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Monday 20 November 2017

Residents 'terrified' as Irma rakes islands with heavy rain and howling wind

A homeowner makes last-minute repairs in preparation for Hurricane Irma in St John's (AP)
A homeowner makes last-minute repairs in preparation for Hurricane Irma in St John's (AP)

Caribbean islanders are riding out the storm as Category 5 Hurricane Irma rakes the region with heavy rain and howling 185mph wind.

The eye of Irma passed over Barbuda in the early hours, and residents said over local radio that phone lines had gone down.

The storm ripped the roof off the island's police station, forcing officers to seek refuge in the nearby fire station and at the community centre that served as an official shelter.

Irma also knocked out communication between islands.

Midcie Francis of the National Office of Disaster Services confirmed there was damage to several homes, but said it was too early to assess the extent.

On the the neighbouring island of Antigua, debris was flying as people huddled in their homes and government shelters.

"I hear it's a Cat 5 now and I'm terrified," Antigua resident Carol Joseph said as she finished her last trip to the supermarket before seeking shelter. "I had to come back for more batteries because I don't know how long the current will be off."

On the 108-square-mile island, people who live in low-lying areas were staying with friends and relatives on higher ground or sleeping in churches, schools and community facilities built to withstand hurricanes.

None of the shelters have yet been tested by Category 5 winds.

Many homes in Antigua and Barbuda are not built on concrete foundations or have poorly constructed wooden roofs that are susceptible to wind damage.

Other islands in the path of the storm include the Virgin Islands and Anguilla, a small, low-lying territory of about 15,000 people.

US President Donald Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, and authorities in the Bahamas said they would evacuate six southern islands.

The northern Leeward Islands were expected to see waves as high as 11ft, while the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas could see towering 20ft waves later in the week, forecasters said.

"This is not an opportunity to go outside and try to have fun with a hurricane," US Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp warned. "It's not time to get on a surfboard."

Bahamas prime minister Hubert Minnis said his government was evacuating the six islands in the south because authorities would not be able to help anyone caught in the "potentially catastrophic" wind, flooding and storm surge.

People there were being flown to Nassau in what he called the largest storm evacuation in the country's history.

"The price you may pay for not evacuating is your life or serious physical harm," Mr Minnis said.

Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said: "The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we've ever seen. A lot of infrastructure won't be able to withstand this kind of force."

The director of the island's power company has warned that storm damage could leave some areas without electricity for up to four to six months. The utility's infrastructure has deteriorated greatly during a decade-long recession, and Puerto Ricans had an island-wide outage last year.

Government officials began evacuations and urged people to finalise all preparations as store shelves emptied around Puerto Rico.

"The decisions that we make in the next couple of hours can make the difference between life and death," Mr Rossello said. "This is an extremely dangerous storm."

In Florida, people also stocked up on drinking water and other supplies.

Governor Rick Scott activated 100 members of the Florida National Guard to be deployed across the state, and 7,000 more National Guard members were to report for duty on Friday when the storm could be approaching.

On Monday, Mr Scott declared a state of emergency in all of Florida's 67 counties.

Officials in the Florida Keys geared up to get tourists and residents out of Irma's path, and the mayor of Miami-Dade county said people should be prepared to evacuate Miami Beach and most of the county's coastal areas.

Mayor Carlos Gimenez said the voluntary evacuations could begin as soon as Wednesday evening. He activated the emergency operation centre and urged residents to have three days of food and water.

AP

Press Association

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