Thousands of Irma victims across the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands as another hurricane following close behind threatened to add to their misery.
With Irma and its 250 km/h winds taking aim at the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, the death toll in the storm’s wake across the Caribbean climbed to 22.
Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the eastern part of Cuba reported no major casualties or damage by mid-afternoon after Irma rolled north of the Caribbean’s biggest islands.
But many residents and tourists farther east were left reeling after the storm ravaged some of the world’s most exclusive tropical playgrounds, known for their turquoise waters and lush green vegetation. Among them: St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.
Irma smashed homes, shops, roads and schools; knocked out power, water and telephone service; trapped thousands of tourists; and stripped trees of their leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape littered with sheet metal and splintered lumber.
On Friday, looting and gunshots were reported on St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the US Virgin Islands.
Many of Irma’s victims fled their islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear of Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm that could punish some places all over again this weekend.
“I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent,” said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.
On Barbuda, a coral island rising a mere 38 metres above sea level, authorities ordered an evacuation of all 1,400 people to neighbouring Antigua, where Stevet Jeremiah was reunited with one son and made plans to bury another.
Jeremiah, who sells lobsters and crabs to tourists, was huddled in her wooden home on Barbuda early Wednesday with her partner and their two and four year-old boys as Irma ripped open their metal roof and sent the ocean surging into the house.
Her younger son, Carl Junior Francis, was swept away. Neighbours found his body after sunrise.
The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the US Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.
Also, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned in Barbados on Tuesday while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.
Many victims picked through the rubble of what had once been Caribbean dream getaway homes.
On St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbour was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.
Irma threatened to push its way northward from one end of Florida to the other beginning Sunday morning in what many fear could be the long-dreaded, catastrophic Big One.
Across Florida and Georgia, more than 6 million people were warned to leave their homes, clogging interstates as far away as Atlanta.