UPDATE: Thousands affected by Irma as tourism is hit hard

2017-09-09 09:42
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(Jalon Manson Shortte via AP

(Jalon Manson Shortte via AP)

Cape Town - Thousands of Irma victims across the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands altogether Friday as another hurricane following close behind threatened to add to their misery.

Irma regained Category 5 status late Friday, and with its 260 km/h winds battering Cuba and taking aim at the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, the death toll in the storm's wake across the Caribbean climbed to 22.

Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the eastern part of Cuba reported no major casualties or damage by mid-afternoon after Irma rolled north of the Caribbean's biggest islands.

SEE: FlightRadar Pic: Unbelievable! Daring Delta flight braves Irma for quick stop in Puerto Rico

But many residents and tourists farther east were left reeling after the storm ravaged some of the world's most exclusive tropical playgrounds, known for their turquoise waters and lush green vegetation. Among them was St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Irma smashed homes, shops, roads and schools; knocked out power, water and telephone service; trapped thousands of tourists; and stripped trees of their leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape littered with sheet metal and splintered lumber.

On Friday, looting and gunshots were reported on St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Many of Irma's victims fled their islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear of Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with more than 240 km/h winds that could punish some places all over again this weekend.

"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent," said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.

WATCH: Irma ‘strongest hurricane in US history’ wreaks havoc in Caribbean

On Barbuda, a coral island rising a mere 38 metres above sea level, authorities ordered an evacuation of all 1,400 people to neighboring Antigua, where Stevet Jeremiah was reunited with one son and made plans to bury another.

Jeremiah, who sells lobster and crab to tourists, was huddled in her wooden home on Barbuda early Wednesday with her partner and their 2- and 4-year-old boys as Irma ripped open their metal roof and sent the ocean surging into the house.

Her younger son, Carl Junior Francis, was swept away. Neighbors found his body after sunrise.

"Two years old. He just turned two, the 17th, last month. Just turned two," she repeated. Her first task, she said, would be to organize his funeral. "That's all I can do. There is nothing else I can do."

The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.

Also, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned Tuesday in Barbados while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.

Many victims picked through the rubble of what had once been Caribbean dream getaway homes.

On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

WATCH: Irma ‘strongest hurricane in US history’ wreaks havoc in Caribbean

Irma threatened to push its way northward from one end of Florida to the other beginning Sunday morning in what many fear could be the long-dreaded, catastrophic Big One. Across Florida and Georgia, more than 6 million people were warned to leave their homes, clogging interstates as far away as Atlanta.

On St. Martin, which is divided between Dutch and French control, cafes and shops were swamped, and the storm left gnarled black branches denuded of leaves. Battered cars, corrugated metal, plywood, wrought iron and other debris covered street after street. Roofs were torn off numerous houses.

There was little left of St. Martin's Hotel Mercure but its sign, painted on a still-standing wall.

The cleanup was already underway for some. One man chopped at the branches of a bare tree. Another heaved what appeared to be furniture stuffing onto a pile. People sat in chairs outside a hospital, waiting to be seen.

William Marlin, prime minister of the Dutch side of St. Martin, said recovery was expected to take months even before Jose threatened to make things worse.

"We've lost many, many homes. Schools have been destroyed," he said. "We foresee a loss of the tourist season because of the damage that was done to hotel properties, the negative publicity that one would have that it's better to go somewhere else because it's destroyed. So that will have a serious impact on our economy."

ALSO SEE: UPDATE: Florida flights cancelled in preparation for Irma

After knocking down parts of the vital tourism industry in the Caribbean, Hurricane Irma is spinning toward Florida, another vacation haven.

Tourism accounts for 1,4 million jobs in the Sunshine State, where more than 112 million people visited last year and spent $109 billion. Resorts and hotels there could suffer instant destruction from Irma's winds or lingering damage if vacationers stay away.

"We will still have our beaches after Irma, but some people who were planning to come to Florida will change those plans," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida. "They may postpone, or change destinations."

Roads and airports will need to be repaired or even rebuilt, and it's uncertain whether that can be done in time for the winter high season on the hardest-hit islands. Wealthier islands with more private insurance will fare better, said Gabriel Torres, an analyst for Moody's Investors Service who has studied the effect of storms in the Caribbean.

"It has an impact on tourism because some hotels will decide not to rebuild or take a long time to rebuild, and that's lost revenue," Torres said. "That can take years to recover."

Torres said St. Martin, will benefit as their European patrons provide aid for rebuilding.

If there is any consolation, it may be that "the damage to tourism is going to be less than feared because a great many popular islands have been spared," including Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, said Arthur Frommer, the founder of Frommer's travel guides.

SEE: SAA puts contingency plan in place for Irma-affected passengers

More than 4,600 flights in the storm's path have been canceled, including flights this weekend in Florida, and the number is expected to soar, according to tracking service FlightAware.com.

South African airline SAA has also announced a contingency plan which will help those whose flights are affected by the hurricane to be able to rebook their flights at no additional costs.

What to read next on Traveller24

FlightRadar Pic: Unbelievable! Daring Delta flight braves Irma for quick stop in Puerto Rico 

UPDATE: Florida flights cancelled in preparation for Irma 

WATCH: Tourists evacuate as monster Hurricane Irma hits Caribbean with 300km/h winds