HURRICANE Irma flattened homes, schools, and businesses across the Caribbean on Friday, while the tropical storms Jose and Katia, set to follow in its wake, also gathered strength with wind speeds of 125 miles per hour.
About 1.2 million people have been affected by Irma so far, but this could rise to as many as 26 million in the coming days, the British Red Cross estimated. The charity reported extensive damage in Anguilla and Barbuda.
At least 23 people died after the hurricane made landfall on the Leeward Islands in the north-eastern Caribbean on Wednesday. Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Cuba, and the Bahamas have all been affected. One person in Anguilla, three people in Puerto Rico, four in the US Virgin Islands, nine in the French territory of St Martin, and a child on Barbuda were reported among the dead.
Communications with affected areas have been limited.
Thousands of residents and tourists continue to evacuate the islands and their resorts. Irma is expected to hit the south of Florida on Sunday, where a hurricane warning and evacuation orders are in place. The area includes President Trump’s resort, Mar-a-Lago, in Palm Beach County, Miami.
Christian Aid’s international climate spokesman, Mohamed Adow, said: “We’re starting to see what happens when climate breakdown occurs on a global scale. While we’re seeing the richest country on earth struggling to cope with the devastation of extreme weather, don’t forget the 40 million people affected by floods in South Asia, an area without anywhere near the same infrastructure or resources to cope.
“As seas get warmer, providing more energy to tropical storms, the people of Florida and the Caribbean will continue to suffer until leaders like Trump start to reduce the carbon emissions which drive climate change.”
The President has been criticised by Christian Aid for his “reckless attitude” in withdrawing from the Paris climate agreement (News, 9 June).
Miami was braced for the storm on Friday. It topped Christian Aid’s list of most vulnerable cities to climate-change-induced coastal flooding, set out in the report Act Now or Pay Later last year. More than $3.5 trillion of its assets were reported to be at risk from flooding by 2070.
Thought to be the most powerful hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean, Irma was initially classed as category five, but later downgraded to category four as it reached the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday morning. Winds remained as strong as 150 miles per hour as the phenomenon reached the Bahamas.
The head of emergencies for the British Red Cross, Ben Webster, warned: “Given the scale of the anticipated emergency, any response will likely be highly complex. Some of the islands that are expected to be hit are isolated, and lack basic infrastructure. . . The impact on those communities could be catastrophic.”
©2017 World VisionStranded: people wade through flood water in Rodé, Plateau Central, Haiti, after the Couime River rose to dangerous levels, flooding local roads, on Friday
The international charity World Vision had been helping people in Haiti and Dominican Republic prepare for the storms on Thursday night.
Mishelle Mitchell, from World Vision’s Caribbean office, said: “We’re seeing long queues and supermarkets are running out of bread and meat. People are rushing to prepare for the hurricane — cutting branches from trees and trying to fix their roofs in the last minutes before the full power of the storm hits.
“We’re hearing reports of many people evacuating and gathering in schools and churches in the most vulnerable areas of the country.”
Reports from World Vision on Friday afternoon, however, suggest that the impact in the Dominican Republic was not as severe as expected. Luis Pereira, the humanitarian and emergency affairs director at the charity’s Latin America and Caribbean office, said: “Thankfully Hurricane Irma was not as devastating as we had feared. Our prayers were heard and we have been blessed.
“World Vision staff have been busy assessing the damage, and so there is no indication of widespread destruction. The mobilisation by government of the Army, the Fire Brigade, Civil Defence, and other agencies, supported by NGOs, has done a great job of keeping people safe during the passage of Hurricane Irma. Food packets, water, and some essential supplies have been distributed.”
But Ms Mitchell warned that the aftermath of high winds and rain in the area might yet be catastrophic. “The coastal area floods very easily, and, with homes on hills, we’re concerned about landslides,” she said.
“This could affect thousands and thousands of people. The north of the country is where you find rice and bean plantings — the main diet of the Haitian people. So there could be a big threat for food security.”
A state of emergency has been called in the British Virgin Islands, east of Puerto Rico, where aid is being delivered by the British Government. The Defence Secretary, Sir Michael Fallon, raised the relief fund for British Overseas Territories affected from £12 million to £32 million on Friday afternoon.
The Bishop of the Windward Islands, the Rt Revd C. Leopold Friday, wrote in his diocesan circular on 1 September: “Traditionally September is the month that we have had the most ferocious storms and hurricanes. So continue to prepare to survive. Let us pray for those who have been affected by the systems that have passed so far this year, especially those affected by Hurricane Harvey in Texas, USA.”