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Having mauled the Caribbean island of St. Martin overnight, where this morning the French government said that the four “most solid” buildings have been destroyed, Hurricane Irma – now at 185mps for a record 33 straight hours – has just passed north of Puerto Rico, buffeting the US island territory’s capital, San Juan, with heavy downpours and strong winds that scattered tree limbs across roadways, but not before “totally demolishing” the island of Barbuda, with 90% of all dwellings leveled, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
Browne said that Irma has unleashed “absolute devastation” on the island making Barbuda, home to some 1,800 people, “basically uninhabitable” with preliminary damage estimated at some $150 million.
He said that the island’s communication network is 100% destroyed.
A before and after photo confirms the devastation:
“This rebuilding initiative will take years,” Browne told local television after a visit to the island, where he confirmed at least one person had died due to the storm. A second storm-related fatality, that of a surfer, was reported on Barbados and the French government said at least two people were killed in Caribbean island territories of St. Martin and Saint Barthelemy.
Irma, with top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (300 km per hour), was on track to reach Florida on Saturday or Sunday, becoming the second major hurricane to hit the U.S. mainland in as many weeks.
While Irma’s intensity could fluctuate, and its precise course remained uncertain, the storm was expected to remain at least a Category 4 before arriving in Florida.
Irma is not alone, and as reported earlier, two other hurricanes formed on Wednesday. While Katia, in the Gulf of Mexico, poses no threat to the U.S. Hurricane Jose in the open Atlantic, about 1,000 miles (1,610 km) east of the Caribbean’s Lesser Antilles islands, could also eventually threaten the U.S. mainland, a third hurricane landfall on the U.S. in under a month.
According to Reuters, Florida emergency management officials, chastened by Harvey’s devastation, began evacuations days in advance of Irma’s arrival, ordering all tourists to leave the Florida Keys, a resort archipelago off the state’s southern tip, starting Wednesday morning. Evacuation of residents from the Keys was to begin Wednesday evening.
Ed Rappaport, acting National Hurricane Center director, interviewed on Miami television station WFOR-TV, called Irma a “once-in-a-generation storm,” adding that for Florida, “It’s the big one for us.”
Chuck Watson, disaster modeler with Enki Research, said in a note that “Irma is the kind of storm where you get thousands of lives lost. This is not going to be the big slow-motion flood like Harvey – this is a real, honest-to-God hurricane.”
Late on Wednesday, the eye of Irma passed just north of Puerto Rico.
“The winds that we are experiencing right now are like nothing we have experienced before,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN. “We expect a lot of damage, perhaps not as much as was seen in Barbuda.”
At least half of Puerto Rico’s homes and businesses lost electricity by nightfall, according to a Twitter message posted by an island utility executive. According to the Miami Herald, Puerto Rico residents could be left without power for four to six months after Hurricane Irma grazes the island.
“There are going to be blackouts. Areas that will spend three, four months without electricity,” Ricardo Ramos, executive director of Puerto Rico’s energy agency, said, according to the Spanish-language news agency EFE.
On its current path the core of Irma, which the Miami-based center said marked the strongest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, was expected to scrape the northern coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday. It was on a track that would put it near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening.
Trump, whose waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, could take a direct hit from the storm, has already approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, mobilizing federal disaster relief efforts. He spoke with governors of all three by telephone on Wednesday, the White House said.
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.
Residents in most coastal communities of densely populated Miami-Dade County were ordered to move to higher ground beginning at 9 a.m. ET (1300 GMT) on Thursday, Mayor Carlos Gimenez announced on Wednesday. The evacuation orders will affect more than 100,000 residents, the Miami Herald reported. Miami-Dade has a population of 2.7 million.
Scott told a news conference in the Keys that 7,000 National Guard troops would report for duty on Friday, ahead of the storm’s expected arrival. Statewide emergency declarations were issued in both North and South Carolina, and Georgia Governor Nathan Deal declared an emergency for six coastal counties in anticipation of Irma’s arrival.