Caribbean governments and the Barbados-based Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) were on standby late Wednesday waiting for one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in recorded history to pass by member states before kicking the rapid response system in place towards the weekend.
This is as Hurricane Irma blew through the region with winds of up to 190 miles per hour overnight Tuesday, causing significant damage in Barbuda and several other islands in the northeastern Caribbean including the region’s Dutch and French neighbors.
Dutch St. Maarten and French Sint. Martin, took direct hits as the eye of the storm passed directly over the two European colonies, wiping out some of the more sturdier buildings and particularly taking out St. Maarten’s iconic Princess Juliana International Airport.
That is the island where thousands of tourists flock to each year to watch the arrival of international flights which pass just a few feet above the heads of visitors on world famous Maho beach
Tourists also cling on to the chain link fence to feel the power of planes preparing to take off but officials say this won’t happen for a few weeks-if not months- because of the severe damage caused by Irma.
Jetways were broken in pieces and debris were strewn on to the runway. The main terminal building also sustained major water and debris damage. Large boulders smashed into planes which were inexplicably left on ramps despite warnings to the contrary from officials. Tides also dumped tons of sand on the runway, indicating that it might not open for a while yet.
The Caricom Secretariat in Guyana said late Wednesday that governments are certain to mount a high level team to visit the affected islands once the storm passes and once flights resume allowing for access to those countries and a proper inspection of the situation on the ground. They are also certain to send teams of engineers and soldiers from various member states to assist in rebuilding efforts on affected islands.
In the meantime, the storm was headed to Puerto Rico on Wednesday and also had the Dominican Republic, the Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos and calamity-stricken Haiti in its sights. among others. Authorities in nearby Bahamas have ordered the evacuation of several of the southern so-called Family Islands, moving them to New Providence in the north as the storm is expected to make landfall on Thursday or early Friday if projections hold true.
Prime Minister Hubert Minnis was firm and adamant that locals in the southern Bahamas should get out of the way as accessing those areas if hit by Irma would be difficult.
“Don’t be foolish and try to brave out this monster storm. Don’t put your lives and those of your loved ones at unnecessary risk,” he said as he appealed for common sense to prevail. “This is the largest evacuation in the history of this country,” he said.
In St. Kitts and Nevis in the meantime, senior journalist Clive Bacchus said the twin island with Nevis was spared the worst. “No reported deaths at this time. No major damage on both islands. Officials still assessing the situation but spared. Loads of rain and some strong wind but thankfully far below expectations. I am trying to get more info on vulnerable areas and losses,” he said in a hurried note to colleagues.
In neighboring Antigua, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that island was also spared but he was preparing to head to Barbuda to determine the situation on the ground as reports have indicated that dozens of buildings were damage. About 1,500 people live there.
“Thanks to Almighty God in all his forms for standing at our side at a time of great adversity. There is no doubt that the Good Lord is on our side,” said relieved Prime Minister Gaston Browne in a statement early Wednesday as authorities assessed the situation while breathing a huge collective sigh of relief.
He added that “we in Antigua have weathered the most powerful hurricane ever to storm its way through the Caribbean. And we have done so with stunning results. 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.”
But even governments worry about the economic fallout from the storm, Tropical Storm Jose is strengthening in the Atlantic.
It was up to late Wednesday in the Central Atlantic but projections are showing that it will also affect some of the same Leeward Island nations which were hit by Irma.