Hurricane Irma — one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic — hammered Puerto Rico on Wednesday night after smashing a string of small northern Caribbean islands where at least three people were killed.
CNN’s Leyla Santiago, in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, said there were already power outages as strong winds lashed the island. Officials told her at least one rescue had occurred but there were no immediate reports of injuries in the US territory of about 3.4 million people.
As the center of the storm moved west just off the northern coast, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CNN he thinks the island was being hit hard.
“From the center of operations that we have over here in San Juan, there is pretty significant damage already done,” he said, citing wind gusts of more than 100 mph.
Tourist Steban Guajardo told CNN that water in the parking lot of a building he was at in the seaside neighborhood of Condado just kept rising.
Puerto Ricans bracing for the high-octane winds and slashing rainfall started to feel Irma’s effects Wednesday afternoon. Strong breezes shook rickety rooftops and downpours battered the coast.
Residents prepped their homes for safety and gathered food, supplies and belongings.
The storm is one of three hurricanes in the Atlantic basin, the first time since 2010 that three active hurricanes have been in the Atlantic, according to CNN Weather.
Widespread damage on Barbuda
Irma’s core slammed the tiny island of Barbuda before moving over St. Martin and Anguilla and parts of the British Virgin Islands. Its maximum sustained winds of 185 mph were well above the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5 storm.
Browne told CNN the damage was “heart-wrenching. Absolutely devastating.” He estimated the damage on Barbuda, where he says 1,800 people live, to be at least $100 million.
The telecommunications system in Barbuda was wiped out and cell towers were knocked over, he said. Both the island’s hotels were demolished, he added.
There is also no way to land airplanes on the islands, Browne said from Antigua, whose 80,000 people comprise most of the two-island nation’s population.
On Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, Kennedy Banda said fierce winds blew out the windows of his home. He and his family were taking shelter in a bathroom; he said he was bracing his body against the door in an attempt to keep it shut.
“Everything is blown out,” he told CNN by phone near Road Town. “Everything is gone.”
Earlier, he posted video on Facebook showing wind and pounding rain whipping the shoreline as Irma’s core approached.
The hurricane earlier battered a string of northern Caribbean island nations, situated east of the more populous Virgin Islands group.
Reports suggested damage on parts of the smaller islands, a tropical region popular with tourists.
Irma destroyed four of the most solid government buildings on the French-administered portion of nearby St. Martin, an island of about 75,000 people, French Interior Minister Gérard Collomb said in Paris.
It’s likely that all other older buildings there have at least been damaged, he said.
Roughly 10 of these smaller islands — such as St. Martin, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis — were pounded by hurricane conditions. One, Guadeloupe, has about 405,000 residents. The rest have about 264,400 people combined.
‘We’ve been hiding in the bathroom’
Virginia Barreras said she was riding out the storm on St. Martin in a “sanctuary hotel” where tourists and locals were encouraged to check in before the eye wall hit.
“The palm trees are bent over and (I) can’t see anything but white,” she said before Irma’s core passed. “The walls shake when the wind blows hard, and we can hear debris being thrown around.”
Though Irma’s path is uncertain, forecasters have said it could turn toward Florida over the weekend, and officials there are ordering some evacuations and shutting down schools.
Irma affected many northern Caribbean islands, even those not touched by the powerful core. In Marigot, Guadeloupe, Florida resident Loren Ann Mayo rode out the storm on the sixth floor of a beachside hotel.
“We’ve been hiding in the bathroom,” she said in a video she posted to Facebook. About an inch of water covered parts of the floor, and pieces of drywall had fallen onto a balcony and a bed inside, she said.
Mayo was there on a business trip. “It is pouring down rain. It is howling,” she told CNN. “Most people are either in their bathroom, or they’ve been moved downstairs to the third floor where management thinks is a very, very safe spot.”
Storm surge is a concern for the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Central Bahamas (up to 20 feet), as is heavy rain (up to 20 inches in the Virgin Islands, and up to 20 in parts of Puerto Rico).
Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas
Forecasters warn that Irma’s likely path will be near the Turks and Caicos on Thursday and the southeastern Bahamas on Friday — and that the destruction could be devastating.
In the Bahamas, emergency evacuations have been ordered for six southern islands — Mayaguana, Inagua, Crooked Island, Acklins, Long Cay and Ragged Island.
“This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” Prime Minister Hubert Minnis said.
“Some of the (Bahamian) islands aren’t more than 9 feet (above sea level). Storm surges there may be 20 feet. You get the idea what’s going to happen to those islands,” CNN meteorologist Chad Myers said.
Florida: Evacuations and a rush for supplies
Many Floridians spent Wednesday stocking up on food or making plans to head inland, and in some cases were leaving gas stations out of fuel and stores without needed supplies.
Katherine Pina said four stores she visited in Fort Lauderdale were out of bottled water. She said she saw one man reselling jugs of water for $5.
“People are doing an opportunity to get some money, I guess,” she said.
Workers at five gas stations in Miami Beach told CNN by phone Wednesday that all were out of fuel. One said the station expected to receive more Wednesday night; another said a resupply was coming Thursday morning.
Some South Florida communities ordered evacuations. Monroe County, which includes the Florida Keys, ordered visitors to head home Wednesday, with residents told to leave later in the evening.
In Broward County, which includes Fort Lauderdale and other cities north of Miami, a mandatory evacuation will go into effect at noon Thursday for areas east of Federal Highway, Mayor Barbara Sharief said. The evacuation zone includes low-lying areas.
Miami-Dade County ordered people out of mobile homes, barrier islands and other parts of the area.