Deadly Hurricane Irma, a 300km/h monster, pounds Caribbean – and Florida is next in its sights
Irma is one of the most powerful storms ever recorded and only the second to have such high sustained wind speeds, after Typhoon Haiyan in 2013
Powerful Hurricane Irma cut a swathe of deadly destruction as it roared through the Caribbean, claiming at least nine lives and turning the tropical islands of St Martin and Barbuda into mountains of rubble.
One of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, the rare category 5 hurricane churned westward off the northern coast of Puerto Rico early on Thursday on a potential collision course with south Florida where at-risk areas were evacuated.
St Martin – a pristine resort known for its vibrant nightlife which is divided between France and the Netherlands – suffered the full fury of the storm, with rescuers on the French side saying eight people had died and another 21 were injured.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said the hurricane had caused “huge damage” to the airport and harbour, leaving the Dutch part of the island unreachable but that there were no immediate reports of deaths.
As the storm raged westwards, it left scenes of widespread devastation on the island with the roofs wrenched off multiple buildings, dozens of huge shipping containers tossed aside like matchsticks and debris flung far and wide, aerial footage from a Dutch naval helicopter showed.
Mangled wreckage of homes, cars and shopfronts was strewn everywhere while massive flooding left many residential areas deep under water.
Speaking to Dutch broadcaster RTL, 20-year-old Koen who lives in the town of Voorhout, said he was shocked by what he saw on venturing outside after the storm passed.
“There is huge damage, “ he said. “Sand has been blown over everything. Everything is destroyed.”
With Irma raging for more than 33 hours, packing winds of up to 295km/h, French weather experts said it was longest-lasting superstorm on record.
“Such an intensity, for such a long period, has never been observed in the satellite era,” which began in the early 1970s, said Etienne Kapikian of Meteo France, indicating it would likely remain a category 5 storm until it hits the Bahamas.
With about 80,000 people living on St Martin, French and Dutch officials were racing to activate a rescue plan to help their citizens.
On the French side, the storm destroyed 95 per cent of homes, officials said, as a 200-strong delegation flew in to Guadeloupe to coordinate rescue efforts, headed by France’s Overseas Territories Minister Annick Girardin.
Rutte said that although the island’s infrastructure had been “badly damaged”, with the storm knocking out the power, the main priority was bring in emergency aid.
“It’s an enormous catastrophe. Ninety-five per cent of the island is destroyed,” said Daniel Gibbs, a top official on the French side, in a radio interview. “I’m in shock. It’s frightening.”
Telephone networks were still down on both sides of the island and French officials warned the death toll could rise as rescue teams scour far-flung parts of St Martin as well as the nearby French island of St Barthelemy, also known as St Bart.
— NASA SPoRT (@NASA_SPoRT) September 5, 2017
— NHC Atlantic Ops (@NHC_Atlantic) September 7, 2017
Home to about 9,500 people, St Bart is known as a playground for the rich and famous, among them Beyoncé, Steven Spielberg and Gwyneth Paltrow.
As it raged through the region, Irma also laid waste to Barbuda, part of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, which suffered “absolute devastation” with 95 per cent of properties damaged, and up to 30 per cent demolished, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
“Barbuda now is literally rubble,” Browne said.
One person is known to have died on the island of 1,600 residents, apparently a child whose family was trying to get to safer ground.
And on the island of Barbados, a 16-year-old professional surfer named Zander Venezia died while trying to ride a monster wave generated by the storm, the World Surf League said.
With no sign of letting up, Hurricane Irma was expected to hit the northern edges of the Dominican Republic and Haiti later on Thursday, continuing past eastern Cuba before veering north towards Florida.
More than half of Puerto Rico’s population of 3 million was without power, with rivers breaking their banks in the centre and north of the island where Governor Ricardo Rossello activated the National Guard and opened storm shelters sufficient for up to 62,000 people.
US President Donald Trump has already declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, the US Virgin Islands and Florida.
Category 5 is the highest on the scale for hurricanes in the Atlantic and hurricanes of this intensity are rare. They can cause severe flooding, tear off roofing, shatter windows and uproot palm trees, turning them into deadly projectiles.
“This could easily be the most costly storm in US history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago,” said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami, alluding to the damage caused by Hurricane Harvey.
Irma follows hot on the heels of Hurricane Harvey which devastated swathes of Texas and Louisiana in late August.
Irma was hitting the Caribbean even as two other tropical storms, Jose in the Atlantic Ocean and Katia in the Gulf of Mexico, were upgraded to hurricane status.
With forecasters warning of catastrophe, including surges of up to 8 metres above normal tide levels, people evacuated tourist areas, stocked up on provisions, and packed into shelters across an area stretching as far north as Florida.
The Sunshine State is expecting to face the brunt of the storm from Friday night.
Tourists in the popular Key West islands were packing their bags on a mandatory evacuation order, with a similar order for residents due to follow.
Panicked residents stripped shelves bare in Miami as they rushed to stockpile everything from bottled water to sandbags, with service stations all the way to Florida Keys running out of petrol.
Additional reporting by Associated Press