day to store in our water tank,” says Victor Jimenez, 61, in one of the capital’s fews malls where other shoppers were stocking up on tinned food.

Those who have already survived Irma now face worries about finding food and shelter amid the ruins of their homes and could also face fresh devastation.

For the first time in seven years there are three active hurricanes in the Atlantic and one named Jose is tracing a tentative path that could take it though the areas worst hit by Irma.

Barbuda residents say they are not prepared to withstand even a much weaker storm.

“My main concern is how we are going to survive after this given that every house, every utility is completely damaged and gone,” said Cariana Baltimore, who fled to a shelter with six family members after Irma tore the roof off their home.

Like many on the island she was terrified about the prospect of having to ride out Jose in the island’s shattered ruins, and begged for evacuation.

“All of my family members we don’t even have a home no more, and the prospect of another hurricane heading in our direction is terrifying, I think we should evacuate.”

Also badly hit were the British Virgin Islands, a string of small islands whose residents begged for aid on Facebook.

“We have nothing here, we need help, only our lives were saved,” said Germaine Smith in a video he said was taken on Tortola. “Everything smashed up, every building smashed up, nothing saved.”

The storm also badly damaged the home of entrepreneur Richard Branson, on the private island of Necker, although everyone present when Irma hit took shelter in a wine cellar and no one was hurt.

“Glad to say that all humans on Necker are OK although a lot of buildings destroyed,” Branson’s son Sam said in an Instagram post.


guardian_64 by Emma Graham-Harrison | The Guardian