Updated 3:20 a.m. ET Thursday
France's Interior minister says Hurricane Irma has killed at least eight people and left 23 injured on French Caribbean island territories. The Associated Press reports:
Speaking on French radio France Info, Gerard Collomb said the death toll in Saint-Martin and Saint-Barthelemy could be higher because rescue teams have yet to finish their inspection of the islands. Collomb said Thursday: "The reconnaissance will really start at daybreak."
Updated 2:14 a.m. ET Thursday
The National Hurricane Center says the dangerous core of the storm will move away from Puerto Rico Thursday morning and is expected to pass just north of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Irma is expected to be near the Turks and Caicos and southeastern Bahamas by Thursday evening.
Updated at 10 p.m. ET
Carving its way through the Caribbean, the monstrous Category 5 hurricane called Irma, with maximum sustained winds of 185 mph, demolished homes and killed one person on Barbuda and ripped apart structures in St. Martin as it headed westward toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
Antigua and Barbuda
Antigua's Prime Minister Gaston Browne says nearly every building on the country's island of Barbuda had been damaged after the storm hit early Wednesday. He estimates 60 percent of the inhabitants are homeless. He says a 2-year-old child was killed.
"It is just really a horrendous situation," he said after returning from an aerial inspection. He said roads and telecommunications systems have been destroyed, according to The Associated Press.
Earlier, referring to the country's other island of Antigua, Browne posted a message of relief to his Facebook page.
"Thank God for his mercies and blessings. He has protected and spared us from the worst of Irma. Thank God that there are no ... hurricane casualties reported to this time," he wrote.
In a subsequent statement, Browne said: "The forecast was that Antigua would be devastated, our infrastructure demolished, people killed and our economy destroyed. In the light of day, the picture is very different."
St. Martin/Sint Marteen, Anguilla, St. Barts
Video footage coming in from the half-French, half-Dutch island of St. Martin/Sint Maarten has painted a much different picture. One video, apparently shot from a second-story balcony, showed dozens of yachts smashed against a marina bulkhead and several feet of water inundating parked cars.
Dutch Interior Minister Ronald Plasterk says he believes the level of destruction on the island is "enormous."
Speaking to reporters in The Hague, Netherlands, Plasterk said the damage on the island "is so major that we don't yet have a full picture, also because contact is difficult at the moment."
The hurricane was so strong as it passed that it registered on a St. Martin seismometer that is designed to record earthquakes.
The islands of the eastern Caribbean are geographically varied — some such as Anguilla are flat and low-lying, while others such as Hispaniola are mountainous. Thus, they are likely to fare differently in the storm. But perhaps even more important is which side of the storm's path they fall on, with those along the leading northwestern side of Irma likely to get the brunt of its fierce winds. Islands to the south of its path should experience less severe winds but could still be subject to massive rainfall.
Directly southeast of St. Martin, video posted to social media from another French island, St. Barthelemy, also known as St. Barts, showed a river of water and floating debris running through a street.
In Paris, the French government said that it had delivered water and food to both St. Martin and St. Barts and that emergency response teams were being dispatched. Power was reportedly out on both islands, but no casualties were immediately reported. The British government said it would dispatch a Royal Navy Britain ship with humanitarian assistance to the region.
French President Emmanuel Macron says "the toll will be harsh and cruel" on St. Martin and St. Barts and that "material damage on both islands is considerable."
The Netherlands' Ambassador to the United Nations Karel van Oosterom said in addition to Sint Marteen, the islands of Sint Eustatius and Saba were also affected. "First information indicates that a lot of damage has been done but communication is still extremely difficult," he said, according to AP.
Irma raked the British Virgin Islands and the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on its way to a likely landfall in Florida later this week or early next week, forecasters say. As of Wednesday afternoon, the storm had passed over the British Virgin Islands, with gusts of nearly 90 mph and offshore waves of 30 feet.
The Associated Press interviewed Laura Strickling, a resident of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, who said she and her family spent 12 hours waiting out the storm in a boarded-up apartment with no electricity.
"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."
By evening, the storm was passing to the north of Puerto Rico, and the island's emergency management agency said hundreds of thousands of residents were without power and tens of thousands without water.
Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of the island of some 3.4 million people, had urged residents to seek shelter in one of the island's more than 450 hurricane shelters.
Lauren Weisenthal, 38, a transplanted New Yorker who moved to San Juan just six months ago, tells NPR that she and her husband, Brian, two dogs and a cat are situated high up on the bluffs surrounding the old city.
"We feel as prepared as we can be," Weisenthal said. "We are in a house that is 100 years old; it weathered Hurricane Hugo [in 1989] and we're feeling confident."
But, she says, people in other parts of the city and in rural areas prone to flooding are more nervous.
"Those living closer to the water are definitely more anxious, especially older people who have been through this before," she says.
Of most concern is the power situation, Weisenthal tells NPR. "We are concerned about that, but because we are in the old city, the center of government and tourism, we might get power back before the rest of the city."
"But we talk to people in some rural areas that are expecting electricity to be out for months," she says.
Loren Ann Mayo, an American tourist on the French island of Guadeloupe, just south of Irma's path, told CNN earlier that she was sheltering from the storm in the bathroom of her hotel room.
"The balcony snapped and is now hanging on by one little piece of wire," Mayo said.