HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Irma battered Cuba on Saturday with deafening winds and relentless rain, pushing seawater inland that flooded homes and knocked out power across a wide area. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, islands already reeling from Irma prepared for a second pounding – from Hurricane Jose.
The twin Category 4 storms had desperate residents seeking shelter across the region. In Cuba, high winds from Irma upended trees, toppled utility poles and scattered debris across streets. Roads were blocked, and witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins after being buffeted by brutal squalls.
On the French overseas islands of St. Martin and St. Barts, Jose was expected to bring torrential rains and dangerous rip currents.
“The protection and shelter of people already harshly tested by Irma is the priority,” officials said in a statement. More than 1,100 police, military officials and others have been deployed to both islands to provide help. Crews were evacuating the sick and injured to nearby Guadeloupe.
The last airplane flew in to the battered Grande-Case de Saint Martin airport Friday carrying emergency workers to help with reconstruction as well as specialists who aim to re-establish the island’s cutoff water supply and electricity. Remaining mothers and children were flown out Friday in small 40-person capacity planes.
Irma claimed at least 20 lives as it leveled islands in the Caribbean and headed toward Florida, where a massive evacuation was in progress. The hurricane center said the storm slowed down after slamming into Cuba’s northern coast, but that wind speeds would likely regain momentum as it approached the Sunshine State. The center said it is looking more likely that the eye of powerful Irma will strike the Florida Keys, southwestern Florida and the Tampa Bay region on Sunday.
Early Saturday, the hurricane center said the storm was centered about 90 miles (145 kilometers) east-southeast of Varadero, Cuba, with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph (205 kph). Soldiers and government workers earlier had gone through coastal towns enforcing the evacuation, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools – and even caves.
Many of Irma’s victims fled their islands on ferries and fishing boats as Jose approached, threatening destruction for anything Irma might have left untouched. Early Saturday, Jose was located about 120 miles (190 kilometers) east of the northern Leeward Islands. The storm was moving to the northwest at 13 mph (20 kph), with maximum sustained winds of 145 mph (230 kph), according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for Dutch Sint Maarten, St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, and tropical storm warnings were in effect for Barbuda and Anguilla, as well as Saba and St. Eustatius.
Some islands, though, received a last-minute reprieve as a hurricane warning for Barbuda and Anguilla was downgraded to a tropical storm. Both islands were devastated by Irma.
Many residents and tourists were left reeling after Irma ravaged some of the world’s most exclusive tropical playgrounds, known for their turquoise waters and lush green vegetation. Among them: St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.
Irma smashed homes, shops, roads and schools; knocked out power, water and telephone service; trapped thousands of tourists; and stripped trees of their leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape littered with sheet metal and splintered lumber.
The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.
Also, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned Tuesday in Barbados while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.
French authorities said Saturday that some 1,105 workers are now deployed St. Martin and St. Barts to help the islands’ recovery. By Saturday, damage estimated to have already reached the 1.2 billion euro ($1.44 billion) mark – pockmarking the islands that have become famous as lush playgrounds for the rich and famous.
It’s still not known US President Donald Trump’s luxury property on St. Martin has been damaged by the storm.
Jalon Shortte said riding out Irma in his top-floor apartment on Tortola, in the British Virgin Islands, was the scariest thing he has ever been through.
The air pressure hurt his ears, trees fell on his roof, windows blew out and a door came off, he wrote on Facebook. The storm even took paint off the walls, he said.
His Facebook page was filled with images he took from around Tortola of sunken yachts, crushed vehicles and mounds of debris. He said looting was rampant.
Amid the devastation, Shortte worked to bring a water desalination plant online.
“We have to stick together and rebuild,” he said.