The survivors spoke of vehicles being tossed through the air; of roofs being sucked clean off buildings; of clinging to their bathroom doors as the winds threatened to drag them out of their homes.
“What we have experienced is like something you see in a horror movie,” one woman told ABS TV in Antigua. “Persons were literally running from house to house and we had cars flying over our heads. We had containers—40-foot containers—flying left and right.”
She had been in the eye of one of the most powerful storms in recorded history. Hurricane Irma—which has swollen to the size of Texas—barreled directly into the island of Barbuda, which is less than 10 miles wide.
Like many of the other tropical islands in Irma’s path, Barbuda has been devastated—the prime minister says 90 percent of buildings have been destroyed. Early Thursday the monstrous storm buffeted Puerto Rico en route to Turks and Caicos, the Bahamas, and, ultimately, storm trackers predict, a possible landfall on Florida’s east coast. Evacuations are already underway in the Keys and Miami Beach.
For many of the residents of islands like Barbuda, there was nowhere to go. One firefighter described the terror as he and his crew realized they were the only ones who might be able to save their friends and neighbors. As the Category 5 storm—with winds gusting up toward 200 mph—pummeled the island, they got word that a 3-year-old needed to be rescued. “We told ourselves: ‘Look there’s a child. We must go out,’” he told ABS TV. “And while we were doing that, the roof of the fire station came off, putting the men in more fear. But still we had a job to do and we do it with all our might knowing that it is our duty to serve this nation of Antigua and Barbuda. And we did it.”
They were able to rescue that toddler but another child, aged 2, did not survive the storm. Another person is confirmed dead in Anguilla and at least six were killed in St. Martin. The death toll in those territories could well rise as communications have been wiped out and there is currently no access to many parts of these islands, which satellite pictures showed being swallowed whole by the swirling mass of Irma.
At Irma’s core, maximum sustained winds of 185 mph were being recorded, well over the 157 mph threshold of a Category 5, making it one of the most powerful ever seen.
On St. Maartin, local officials reported that 95 percent of the buildings were destroyed, including the Caribbean’s third largest airport. “It’s an enormous catastrophe," said top island official Daniel Gibbs. “I have sick people to evacuate, I have a population to evacuate because I don’t know where I can shelter them.”
Another tropical paradise in the path of the storm was the private island of Sir Richard Branson, where the Obamas escaped earlier this year after leaving the White House. The British billionaire sought shelter with his son and his team in the concrete wine cellar beneath a complex of buildings.
When they emerged after Irma had passed, they found that most of the buildings on the island had been flattened. “Glad to say that all humans on Necker are ok. Sad to say that most of the buildings have been destroyed,” Sam Branson posted on Instagram. “Making me very concerned for our friends and everyone on the neighbouring islands and people in its path. Please don’t take this hurricane lightly if it is heading your way. If your building is not very solid, do find somewhere safe!”
Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, had been safe on the main island of Antigua 200 miles east, but he was left powerless and blind to the devastation being wrought on 1,800 of his citizens on the northern island of Barbuda.
The island’s main cell tower was snapped in two, cutting the phone lines. “They were unable to communicate with us. Even though they had a back-up Ham system, that was destroyed. They also had a satellite phone; that too was made inoperable,” he said.
When he was eventually able to fly over the island aboard a helicopter, he was stunned by the scale of the damage. “Barbuda right now is literally a rubble,” he told ABS TV. “The island is literally under water. In fact, I’m of the view that, as it stands now, Barbuda is barely habitable.”
The same communications issues make it virtually impossible to assess the scale of the damage in places such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, where there are reports of widespread power and telephone outages amid severe flooding and wind damage.
The St. John Source website reported that roofs had been ripped off many buildings on the U.S.-administered islands of St. Thomas and St. John. It reported that a local radio station that pledged to stay on air through the storm had fallen silent.
Locals were using Facebook groups to try and coordinate searches for missing family members or letting people know they had come through the storm unscathed. Others with connections to the islands set up Go Fund Me pages to raise money for those affected.
More than a million people in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico were plunged into darkness as the storm passed by, lashing the coast with rain and strong winds but remaining safely off the coast. Flash-flood warnings have been issued, but the island escaped the worst of a killer that was headed toward the Bahamas early Thursday.
Six of the Bahamas’ southern islands have been evacuated as rescue workers may be unable to reach those areas that are expected to be overwhelmed by Irma. “This is the largest such evacuation in the history of the country,” said Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis.