Updated at 2 p.m. ET
Carving its way through the Caribbean, the monstrous Category 5 hurricane called Irma ripped apart structures, beached boats and flooded streets in St. Martin as it headed westward toward the British Virgin Islands.
However, the storm largely spared Antigua and Barbuda, where residents had been prepared for the worst.
Following an anxious night as the center of Irma, packing winds of 185 mph, skirted the island just to the north, Antigua’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne posted a message of relief to his Facebook page:
“Thank God for his mercies and blessings. He has protected and spared us from the worst of Irma. Thank God that there are no … hurricane casualties reported to this time,” he wrote.
In a subsequent statement, Browne said: “The forecast was that Antigua would be devastated, our infrastructure demolished, people killed and our economy destroyed. In the light of day, the picture is very different.”
He said communication was lost with his nation’s other island, Barbuda, around midnight and had yet to be restored, but that before it went dark, “we got reports of several buildings having damaged roofs to include the Police Station. The Barbuda Weather Station, monitored by the Met Office, recorded sustained winds of 119 mph and gusts of 150 mph.”
Browne said the island’s main airport could be opened by 2 p.m. local time: “It should be business as usual within the next 12-24 hours.”
But video footage coming in from the half-French, half-Dutch island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten, was painting a much different picture than the one in Antigua. One video, apparently shot from a second-story balcony, showed dozens of yachts smashed against a marina bulkhead and several feet of water inundating parked cars.
Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk says he believes the level of destruction in Sint Maarten is “enormous.”
Speaking to reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, Plasterk said the damage on the island “is so major that we don’t yet have a full picture, also because contact is difficult at the moment.”
The islands of the Eastern Caribbean are geographically varied — some such as Anguilla are flat and low-lying, while others such as Hispaniola are mountainous. They are likely to fare differently in the storm partly because of that geography. But perhaps even more important is which side of the storm’s path they will fall on, with those along the leading northwestern side of Irma likely to get the brunt of its fierce winds. Islands to the south of its path should experience less-severe winds but could still be subject to massive rainfall.
Directly southeast of St. Martin, video posted to social media from another French island, St. Barthelemy, also known as St. Barts, showed a river of water and floating debris running through a street.
In Paris, the French government said that it had delivered water and food to both St. Martin and St. Barts and that emergency response teams were being dispatched. Power was reportedly out on both islands, but no casualties were immediately reported. The British government said it would dispatch a Royal Navy Britain ship with humanitarian assistance to the region.
Irma is set to rake the British and U.S. Virgin Islands before passing just north of Puerto Rico on its way to a likely landfall in Florida later this week or early next week, forecasters say. Anegada, in the eastern part of the British Virgin Islands, were already experiencing wind gusts of 93 mph, according to Intellicast.
In San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital, many people in the U.S. territory were anxious. Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of the island of some 3.4 million people, urged residents to seek shelter in one of the island’s more than 450 hurricane shelters.
Lauren Weisenthal, 38, a transplanted New Yorker who moved to San Juan just six months ago, tells NPR that she and her husband, Brian, two dogs and a cat are situated high up on the bluffs surrounding the old city.
“We feel as prepared as we can be,” Weisenthal said. “We are in a house that is 100 years old, it weathered Hurricane Hugo [in 1989] and we’re feeling confident.”
But, she says, people in other parts of the city and in rural areas prone to flooding are more nervous.
“Those living closer to the water are definitely more anxious, especially older people who have been through this before,” she says.
Of most concern is the power situation, Weisenthal tells NPR. “We are concerned about that, but because we are in the old city, the center of government and tourism, we might get power back before the rest of the city.”
“But we talk to people in some rural areas that are expecting electricity to be out for months,” she says.
Loren Ann Mayo an American tourist on the French island of Guadeloupe, just south of Irma’s path, told CNN earlier that she was sheltering fromthe storm in the bathroom of their hotel room.
“The balcony snapped and is now hanging on by one little piece of wire,” Mayo said.