Hurricane Irma lashes Cuba; Jose poses threat elsewhere

(AP) — Irma collapsed buildings and battered Cuba with deafening winds and relentless rain Saturday, while a second hurricane, Jose, threatened to lash already-reeling islands elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Across a swath of Cuba, utility poles were toppled, trees uprooted and roads blocked. Witnesses said a provincial museum near the eye of the storm was in ruins. And authorities in the city of Santa Clara said 39 buildings collapsed.

There were no immediate reports of casualties in Cuba in addition to the 22 dead left in Irma’s wake across the Caribbean, where the storm ravaged such lush resort islands as St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Many of Irma’s victims fled their battered islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear Jose would destroy or drench anything Irma left untouched.

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On the Dutch side of St. Martin, an island divided between French and Dutch control, an estimated 70 percent of the homes were destroyed by Irma, according to the Dutch government. Officials said Jose was forecast to dump more rain on the island’s buildings, many of which lost their roofs to Irma.

The U.S. State Department helped more than 500 Americans fly out of St. Martin, starting with those in need of urgent medical care, said spokeswoman Heather Nauert.

Carol Basch, a 53-year-old tourist from Savannah, Georgia, took refuge during the storm in the bathroom of her St. Martin hotel room after windows shattered. She stayed there praying for about four hours, surrounding herself with pillows.

“I kept saying, ‘Lord, please stop this, and soon, soon,'” said Basch, who was evacuated to Puerto Rico. “I’m glad I’m alive. I didn’t think I was going to make it.”

Some islands received a last-minute reprieve from Jose as it passed by.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center downgraded a hurricane warning for Barbuda and Anguilla. A hurricane watch also was discontinued for nearby Antigua.

By late Saturday afternoon, Irma passed Cuba and slowly chugged toward Florida with winds of 125 mph (205 kmh). Jose was 85 miles (135 kilometers) northeast of the Leeward Islands, with winds of 145 mph (230 kmh).

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As Irma rolled in, Cuban soldiers went through coastal towns to force people to evacuate, taking people to shelters at government buildings and schools — and even caves.

Video images from northern and eastern Cuba showed uprooted utility poles and signs, many downed trees and extensive damage to roofs.

Eastern Cuba, a major sugarcane-growing area and home to many poor, rural communities, faced a staggering recovery, with its economy in tatters even before the storm hit due to years of neglect and lack of investment.

Civil Defense official Gergorio Torres said authorities were trying to tally the extent of the damage, which appeared concentrated in banana-growing areas.

More than 5,000 tourists were evacuated from the keys off Cuba’s north-central coast, where the government has built dozens of all-inclusive resorts in recent years.

In Caibarien, a small coastal city about 200 miles (320 kilometers) east of Havana, winds downed power lines and a three-block area was under water. Many residents stayed put, hoping to ride out the storm.

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Looting was reported on St. Martin. Curfews were imposed there and on St. Barts, and French and Dutch authorities announced plans to send hundreds more troops and police to keep order.

French President Emmanuel Macron, whose popularity has been sinking over unpopular domestic policies, held an emergency meeting as he came under criticism from stranded residents in the country’s Caribbean territories. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who lost the presidential election in May, accused the government of having “totally insufficient” emergency and security measures.

French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe insisted that the government’s support for Irma’s victims isn’t “empty words” and that it was “completely mobilized” to rescue and rebuild.

It was not immediately known whether U.S. President Donald Trump’s luxury property on St. Martin had been damaged.

On Anguilla, Vanessa Croft Thompson crammed into her home’s laundry room with her husband, her best friend and their children along with their cats and dogs, as Irma’s floodwaters swamped her house. The storm peeled off her roof, rained water inside, and sheared paint from her walls.

“Our hurricane-proof door was bending in, it was warping … and the entire house was shaking like it was an earthquake,” she said.

Thompson, the head of the English department at Anguilla’s only high school, said: “I don’t even know something that’s not destroyed. There’s nothing here that hasn’t been ripped apart by Irma.”

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