Update (1:00 pm ET): The prime minister of Dominica says the death toll from Hurricane Maria has risen to 15, with 20 people still missing, according to the Associated Press. He expects the death toll in the island's villages to rise.
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In a testament to the sheer power of Hurricane Maria, the most destructive storm to hit the Caribbean in nearly a century, civilization on the tiny island of Dominica was essentially wiped out after Maria – then a category 5 storm – battered the island with 160 mph gusts, leveling whole towns and wiping out the island’s electricity and communications infrastructure.
The death toll on the island has climbed to 7 – but a complete count of casualties likely won’t be possible for at least a few more days, as the island’s shaken residents sift through the debris and contemplate what to do now that everything they and their neighbors owned has been destroyed.
When CNN flew over the island to survey the damage, it captured startling footage depicting whole villages decimated and thousands of trees snapped in half across the island. Houses ripped open. Evidence of numerous landslides.
The island’s agriculture-based economy has been totally wiped out. As CNN points out, the complete destruction of the island’s economy will compound the damage wrought by the storm by hopelessly complicating the recovery effort. Officials of nearby islands confirmed that the only electricity available on the island is coming from backup generators and car batteries.
Philmore Mullin, head of Antigua and Barbuda’s National Office of Disaster Services, told CNN the only power available on the island was from emergency generators and car batteries. “Damage is severe and widespread. We know of casualties, but not in detail. We’ve heard of many missing but we just don’t know much at the moment.”
According to the Guardian, Ross University school of medicine, which is based in Dominica, said it would being to evacuate its students, more than 80% of whom are US citizens, with close to 10% from Canada, by boat to St Lucia on Thursday if the weather permits.
Some Caribbean relief agencies have managed to airlift supplies to some parts of the island. They’re hoping to send in aid workers equipped with satellite phones to help direct help to where it is needed.
“Ronald Jackson, the executive director of the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency, said staff had managed to guide helicopters to Dominica to deliver some food, water and shelter materials on Wednesday.
In an interview with Jamaica’s RJR News, Jackson said the agency was planning to drop people into remote communities with satellite phones because many areas were completely inaccessible. Communications towers were snapped by winds of up to 160mph (260km/h).”
Even the island’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, and his family had to be rescued from their home on the island as it flooded, according to an aid.
“Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, said there had been a “tremendous loss of housing and public buildings”. There was no electricity and virtually no means of communicating with the outside world, he said.
Henry said he had spoken to Skerrit – who had to be rescued from his flooded residence during the hurricane – via satellite phone. “He and family are fine: Dominica is not,” he said.
“The main general hospital took a beating. Patient care has been compromised. Many buildings serving as shelters lost roofs, which means that an urgent need now is tarpaulins and other roofing materials.
“It’s difficult to determine the level of fatalities but so far seven are confirmed as a direct result of the hurricane. That figure, the prime minister fears, will rise as he wades his way into the rural communities.”
Some districts were reporting “total destruction” of homes, roads and crops, Henry said. “In summary, the island has been devastated.”
Maria weakened to a category two storm on Thursday as it moved away from Puerto Rico and toward the Dominican Republic. But the US National Hurricane Center warned that it could yet regain strength. The NHC also warned that parts of PR remained vulnerable to flash flooding related to the storm.
The official death toll from Hurricane Maria is 10, with two deaths confirmed on the French island of Guadeloupe, and one so far in Puerto Rico.