Irma leaves trail of death, destruction as Haiti, Dominican Republic brace for impact

Hurricane Irma – a Category 5 storm with winds as strong as 175 mph -- continued roaring toward Florida early Thursday, carving a path of death and destruction through tiny Caribbean islands and threatening the larger and more populous islands of Hispaniola and Cuba.

Officials said Thursday three people died in Puerto Rico and one person died in Anguilla, raising Irma's death toll to at least 9 in the Caribbean.

Three people died when Irma hit the island of Puerto Rico, including a 79-year-old woman, the territory's governor said, according to Reuters.

The elderly woman, who the government described as bedridden, died after a fall while being transported to a shelter.

The other fatalities were a woman in Camuy, who was electrocuted in her home and a man who died of injuries suffered in a traffic accident in Canóvanas during the storm, according to a statement from Governor Ricard Rossello obtained by the news agency.

Damage to the Dutch side of the Caribbean island of Saint-Martin was said to be “enormous,” with roofs torn off buildings. At least eight deaths were reported on the French side of the island.

At least one other death was reported on the island of Barbuda, where the prime minister described a “horrendous situation” of “total carnage.”

In Puerto Rico, about 900,000 people were said to be without electricity.

"The threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week has increased."

- National Hurricane Center

Farther ahead was Florida, and the prospect of landfall on the U.S. mainland by Sunday. Residents in parts of the Miami metro area were under mandatory orders to leave their homes Thursday morning as Irma drew closer.

Gov. Rick Scott strongly urged people to “get out now,” warning that Irma was "bigger, faster and stronger" than Hurricane Andrew, the last Category 5 storm to hit the state.

Florida also faced two sobering facts: Many of its homeowners lack flood insurance, and FEMA -- the Federal Emergency Management Agency, charged with handling such crises -- was already spread thin by the impact of Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Louisiana.

“The threat of direct hurricane impacts in Florida over the weekend and early next week has increased,” the National Hurricane Center warned Wednesday, adding that hurricane watches would likely be issued for parts of the Florida Keys and Florida Peninsula.

As of early Thursday, the center of Irma was about 140 miles north/northwest of Puerto Rico, and it was moving west/northwest at about 16 mph, the National Hurricane Center reported. Wind gusts were measured at a high of 185 mph.

The eye of the storm was expected to pass just north of Hispaniola on Thursday, moving on to Turks and Caicos and the southern Bahamas by evening, the Guardian reported.

Speaking on French radio France Info, French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the death toll in Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher than eight because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands.

“The reconnaissance will really start at daybreak," Collomb said.

To the east, authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands devastated by the storm's record winds earlier Wednesday, while people in Florida rushed to get ready for a possible direct hit on the Miami area.

Communications were difficult with areas hit by Irma, and information on damage trickled out.

‘Horrendous situation’

The Caribbean island of Barbuda was a scene of “total carnage'' after the passage of Hurricane Irma and the tiny two-island nation will be seeking assistance from the international community to rebuild, its prime minister said on Thursday.

Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane's core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday and about 60 percent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne told the Associated Press.

Estimates were that 95 percent of the island’s buildings had been damaged, the BBC reported.

"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. It will take years for this community to get back on its feet."

- Laura Strickling, resident of U.S. Virgin Islands

“It is just really a horrendous situation," Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island.

He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery would 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.

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. Many of their neighbors' homes were damaged and once-dense vegetation was 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," Strickling said. "It will take years for this community to get back on its feet."

By early Thursday, the center of the storm was about 140 miles (225 kilometers) northwest of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving west-northwest near 16 mph (26 kph).

Powerless in Puerto Rico

More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power, leaving 900,000 in the dark and nearly 50,000 without water, the U.S. territory's emergency management agency said in the midst of the storm. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and trees and light poles were strewn across roads.

Puerto Rico's public power company warned before the storm hit that some areas could be left without power from four to six months because its staff has been reduced and its infrastructure weakened by the island's decade-long economic slump.

State maintenance worker Juan Tosado said he was without power for three months after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. "I expect the same from this storm. It's going to be bad," he said.

President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies to remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

Pauline Jackson, a 59-year-old registered nurse from Florida visiting Puerto Rico, said she had tried to leave before the storm but all flights were sold out.

She has a reservation to fly out Friday and is worried about her home in Tampa. "When you're from Florida, you understand a Category 5 hurricane," she said.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center predicted Irma would remain at Category 4 or 5 for the next day or two as passes just to the north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti on Thursday, nears the Turks & Caicos and parts of the Bahamas by Thursday night and skirts Cuba on Friday night into Saturday. It will then likely head north toward Florida.

The storm is expected to hit Florida sometime Sunday, and Gov. Scott said he planned to activate 7,000 National Guard soldiers by Friday.

Experts worried that Irma could rake the entire Florida east coast from Miami to Jacksonville and then head into Savannah, Georgia, and the Carolinas, striking highly populated and developed areas.

"This could easily be the most costly storm in U.S. history, which is saying a lot considering what just happened two weeks ago," said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

Steep insurance drop

As Irma bore down on Florida, an Associated Press analysis showed a steep drop in flood insurance across the state, including the areas most endangered by what could be a devastating storm surge.

According to FEMA data, in just five years, the state's total number of federal flood insurance policies has fallen by 15 percent.

Florida's property owners still buy far more federal flood insurance than any other state -- 1.7 million policies, covering about $42 billion in assets -- but most residents in hazard zones are badly exposed. Fully 59 percent of the owners of properties in flood hazard zones don't have this insurance, despite requirements to have the coverage as a condition of their federally backed mortgage loans.

Meanwhile, faced with the looming threat of dual disasters, FEMA has ramped up preparations for Hurricane Irma as it barrels toward the Florida coast, even as the agency continues the massive recovery effort in storm-battered Texas.

It was a one-two punch of powerful storms certain to strain the agency's quickly dwindling coffers.

The roughly $1 billion left in FEMA's Emergency Response Fund was expected to run out as soon as the end of the week, just as Category 5 Irma could be pounding Florida and less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey caused massive flooding in Houston.

The House on Wednesday overwhelmingly passed $7.9 billion in Harvey disaster relief as warring Republicans and Democrats united to help victims of that storm in Texas and Louisiana. The 419-3 vote sent the aid package -- likely the first of several -- to the Senate in hopes of getting the bill to the president before FEMA runs out of money.

Far more money will be needed once more complete estimates of Harvey's damage are in this fall. The storm's wrath could end up exceeding the $110 billion federal cost of recovery from Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

‘Attention to detail’

Tom Bossert, President Donald Trump's homeland security adviser, said the federal government won't forget Harvey's victims as attention shifted toward the threat from Irma, a Category 5 storm with 185-mph sustained winds -- the strongest ever observed in the open Atlantic.

He said the federal response in Texas was entering a recovery phase that will be long and, at times, frustrating for affected homeowners. The U.S. government was marshaling Small Business Administration loans, disaster unemployment assistance from the Labor Department and FEMA reconstruction aid to rebuild state and municipal infrastructure.

"I won't forget Harvey," Bossert said, as he rushed to join a phone call between Trump and Florida Gov. Rick Scott. "Now, it is a long game that requires a lot of attention to detail."

Speaking at an event in North Dakota on Wednesday, Trump said the emergency personnel now redeploying from Texas to Florida could use some rest, but likely won't get much.

"They're really now again in harm's way," Trump said. "Together we will recover and we will rebuild."

Irma, maintaining winds of over 180 miles per hour longer than any Atlantic storm on record, is forecast to modestly weaken in the next two days, but remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 storm. It will produce the full gamut of hurricane hazards across the Bahamas and potentially South Florida, including a devastating storm surge, destructive winds and dangerous flash flooding.

Meanwhile, two new hurricanes formed late Wednesday afternoon in the Atlantic basin: Jose in the eastern Atlantic Ocean and Katia in the southwest Gulf of Mexico.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.