Dominica’s leader sent out an emotional plea for help as Hurricane Maria smashed into the Caribbean island and caused “mind-boggling” devastation, but an ominous silence followed as the country lost all communications on Tuesday and the Category 5 hurricane took aim at Puerto Rico.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page as the storm blew over the tiny country late Monday — but then stopped suddenly as phone and internet connections with the country were cut.
“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote before communications went down.
The storm knocked out communications for the entire country, leaving anyone outside Dominica struggling to determine the extent of damage, though it was clearly widespread. “The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in a telephone interview from New York.
She said she lost contact with the island around 4 a.m. At that point, officials had learned that 70 percent of homes had lost their roofs, including her own.
Dominica is particularly vulnerable to flooding because of its steep mountains, cut through with rivers that rage even after a heavy rain. It was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika, which killed 30 people and destroyed more than 370 homes in August 2015.
As Hurricane Maria hammered Dominica with 160 mph (260 kph) winds Monday, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit hunkered down in his official residence and turned to social media to tell of the storm’s fury, each post more dire than the previous.
Maria’s “merciless” winds were turning sheet metal into deadly projectiles and “we dare not look out,” Skerrit said on Facebook, praying for the tempest to end. “Rough! Rough! Rough!”
Skerrit’s dramatic posts drew the attention of many in the outside world and at least momentarily shined a spotlight on the 45-year-old leader of this tiny Caribbean nation, as it was ravaged by the second cyclone to clobber the island in the last three years.
His messages were practically the only information the world had about Dominica’s fate as the massive storm roared across a ruggedly beautiful landscape at the eastern edge of the Caribbean and cut off communications with the outside world.
This isn’t the first time Skerrit has become the public face of his country during disaster. In August 2015, Tropical Storm Erika devastated the island with floods and landslides that destroyed more than 370 homes and killed 30 people. The prime minister made frequent videos and posted them to social media to give updates and try to raise aid for his country.
“We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds,” he wrote Tuesday.
It’s the first death attributed to Category 5 Hurricane Maria.
Authorities say the person did not comply with orders to remain indoors on Tuesday morning. They say two other people are reported missing after their boat sank off La Desirade island, just east of Guadeloupe.
About 40 percent of the island is without power. That’s 80,000 homes. Flooding has been reported in several communities, especially along the southern coast.
Officials say Les Saintes, Marie-Galant, Petit-Bourg and La Desirade have been the hardest hit. Roads are littered with fallen branches and trees but only limited infrastructure damage has been reported.
Puerto Rico, where more than 45,000 homes and businesses are still without power after Hurricane Irma, braced Tuesday night for an even more powerful blow as Maria headed directly for the US territory.
Many of its 3.4 million residents live on the eastern half of the island, which forecasters worry will endure the brunt of the most powerful hurricane ever to hit Puerto Rico.
The Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 175 mph (281 kph) will smash into the Virgin Islands Tuesday night. It has already obliterated parts of Dominica and killed at least one person in Guadeloupe.
Puerto Rico will get hit hard Wednesday morning, the National Hurricane Center said, and the storm could be catastrophic.
Residents of Puerto Rico, who were spared some of Irma’s wrath when that hurricane’s core passed north of the island, boarded up homes and businesses Tuesday. People who fled to the US territory as Maria advanced on their islands sought refuge in hotels and shelters.
U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents of St. Croix that they would feel the brunt of the hurricane’s winds around midnight. St. Thomas and St. John, to the north of St. Croix, were not likely to suffer a direct hit, he said.
Mapp warned that police and military troops would be pulled off the streets well before the storm’s arrival, meaning that rescue would be unavailable to anyone out in the winds.
“If you’ve identified a spot, a closet, a corner on the inside of your home and you have some breach in your roof, one of the things you can do is take a mattress or something and have it as a barrier to make sure that you’re safe,” he told residents in an afternoon broadcast.
Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. Mapp urged islanders to focus on saving themselves.
“You lose your life the moment you start thinking about how to save a few bucks to stop something from crashing or burning or falling apart,” he said. “The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it.”
Maria was predicted to be the worst storm to hit St. Croix since Hugo, a Category 4 storm, in 1989.