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Death toll climbs, and relief efforts stall, as Jose bears down

POINTE-À-PITRE, Guadeloupe — As communications started to be restored to the storm-ravaged islands of the Caribbean, five deaths were reported from the British Virgin Islands, raising the toll across the Caribbean to 25 people as the islands braced for yet another storm set to strike sometime Saturday.

The new hurricane, Jose, is expected to wreak less damage than Hurricane Irma, whose passage through the eastern Caribbean left a wake of destruction that could take years to settle, leveling 90 percent of the buildings on some islands. But it has created a new problem in an already troubled recovery effort: The impending storm has halted all aid to the most affected areas because of safety concerns.

That will leave thousands of people who are already stranded and stripped of their possessions waiting several more days for much-needed aid. And officials worry that the number of dead could rise, as the full extent of the devastation becomes known.

"I've been working in the Caribbean for 10 years, and this is the first time I have seen a situation like this," said Raphael Hamoir, emergency coordinator for the French Red Cross in the region. "We are talking about existing devastation from a Category 5 hurricane, and right as we are starting the relief operation, we have another hurricane coming."

Residents and visitors to the islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy were left stranded by the storm. Many are in need of food and water, roads have yet to be cleared and power is out across much of the area.

It could be days before rescue workers can fully assess the extent of the aid needed — and losses inflicted — by both storms.

"That is not only stopping all of the work we began in the last few days," Hamoir said, referring to Hurricane Jose. "It means we will have to start everything over again in three days."

Across a band of the Caribbean islands, aid workers had been racing to get supplies to populations stripped of practically everything. By early Saturday, in a rare bit of good news, it looked as if some of the hardest hit islands, like Antigua and Barbuda, would avoid the worst of Jose, as the storm's course looked set to bypass them.

The U.S. Virgin Islands and British Virgin Islands, along with Antigua, dropped their hurricane warnings to tropical storm watches, while Barbuda and Anguilla downgraded their warnings by Saturday afternoon.

St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, two of the islands ravaged by Irma, also downgraded their hurricane warnings to a tropical storm watch by Saturday evening. The National Hurricane Center still expected 2-4 inches of rain to fall on the area.

The full damage from Irma has not yet been calculated, but the early estimates are grim: The islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy, were about 80 to 90 percent destroyed; for Antigua, Barbuda and Anguilla, the figures are similar.

In Cuba, Hurricane Irma caused widespread damage Friday night when the eye of the storm passed directly north of the provinces of Camaguey and Ciego de Ávila in the central part of the island. Authorities have not yet made a substantive announcement about the extent of the damage to the area, where more than 50 hotels and resorts generate significant revenue for a nation that is short of cash.

Damage to these resorts, along with heavy agricultural losses and reconstruction costs elsewhere in the country, will be a major economic strain on the country.

Residents woke up Saturday morning to see whole houses destroyed, and roofs ripped off warehouses. The few images trickling in, however, suggest that the destruction in Cuba is not as cataclysmic as it is on islands elsewhere in the Caribbean.

The island of Guadeloupe, which was spared by Hurricane Irma, has become a staging ground for aid efforts, with hundreds of largely French rescue workers using it as an operational hub.

The French relief operation has been one of starts and, for now, stops, but efforts to help those on the British Virgin Islands have only just begun. Interviews with a half-dozen people trapped on the island of Tortola, home to about 25,000 people, offer a snapshot of desperation.

Buildings were leveled, once lush and verdant hillsides were reduced to barren stumps and roads were washed away. Several residents reported that people were scavenging food and water from shops.

At least five deaths have been reported, according to Gus Japsert, governor of the British Virgin Islands.

In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the death toll has reached four. But communications remain spotty there. Many suspect that the number of dead will climb.

Death toll climbs, and relief efforts stall, as Jose bears down 09/09/17 [Last modified: Saturday, September 9, 2017 7:52pm]
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