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‘Barbuda is literally rubble’: Hurricane Irma leaves the tiny island devastated

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Irma lashed the Caribbean with heavy rain and powerful winds Wednesday night, leaving two dead and nearly 900,000 people without power as authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands already devastated by the historic storm.

"Barbuda is literally rubble," Prime Minister Gaston Browne of Antigua and Barbuda told an interviewer with ABS TV/Radio Antigua.

Nearly every building on the island of Barbuda was damaged when the eye of the storm passed almost directly overhead early Wednesday and about 60 percent of the island's roughly 1,400 people were left homeless, Browne told The Associated Press.

"Either they were totally demolished or they would have lost their roof," Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighboring island. "It is just really a horrendous situation."

He said roads and telecommunications systems were destroyed and recovery will take months, if not years. A 2-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Browne told the AP.

Charles Fernandez, minister of foreign affairs and international trade for Antigua and Barbuda, told ABS that destruction on Barbuda was "upwards of 90%."

As the storm moved west, it tore up the small islands in its path. On St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and 1-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside. They emerged to find the lush island in tatters, with many of their neighbors' homes damaged and the once-dense vegetation largely gone.

"There are no leaves. It is crazy. One of the things we loved about St. Thomas is that it was so green. And it's gone," said Strickling, who moved to the island with her husband three years ago from Washington, D.C. "It will take years for this community to get back on its feet."

Significant effects were also reported on St. Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded. France sent emergency food and water rations there and to the French island of St. Bart's, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to St. Martin and two other Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.

By Wednesday evening, the center of the storm was about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).

More than half the island of Puerto Rico was without power and nearly 50,000 without water, the U.S. territory's emergency management agency said. Fourteen hospitals were using generators after losing power, and trees and light poles were strewn across roads.

The tiny island of Culebra reported sustained winds of 88 mph and wind gusts of 110 mph.

The U.S. National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma's magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.

Puerto Rico's public power company has cut back on staff and maintenance amid a decade-long economic crisis and the agency's director warned that some areas could be without power from four to six months because the infrastructure has already deteriorated so badly.

President Donald Trump this week approved an emergency declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the U.S. government.

Also Wednesday, Tropical Storm Katia formed in the Gulf of Mexico off Mexico's coast and rapidly became a hurricane. It had sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph) and Mexico's government issued a hurricane watch for the coast of Veracruz state from Tuxpan to Laguna Verde. Katia was about 190 miles (310 kilometers) north-northeast of the city of Veracruz on Wednesday night and was expected to drift toward the coast Thursday, the hurricane center said.

Another tropical storm farther east in the Atlantic became a hurricane Wednesday evening.

Hurricane Jose posed no immediate threat to land but meteorologists warned the storm's path could change. Jose had winds of 75 mph (120 kph) and was quickly strengthening.