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Irma Leaves Battered Caribbean in Its Wake -- Update

10 Sep 2017 5:39 pm
By Dudley Althaus 

Hurricane Irma left widespread human and economic havoc in a string of tourism dependent Caribbean islands as the storm pulsed into Florida on Sunday.

Irma departed the last of those islands, Cuba, by Sunday morning after scraping along its northern coast. Buildings collapsed, trees and power lines tumbled and roofs flew away in the 130-mile-an-hour winds.

Rain and seawater flooded towns and cities, including the colonial center of Havana, the country's capital and a key tourist magnet. Communications were cut off, power was down and infrastructure was damaged in some affected parts of the island.

No deaths have yet been reported in Cuba, as authorities evacuated thousands of residents and tourists ahead of Irma's arrival. But the hurricane killed at least 22 others across the northern Caribbean in four days of torment.

The storm's damage comes just a few months before the beginning of the winter tourism season, which last year pumped $56 billion into the regional economy and provided 725,000 jobs, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, an international industry group.

But Irma affected only a portion of the Caribbean. And while severe on some islands, the storm's destruction was negligible in others, according to an early assessment by the Caribbean Tourism Organization.

Damage so far appears to have been heaviest in St. Martin and nearby islands in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. On Saturday, U.S. President Donald Trump increased federal funding for debris removal and emergency protective measures for the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The storm's impact still hasn't been fully assessed in Cuba. Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic seem to largely have been spared.

"For the countries that are badly affected, it will take some time to get back on their feet," Hugh Riley, an official with Caribbean Tourism Organization, said early Sunday.

The affected islands caught a break Saturday when Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm that had been on track to follow Irma's path, turned to the north without making a Caribbean landfall.

Irma began its rampage far to the east of Cuba on Wednesday, tearing into the small two-island nation of Antigua and Barbuda in the northern Leeward Islands. Antigua, the larger of the two, was mostly spared by the storm.

Barbuda, famed for its pink sand beaches and several luxury resorts, suffered widespread damage and the death of a toddler. More than 90% of the buildings on the island suffered extensive damage, officials say.

Philmore Mullin, director of the tiny country's emergency-response agency, told reporters Saturday that poor building practices were the main cause for much of the damage. He said a primary lesson from the devastation is that the island needs "strict enforcement of the building codes."

The storm's destruction was even worse on the islands to the west of Barbuda, where at least 11 people were killed on St. Martin, a small island jointly controlled by France and the Netherlands. Many of its hotels were badly damaged and widespread looting was reported.

"The situation on the ground is dire. It actually looks like a war zone after a bombing raid," said Alex Woolfall, a resident of St. Martin. "Everything is flattened and scorched. And the locals have nothing."

"Hope to God Floridians take the warnings seriously," Mr. Woolfall said by email late Saturday after he was airlifted by the U.S. military to Puerto Rico. "This is no average hurricane. It will destroy everything."

By Sunday morning, the U.S. National Guard evacuated by aircraft some 500 of the more than 5,000 American citizens who were on St. Martin when the storm struck.

St. Martin authorities declared a state of emergency Saturday, calling on residents to remain indoors, according to the Dutch newswire ANP. The state of emergency makes it easier for security forces to more easily arrest suspected looters. Authorities said that people with medical conditions are being evacuated to Aruba and Curaçao.

Another storm, Hurricane Katia, hit Mexico's Gulf Coast early Saturday. Two people died in mudslides in the city of Xalapa in Veracruz state after it was battered by high winds and heavy rains. The storm weakened quickly after it hit and is now a tropical depression dropping rain on Mexico's coast and central highlands.

In the Caribbean, both St. Thomas and St. John, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, were badly hit by Irma and remained under curfew overnight Saturday. At least four people were killed on the islands and many of its tourist hotels were badly damaged.

After skirting north of both Puerto Rico and the island of Hispaniola, shared by the Dominican Republic and Haiti, Irma closed in on the central Cuban coast, making landfall near idyllic barrier islands where all-inclusive hotels serve foreign tourists. Some 5,000 tourists were evacuated from the hotels as the storm approached, Cuban officials said.

Waves as high as 27 feet flooded seaside communities across the northern coast, including in the historic colonial section of Havana, the capital. Waves breached the Malecón, the Cuban capital's famed sea wall, flooding the streets of the colonial downtown. Havana's downtown has become a major tourist draw in recent years, but decades of neglect have left many its buildings prone to collapse after even normal seasonal rains.

By Sunday morning, central Havana's streets remained flooded and wind gusts of up to 60 miles an hour were sweeping the Cuban capital, as rescue crews in thigh-deep water evacuated people from city streets.

Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba's ruling Communist Party, reported extensive damage from coastal communities at the center of the island, in some cases with 90% of the homes destroyed.

Photographs posted on the newspaper's website show Havana streets shallowly flooded and more severe damage elsewhere -- buildings collapsed in Matanzas, the province home to the modern resort of Varadero, and in Camaguey and other provinces further east. Floodwaters reached the tin roofs of wooden shanties in one community.

Still, Cubans pride themselves on being prepared for disasters. And some Havana residents said they took Irma in stride, taking precautions but then settling in Saturday night to ride out the worst of its wrath.

"We Cubans aren't afraid of these storms, we're used to them," said Sara Artiles, who runs a bed-and-breakfast in Vedado, an upscale district of Havana.

Ms. Artiles said she spent Saturday night sharing cocktails with her business' five guests. Many of her friends spent the storm in the same fashion, she added.

Write to Dudley Althaus at Dudley.Althaus@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

September 10, 2017 13:39 ET (17:39 GMT)

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