Irma Slams Cuba as the Storm Cuts Through the Caribbean



Powerful Hurricane Irma made landfall in Cuba early Saturday morning as it plows northwest toward the Florida Keys, whipping the central city of Camagüey with 155-mile-per-hour winds, damaging property and knocking out communications in some parts of the island nation.

The massive storm hit as a Category 5 hurricane, and weakened overnight to Category 3 by late morning Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

It is not clear whether Irma will hit Havana directly before moving north. The storm is expected to regain strength over the warm waters of the Florida Straits.

Cuba’s Civil Defense Ministry issued a state of alarm for the northwestern provinces of La Habana, Mayabeque, and Artemisa, which include the country’s capital and the port of Mariel.

As of midmorning Saturday, no deaths had been reported in Cuba as a result of the storm. Cuban authorities evacuated 10,000 tourists from the beaches of Cuba’s north coast ahead of the storm and set up dozens of shelters in schools and even in Cold War-era tunnels dug in anticipation of a U.S. invasion of the Communist island nation, according to local media.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center warned that Irma could cause life-threatening storm surges and dump 10 to 15 inches of rain on Cuba’s north coast, which could cause mudslides. On Saturday morning, Radio Guantanamo reported that the northeastern Cuban town of Yateras had been cut off from transportation because surging river waters had blocked roads.

Meanwhile, the Leeward Islands to the east, still recovering from the battering they received from Irma over the last two days, hastily prepared for Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with 145-mile-per-hour winds that was moving quickly westward from the Atlantic.

Marvio Cooks has been regularly posting live updates to

Facebook

from the Divi Little Bay Beach Resort on the Dutch island territory of St. Maarten.

Communicating with The Wall Street Journal through voice messages on the WhatsApp messaging service, he said Friday evening that many on the island are getting news about Hurricane Jose by listening to a local radio station with battery-powered devices. Most lack power and access to the internet in the area, and people are rationing gas in order to keep generators running for the next few days.

Mr. Cooks grew up in St. Maarten and works for the local Ministry of Public Health, Social Development and Labor. He said several shelters were damaged in Hurricane Irma, but local military are directing people toward additional shelters, along with food and water. Through Facebook Live posts, he has been connecting people in search of family members and relaying information about conditions on the ground.

David Zipkin,

co-founder of Tradewind Aviation, which operates flights between Puerto Rico and several Caribbean islands, said his company was the first to land on the island of St. Barthelemy Friday morning.

He said his pilots found severely damaged infrastructure on the French island. Water and electrical plants were inoperable, as well as most phone and internet service. Half of the homes had damaged roofs, and many roads were inaccessible because of downed trees, he said.

Tradewind did five round-trip flights on two planes Friday, evacuating residents and visitors who had injuries or were elderly and in need of medical attention. The arrival of Hurricane Jose has added stress to an already bleak situation, he said.

“They’re hearing about Jose, but they don’t have internet, they barely have phone,” Mr. Zipkin said. “They’re just scared, and a lot of their houses are compromised, so they don’t know if they can handle it.”

The prime minister of St. Maarten,

William Marlin,

took to the local radio station on Saturday morning to declare a state of emergency and to call on locals to stay indoors, according to Dutch newswire ANP. Under the state of emergency, security forces can arrest suspected looters more easily.

Dutch security forces and aid workers are helping the population of St. Maarten prepare for Hurricane Jose, which is expected to sweep close to the island on Saturday, said

Frank Wassenaar,

a spokesman for the Dutch ministry of interior.

Only medical patients are being evacuated from the island on military planes to Aruba and Curaçao, Mr. Wassenaar said. “You can’t evacuate 40,000 people on the island,” he said.

Communications have been nearly impossible with local police and government officials in Turks and Caicos, which also took a hard hit from Irma on Thursday and overnight into Friday.

Charles Mathurin,

a photographer who lives on the island, shared photos with The Wall Street Journal via Facebook showing downed trees and power lines, damaged churches and hotels and widespread flooding of highways and the airport at Providenciales, the island chain’s main point of entry.

A spokesman for the U.K.’s Met Office, the national weather service, said communication had been difficult with Turks and Caicos, which is a British territory. It was unclear Saturday whether the island territory had experienced any loss of life.

“A total shutdown of the island has been ordered by the authorities,” the spokesman said. “Details seem to be vague, but it’s not looking good.”

Officials from CCR, France’s state-owned reinsurance company, said Saturday that the damage in St. Martin—a French territory that shares an island with St. Maarten—and St. Barthelemy could cost insurance companies EUR1.2 billion. This estimate of damage covers homes, vehicles and businesses covered by natural disaster insurance.

The islands are bracing for another hit. France’s interior ministry said early Saturday that it expects Hurricane Jose to pass within about 60 miles of the islands, bringing winds as much as 90 miles an hour and swells of up to 20 feet.

Write to Robbie Whelan at robbie.whelan@wsj.com



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