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Irma heads to Florida, kills 22 across Caribbean

At least 22 killed as Hurricane Irma smashes through string of Caribbean islands on its way to US state of Florida.

The eye of Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms in a century, grazed the Turks and Caicos Islands, rattling buildings after it smashed a string of Caribbean islands and killed at least 22 people on its way to Florida.

With winds of around 290 kilometres per hour (kph), the storm the size of France has ravaged small islands in the northeast Caribbean in recent days, including Barbuda, Saint Martin and the British and US Virgin Islands, ripping down trees and flattening homes and hospitals.

On Thursday, winds dipped 265kph as Irma soaked the northern coasts of the Dominican Republic and Haiti and brought hurricane-force winds to the low-lying Turks and Caicos Islands.

It remained an extremely dangerous Category 5 storm, the highest designation by the US' National Hurricane Center (NHC).

Irma was about 85km south of Great Inagua Island and is expected to bring six metre storm surges to the Bahamas, before moving to Cuba and plowing into southern Florida as a very powerful Category 4 on Sunday, with storm surges and flooding due to begin within the next 48 hours.

Across the Caribbean authorities rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of residents and tourists.

On islands in its wake, shocked locals tried to comprehend the extent of the devastation while simultaneously preparing for another major hurricane, Jose, now a Category 3 and due to hit the northeastern Caribbean on Saturday.

"We are expecting inundation from both rainfall as well as storm surge. And we may not be able to come rescue them in a timely manner," said Virginia Clerveaux, director of Disaster Management and Emergencies for Turks and Caicos Islands.

Barbuda, where one person died, was reduced "to rubble", according to Prime Minister Gaston Browne.

In the British overseas territory of Anguilla another person was killed, while the hospital and airport, power and phone services were damaged, emergency service officials said.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe said four bodies were recovered on the tiny French-Dutch island of Saint Martin, which was hit hard.

"It is an enormous disaster. Ninety-five percent of the island is destroyed. I am in shock," Daniel Gibbs, chairman of a local council on Saint Martin, told Radio Caribbean International.

Television footage from the island showed a damaged marina with boats tossed into piles, submerged streets and flooded homes. French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with British Prime Minister Theresa May on Thursday to coordinate an emergency humanitarian response.

Evacuation

In Miami, hundreds lined up for bottled water and cars looped around city blocks to get petrol on Thursday in panicked preparations.

Petrol shortages in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area worsened on Thursday, with sales up to five times the norm.

The evacuation of coastal areas of Florida and neighbouring Georgia was the biggest seen in the US in a dozen years, as Brock Long, head of the US Federal Emergency Management Agency, warned: "It will be truly devastating.

"The entire southeastern United States better wake up and pay attention." 


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