SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Irma lashed Puerto Rico with heavy rain and powerful winds late Wednesday, leaving nearly 900,000 people without power as authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands already devastated by the historic storm.
Florida rushed to prepare for a possible direct hit on the Miami area by the Category 5 storm with potentially catastrophic 185 mph winds.
Nearly every building on the island of Barbuda was damaged when the eye of the storm passed almost directly overhead early Wednesday and about 60 percent of the island’s roughly 1,400 people were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
“Either they were totally demolished or they would have lost their roof,” Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island. “It is just really a horrendous situation.”
He said roads and telecommunications systems were destroyed and recovery will take months, if not years. A 2-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.
As the storm moved west, it tore up the small islands in its path. On St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside. They emerged to find the lush island in tatters, with many of their neighbors’ homes damaged and the once-dense vegetation largely gone.
“There are no leaves. It is crazy. One of the things we loved about St. Thomas is that it was so green. And it’s gone,” said Strickling, who moved to the island with her husband three years ago from Washington, D.C. “It will take years for this community to get back on its feet.”
Significant effects were also reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded. France sent emergency food and water rations there and to the French island of St. Bart’s, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to St. Martin and two other Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
By late Wednesday, the center of the storm was about 85 miles north-northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and heading west-northwest at 16 mph.
More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power and nearly 50,000 without water, the U.S. territory’s emergency management agency said. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and trees and light poles were strewn across roads.
The tiny island of Culebra reported sustained winds of 88 mph and wind gusts of 110 mph.
The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma’s magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
Puerto Rico’s public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a decade-long economic crisis and the agency’s director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly.