‘May God protect us all’: Puerto Rico, tiny islands in Irma’s path fear for the worst

Capital Weather Gang’s Jason Samenow tells us what to expect from Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, Sept. 5. (Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

In Puerto Rico, some residents are preparing to be without electricity for between four and six months.

In St. Thomas, part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, people are praying their roofs hold.

Throughout these American territories and other Caribbean islands in Hurricane Irma’s path, there was widespread fear Tuesday night, even in the face of preemptive emergency declarations, that this ferocious and possibly historic Category 5 storm will mean a long, painstaking journey back to normalcy.

Irma is predicted to become the strongest hurricane on record to hit the Leeward Islands, a band of territories and commonwealths stretching southeast from Puerto Rico. At 11 p.m., as the National Hurricane Center declared it “potentially catastrophic,” the tropical cyclone was barreling toward the Leewards’ northernmost islands.

Irma’s eye passed over Barbuda around 1:47 a.m. Wednesday, the National Weather Service said. Residents told the Associated Press over local radio that phone lines went down. Heavy rain and howling winds raked the neighboring island of Antigua, the news service reported, sending debris flying as people huddled in their homes or government shelters.

St. Kitts, Anguilla and other islands all are in the storm’s direct path, and one meteorology expert issued this grave prediction: “The Leeward Islands are going to get destroyed,” said Colorado State University professor Phil Klotzbach. “I just pray that this thing wobbles and misses them,” he told the Associated Press. “This is a serious storm.”

Hurricane warnings have been issued for Antigua, Puerto Rico, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, as well as parts of the Dominican Republic. Irma’s center could pass to the north of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, leaving them less prone to the storm’s most ferocious elements, but vicious winds, pounding rain and a large storm surge remain likely.

When Antigua’s airport was closed Tuesday, visitors were sent away with advice to seek protection from the storm and a prayer, “May God protect us all.”

Andrea Pujols, 26, who lives in Guaynabo, a suburb of the Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, spoke to The Washington Post on Tuesday night as she and her 55-year-old father, Edwin, raced to the airport to retrieve her mother, who was returning home from a trip to Pittsburgh ahead of the storm, having refused to let her family ride out Irma without her. The three will be holed up at home with Pujols’s grandmother and dog, Lady.

“It’s been chaos all day long,” Pujols said. “There’s nothing left at the supermarket. They’re saying the airport will be closed for days. They’re saying there’s not going to be any light for three to four months.”

In and around their city, which is not expected to see much flooding, Pujols said, several churches have opened as shelters for those who’ve evacuated already — and for those forced to do so later.

To prepare, the Pujols family stocked up on canned food, water and fuel for their small generator. It provides enough power to run some lights and fans, which in the absence of air conditioning should offer mild reprieve from the wilting tropical air.

They’ve even filled several large garbage cans, anticipating water and sewer service will be disrupted “for who knows how long,” Edwin Pujols said.

As the storm approached Tuesday, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello encouraged residents to head for one of the territory’s hundreds of shelters.

“The dangerousness of this event is like nothing we’ve ever seen,” he said. “A lot of infrastructure won’t be able to withstand this kind of force.”

The government also began evacuating areas in the north and east of the island that are susceptible to flooding. Meanwhile, the director of Puerto Rico’s power company warned that Irma could leave some areas without electricity for as much as four to six months, according to the Associated Press.

Local government officials have done well, the Pujols family said, by encouraging residents to stockpile supplies, avoid dangerous places or unnecessary risks, and leave areas most prone to flooding. “But with rain over rain over rain,” Andrea Pujols added, “we’re just hoping it doesn’t get any worse” than what’s been forecast.

Farther east, municipalities throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands are bracing for destruction of the like its 107,000 residents have not experienced since Hurricane Marilyn in 1995 and, very possibly, Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Both storms — Marilyn hit St. Thomas as a strong Category 2, Hugo struck St. Croix as a Category 4 — claimed lives, leveled homes and business and knocked out basic services for months.

Rep. Stacey Plaskett, who represents the territory in Congress, told The Washington Post on Tuesday night that the Federal Emergency Management Administration has personnel pre-staged there to help launch recovery efforts once the storm passes. The White House declared a state of emergency there earlier in the evening, but Plaskett, a Democrat, called Irma “a local issue,” and insisted the local government has the lead in ensuring a swift, orderly response.

Of principal concern, she said, are the islands’ hospitals, many of which have lacked enough in federal funding to complete desired building upgrades that would fortify them against severe weather. What money is given to the Virgin Islands through Medicare and Medicaid is prioritized for patient care, she said.

The Navy is ready to deploy a hospital ship and medical personnel if such help is needed, Plaskett told The Post.

St. Thomas and St. John are expected to be hit “much harder” than St. Croix, she added.

Plaskett said she’s worried about storm surge and how it will affect those who rely on cisterns, large tanks that collect and store rainwater for cooking, showering and flushing toilets. She’s worried about the islands’ power grid — “We have some difficulty with electricity as it is,” she noted — and the islands’ communications network. She’s worried whether residents remembered to charge their cellphones and have enough backup batteries to keep their radios powered.

“My greatest concern right now,” the congresswoman added, “is that people stay indoors.”

With Irma expected to thrash south Florida, where mandatory evacuations were ordered Tuesday, some Virgin Islanders were nervous that federal assistance would become less of a priority once the storm affects the continental United States.

Michael Resch, 59, whose father built St. Thomas’s Island Beachcomber Hotel in 1957, remembers the painful recovery from Marilyn and Hugo, when the power went out for several weeks.

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “we’re kind of like the forgotten child here. Every time they talk about Irma, it’s all ‘Florida
be prepared.’ St. Thomas never gets mentioned.”

President Trump declared emergencies in Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

By early Tuesday evening, about 10 of the hotel’s 50 rooms remained occupied, Resch said. Some of his younger employees, those who’d never experienced a hurricane before, were on edge, but he was working to keep them and the guests calm.

His staff had moved everyone to the building’s first floor and stowed all remaining pool furniture that could become airborne in Irma’s powerful winds. Resch said he is hopeful that reinforcements made to the hotel after Hurricane Hugo will keep the roof intact in his hotel’s three buildings, and that any power loss will be brief.

The Island Beachcomber doesn’t have a generator, he said.

“If there’s a good thing about being on an island in a hurricane, it’s that the storm doesn’t get stuck over the land,” Resch said, a reference to the days-long battering that Texas took during late last month during Hurricane Harvey. “It’ll be gone in twelve to twenty hours. But Mother Nature —”

And then Resch paused.

“Her power is unfathomable.”

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