As Hurricane Irma left Antigua and Barbuda's usually pristine reef-ringed beaches with the pink and white sand, islanders struggled to grasp the destruction to Barbuda's schools, churches and the homes that many had used their life savings to build.
Irma somehow spared Antigua, which was open for business by Thursday morning. But on Barbuda, the smaller of the two islands with an area of 62 square miles, the ferocious and historic Category 5 hurricane had turned the typically gentle Caribbean winds into violent gusts that decimated Codrington, its sole town.
“Barbuda right now is literally a rubble,” Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne said.
Browne said nearly all of the government and personal property on Barbuda was damaged — including the hospital and the airport, which he said had its roof completely blown away. At least one person, a young child, was killed on the island — one of numerous deaths reported across the Caribbean in Irma's horrific aftermath.
Now, these victims face yet another threat — a second hurricane, Jose, which appears to be coming for the same islands that are trying to dig out from Irma's devastation.
The National Hurricane Center released an ominous bulletin Thursday about the new menace looming in the Atlantic: “...JOSE BECOMES 3RD MAJOR HURRICANE OF THE 2017 ATLANTIC SEASON...” By late afternoon, Jose had gained Category 3 strength, and Antigua and Barbuda remained in hurricane watch status.
“We are very worried about Hurricane Jose,” Browne said Thursday in a phone interview with The Washington Post, adding that Irma left about 60 percent of Barbuda's nearly 2,000 residents homeless and destroyed or damaged 95 percent of its property.
Browne will make a determination by Thursday night about whether to order a mandatory evacuation ahead of Jose's potential landfall, but added that those who want to leave Barbuda now are being ferried to nearby Antigua.
As Irma continues its merciless churn toward the U.S. mainland, the first islanders left in its wake are only beginning to decipher the scope of the storm's ravages.
Deaths have been reported throughout the Leeward Islands, a vulnerable, isolated chain arcing southeast from Puerto Rico, which reported at least three deaths of its own.
Officials throughout the Caribbean expect the body count to rise.
After first making landfall in Barbuda, then strafing several other Leeward Islands, Irma raked the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, leaving nearly 1 million people without any electricity. The Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands are next in its path. Closer to Florida's southern tip, the Bahamas remain in danger, and mass evacuations are underway.
The United Nations has said that Irma could affect as many as 37 million people. The majority are on the U.S. mainland, but the residents of tiny islands in the Eastern Caribbean were hit first — and hardest.
Browne told local media that Barbuda was left “barely habitable.”
Aerial footage showed homes with walls blown out and roofs ripped away.
“It was emotionally painful,” he told The Post. “It was sad to see such beautiful country being destroyed over a couple of hours.”
It is, he said, “one of the most significant disasters anywhere in the world” on a per capita basis: Browne said it would take an estimated $100 million to rebuild — a “monumental challenge” for a small island government.
When Craig Ryan, a 29-year-old tourism entrepreneur who lives in Antigua, reached Barbuda by boat Thursday morning, residents lined the beach waiting for rescue. "It's such a level of devastation," he told The Post, "that you can’t even see structures standing."
Ryan’s family business, Tropical Adventures Antigua, dispatched a 75-foot motorboat to make the 90-minute passage between islands to ferry people off Barbuda before Jose's potential arrival. Some residents remain stuck in isolated areas blocked by impassable roads, he said by telephone as he loaded up water and other supplies at a dock in Antigua.
"We really are in a rush against time," Ryan said.
Ghastly images from St. Martin and St. Barthelemy (also known as St. Barts) showed cars and trucks almost completely submerged in the storm surge, and several buildings in ruin.
Witnesses on other islands described horrific destruction and a breakdown in public order: no running water, no emergency services, no police to stop looters — and a never ending tide of newly homeless people wandering the streets amid the devastation.
“It’s like someone with a lawn mower from the sky has gone over the island,” Marilou Rohan, a Dutch vacationer in St. Maarten, which is part of the Kingdom of Netherlands, told the Dutch NOS news service. “Houses are destroyed. Some are razed to the ground. I am lucky that I was in a sturdy house, but we had to bolster the door, the wind was so hard.”
There was little sense that authorities had the situation under control, she said.
Supermarkets were being looted and no police were visible in the streets. Occasionally, soldiers have passed by, but they were doing little to impose order, she said.
“People feel powerless. They do not know what to do. You see the fear in their eyes,” she said.
Paul de Windt, the editor of the Daily Herald of Sint Maarten, told the Paradise FM radio station in Curaçao that “Many people are wandering the streets. They no longer have homes, they don’t know what to do.”
In Anguilla, part of the British West Indies, the local government is “overwhelmed” and desperate for help, Anguilla Attorney General John McKendrick told The Post late Wednesday. Officials were barely able to communicate among one another and with emergency response teams, he said. With most phone lines down, they were dependent on instant messaging.
It appears that at least one person died in Anguilla, he said.
“Roads blocked, hospital damaged. Power down. Communications badly impaired. Help needed,” McKendrick wrote in one message. In another, he said, “More people might die without further help, especially as another hurricane threatens us so soon.”
The Dutch government said that it was sending two military ships carrying smaller emergency boats, ambulances and emergency equipment to St. Maarten.
French Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said 100,000 rations — or about four days' worth of food — are en route to the victims to St. Barts and St. Martin, which could experience tropical storm conditions from Jose on Saturday, according to the National Hurricane Center. The tropical storm watch also applies to St. Maarten, Anguilla, Montserrat, St. Kitts, Nevis, Saba and St. Eustatius.
“It’s a tragedy, we’ll need to rebuild both islands,” Collomb told reporters Thursday, according to the Associated Press. “Most of the schools have been destroyed.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May said the government is allocating more than $41 million (U.S. dollars) for hurricane relief efforts.
Britain's international development secretary, Priti Patel, announced Wednesday that the British navy, along with several Royal Marines and a contingent of military engineers, had been dispatched to the Caribbean with makeshift shelters and water purification systems. While some in England criticized the response, McKendrick told The Post that he's worried that they, too, will quickly become overwhelmed by the amount of work that must be done to restore a sense of normalcy.
Elsewhere on Anguilla, some informal reports were less bleak. The Facebook page for Roy's Bayside Grill, for instance, remained active as Irma passed.
Around 7:30 a.m., the page broadcast a brief live video of the storm captured from inside an unidentified building. With rain pelting the windows and wind whipping the treetops, a narrator calmly described the scene outside. “Can't see very far at all,” he said. “We've got whitecaps on the pool. Water is spilling out. And it's quite a ride. But thought I'd check in and let everyone know we're still good.”
Phone lines to the restaurant appeared to be down by the afternoon, and messages left with the Facebook page's administrator were not immediately returned.
About 1 p.m. Wednesday, the restaurant posted a panoramic photo on Facebook that appeared to show several buildings. The decking on one appeared to be ripped apart, and debris was scattered about the beach. One industrial building had a hole in its roof, but by and large everything was still standing.
“We made it through,” the caption read, “but there is a lot of work to be done.”
Michael Birnbaum and Annabell Van den Berghe contributed to this story from Brussels. Joshua Partlow contributed from Mexico City. Cleve Wootson and J. Freedom du Lac contributed from Washington. This post has been updated.