Hurricane Irma is unleashing powerful winds and heavy rains on Hispaniola and the Turks and Caicos Islands as it continues to pound the Dominican Republic and parts of Haiti. The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Irma's winds, storm surge and rainfall are life-threatening, and those same conditions are expected late Thursday in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the Bahamas. The NHC says Irma is considered "extremely dangerous" as it maintains its Category 5 strength and packs maximum sustained winds of 280 kilometers per hour (170 mph). The NHC projects Irma will remain a Category 4 or 5 storm for the next few days.
Irma killed at least one person in Barbuda and eight people in St. Martin after rolling over those islands Wednesday. French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said the death toll on St. Martin is likely to rise. The island is divided between French and Dutch sides. Dutch officials said they did not yet have information about casualties, but there is "huge damage," including to the airport and harbor.
Irma passed Puerto Rico, knocking out power to more than 1 million people. The head of the power company on the U.S. island territory said it could be four to six months before service is totally restored. U.S. President Donald Trump has declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, which has been struggling to maintain its infrastructure in the midst of a financial crisis. The declaration authorizes the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to coordinate disaster relief efforts on the island.
"Hurricane Irma is raging, but we have great teams of talented and brave people already in place and ready to help. Be careful, be safe! #FEMA," Trump posted Thursday on Twitter. The U.S. Senate on Thursday approved more than $15 billion in disaster aid. The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday had approved $8 billion for aid for areas affected by Hurricane Harvey. The Senate bill will now go back to the House, which is expected to pass the measure by the end of the week.
Late Wednesday, Barbuda took a direct hit from Irma, which left behind what Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne called a "really horrendous situation." He said nearly every building was damaged.
Later this week, Barbuda faces the potential of being hit by Hurricane Jose, one of three hurricanes in the region. Jose was upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane Thursday, and is forecast to pass near the northern Leeward Islands on Saturday before curving north of the path that Irma has followed.
ABS-TV news director Garfield Burford told VOA that in his conversation with Barbuda's prime minister, Browne said he was "heartbroken" by the damage he saw on the island nation and that it might be necessary to evacuate the people there to Antigua.
"The prime minister has indicated that if Jose were to be seen to be posing some impact on Antigua and Barbuda, as did Irma, then it would be absolutely essential that the residents on Barbuda evacuate and come to Antigua," Burford said.
About 1.2 million people have already been victimized by Irma and that number could exceed 26 million, the Red Cross said Thursday. The relief organization said that in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba alone, "an estimated 26 million people could be exposed to destructive winds and torrential rain."
The United Nations Children's Fund said Thursday some 10.5 million children live in Caribbean countries that are likely to be impacted by Irma. The organization said children in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, the islands of the Eastern Caribbean and Haiti are at risk, including 3 million under the age of 5.
In addition to Irma and Jose, Katia is the third hurricane in the area. Katia is located in the southwestern Gulf of Mexico. It could strengthen into a major storm before making landfall in eastern Mexico. Irma is expected to affect the southeastern U.S. state of Florida on Saturday, still as a major hurricane.
The NHC has issued hurricane and storm surge warnings for much of the Florida peninsula, including the Florida Keys, Lake Okeechobee and Florida Bay. It is increasingly likely Irma will travel across Florida's crowded east coast in the next three or four days, potentially impacting millions of residents.
South Florida officials have already ordered people to evacuate coastal areas. Florida Governor Rick Scott on Thursday repeated the evacuation orders. "Every Floridian, every family should take this seriously and be aggressive. You've got to protect your family," Scott said. Gas stations and grocery stores saw long lines Thursday as people either fled to safer areas or stocked up on supplies to ride out the storm.
VOA's Victor Beattie contributed to this report.https://www.voanews.com/a/hurricane-irma-dominican-republic-florida/4019656.html