Hurricane Irma slammed northern Cuba on Saturday, continuing its path of devastation through the Caribbean towards the US state of Florida.
A string of small islands to the east have been left reeling in the wake of the massive hurricane, which strengthened to a Category 5 storm as it made landfall in Cuba overnight, before being slightly downgraded to a Category 4 storm early Saturday.
At least 24 people are known to have died in the Caribbean as a result of Irma. Many islands are still assessing the damage even as they try to prepare for the arrival of another major storm, Hurricane Jose.
St. Martin/St. Maarten and St. Barthélemy, also known as St. Barts, remain under a hurricane warning for Jose, expected to blast close by the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday afternoon local time as a Category 4 hurricane. However, Barbuda and Anguilla now appear in less danger, having been downgraded to a tropical storm warning by forecasters.
Meanwhile, Irma’s center was about 10 miles northwest of the northern Cuba coastal resort town of Caibarién at 8 a.m. ET Saturday, packing sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kilometers per hour), the US National Hurricane Center said.
Blinding rain and powerful winds began pummeling Caibarién late Friday as the outer bands of the massive storm made their entrance, knocking out power in a town that would normally be busy with tourists.
By dawn, the town’s main street had waves rolling down it and within hours the whole town was flooded with several feet of water. Roofs could be seen flying off and trees were blown down as the wind gusted and roared.
Many of the houses in Caibarién are single story, putting residents at great risk as floodwaters rose to roof level in some cases.
Many people had left town in the past couple of days, with all foreigners urged to evacuate for safer areas. Those who remained told CNN they were prepared — but this is a storm like few have ever experienced before.
The Cuban government was putting emergency supplies and building equipment in place ahead of the storm’s arrival but it could take a long time before the full extent of the damage is known.
Gusts destroy wind-measuring instrument
As of 8 a.m. ET, a hurricane warning for Irma was in place across central Cuba — taking in the provinces of Camaguey, Ciego de Avila, Sancti Spiritus, Villa Clara and Matanzas — as well as the northwestern Bahamas.
Cuba’s meteorological agency reported that Irma struck the archipelago north of Cuba’s Camaguey and Ciego de Avila provinces with gusts so strong they destroyed the instrument used to measure wind.
Hurricane-strength winds were then recorded in the northern half of Camaguey province, the agency said.
As Irma advanced over neighboring Ciego de Avila province, 16-foot to 23-foot waves (5 to 7 meters) were recorded. As the storm moves westward, the possibility of even bigger waves and flooding are high along the northern Cuban coast including in Havana, the agency said.
According to the state media radio station in Camaguey, Irma was the first Category 5 hurricane to hit the province in 85 years.
Damage is being reported in all municipalities in Camaguey, the station said, mostly in the form of torn-off roofs, damage to buildings, downed trees and loss of electricity.
The Cuban provinces of Holguin and Las Tunas are under a hurricane watch advisory, while the capital, Havana, and its surrounding area could be lashed by tropical storm force winds.
While wind speeds have decreased over Cuba, the US National Hurricane Center said, “Irma is forecast to restrengthen once it moves away from Cuba, and Irma is expected to remain a powerful hurricane as it approaches Florida.”
Hurricane-force winds currently extend outward up to 70 miles (110 km) from the center of the storm and tropical storm-force winds extend outward up to 195 miles (315 km), the center said.
The storm is expected to be near the Florida Keys and South Florida by early Sunday, and many residents there have moved inland. About 5.6 million people in the state have been ordered to evacuate, Gov. Rick Scott said.
Forecasters and Florida officials sent dire warnings urging residents in the path of the storm to evacuate as soon as possible.
Devastation left in Irma’s wake
Of the 24 deaths blamed on Irma so far, nine were in unspecified French territories, one in Barbuda, one in Anguilla, two in Dutch-administered St. Maarten, four in the British Virgin Islands, four in the US Virgin Islands, and three in Puerto Rico.
The tiny island of Barbuda was one of the worst hit so far by Hurricane Irma, with Prime Minister Gaston Browne describing it as having suffered “total devastation.”
“I have never seen any such destruction on a per capita basis compared to what I saw in Barbuda this afternoon,” Browne told CNN on Wednesday.
Antigua, Barbuda’s sister island and home to about 80,000 people, was spared the brunt of the storm. Many Barbuda residents have been evacuated there as Jose approaches.
St. Martin, an 87-square kilometer island split roughly in half between the French overseas collectivity of St. Martin, and St. Maarten, a constituent country of the Netherlands, has suffered property damage and power outages due to Irma.
“There is a sense of dread … utility poles are down everywhere. There is no power and no public water and it appears it may take a long time to restore,” Xaverius van der Hoek, who lives in St. Maarten, told CNN.
French and Dutch authorities said Friday that looting had broken out on the island, home to about 72,000 people, but that security forces were being deployed to deal with the problem.
French state-owned insurer CCR said Saturday that Irma had caused roughly 1.2 billion euros ($1.44 billion) of insured damage in the French portion of St. Martin and in St. Barts.
“This amount covers damages to homes, vehicles and businesses (including operating losses) that are covered by the natural disaster compensation scheme,” CCR said in a statement.
State of emergency declared
Just to the north, Anguilla, a 90-square kilometer island that is one of several British overseas territories in the Caribbean, “received the hurricane’s full blast,” according to UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Alan Duncan.
The US and British Virgin Islands were also pummeled by Irma. Pictures from St. Thomas, the most populated of the US Virgin Islands and a popular tourist destination, showed extensive damage.
Gus Jaspert, Governor of the British Virgin Islands, posted a statement to Facebook late Thursday in which he declared a state of emergency for the territory.
“All of us have been affected by Irma and some more than others. Apart from the structural damage, there have sadly been reports of casualties and fatalities. I am truly heartbroken by this news,” he said.
Puerto Rico, an unincorporated US territory, managed to avoid a direct hit from Irma, but suffered strong winds and torrential rains. Hundreds of thousands of people remained without power on Friday.
Strong winds and heavy rain also lashed the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands overnight Thursday to Friday. The Turks and Caicos’ capital island of Grand Turk suffered “quite a bit of damage,” including to part of a hospital’s roof, Gov. John Freeman told CNN on Friday.