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Early damage assessments from Hurricane Irma 

An estimated 1.2 million people have been affected by Hurricane Irma and that could rise sharply to 26 million, according to the Red Cross.

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Composite image of category 5 Hurricane Irma, the strongest storm to ever form in the Atlantic, approaching the Caribbean, followed closely by tropical storm Jose to the south-east, at 06:00 UTC on Wednesday, 6 September 2017. Infrared data from the geostationary satellites of EUMETSAT, JMA and NOAA overlays a computer-generated model of the Earth, containing NASA's Blue Marble Next Generation imagery (EUMetSat 2017)

Experts have warned that the death toll from Irma, the most powerful storm in Atlantic Ocean history with winds of 185mph, could cause casualties well beyond the fatalities in the Caribbean, which have been placed at 12 or 14. This is exacerbated by the threat that Hurricane Jose is posing to the Northern Leeward Islands.

The Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency (CDEMA) has released initial reports from affected member states, as of September 7, 2017, though it must be emphasised that damage assessments are ongoing.

Anguilla has one confirmed fatality and approximately 90 per cent of the electricity infrastructure was damaged; there has been significant damage to main water supplies. Ninety per cent of government buildings and business structures were damaged. The report says that the airport runway and most roads leading to the airport have been cleared of debris and that British troops supported the refurbishment of two shelters damaged during the hurricane.

Dutch Ministry of Defence released footage of a military flyover across the damaged island of St Maarten (courtesy Dutch MoD)

RFA Mounts Bay, a British auxiliary landing ship dock, is already in the region and will assist in disaster relief operations. She can provide emergency supplies of food, water and personnel – as well as medical support, temporary shelter and sanitation and the repair of infrastructure. The vessel is supporting the response efforts in Anguilla.

Meanwhile, Royal Navy fleet flagship HMS Ocean has been diverted to provide humanitarian aid to Caribbean islands devasted by Hurricane Irma.

In the British Virgin Islands (BVI) the National Emergency Operations Centre (NEOC) was destroyed and has been temporarily relocated to the 911 centre. The BVI has four people confirmed dead. The CDEMA report says that the airport is operational, but the tower has been compromised.

Initial needs include support with communications, especially to reconnect people with their families to let them know they are safe. Emergency relief supplies are also required, in the form of food, cots, tarpaulins and water. Security has been flagged as a critical need as there have been instances of looting reported, according to the CDEMA. The infrastructure of the islands has been severely damaged, particularly electricity and water supplies.

In the Turks and Caicos islands EOCs were activated on September 6, and shelters were opened. The NEOC was moved to an alternative location, owing to concerns about the structural integrity of the building.

Meanwhile, in Haiti, mandatory evacuations were undertaken in coastal areas, especially in the north, ahead of Irma’s passage.

The island of Barbuda was laid to waste by the hurricane. “Barbuda now is literally rubble,” said Prime Minister Gaston Browne. “It is heart-wrenching, absolutely devastating.” He reported that some 95 per cent of the island’s buildings had been damaged and it is thought that 60 per cent of the 1,400 residents had been left homeless. The clean-up operation is expected to take years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The impending approach of Jose is causing further issues, as evacuations ahead of its path may be required. Jose is expected to pass Barbuda on Saturday and further cripple an island that is already reeling. With the airport destroyed, the only way out is by boat, reports The Telegraph.

On Thursday, France on Thursday flew in water, emergency rations and rescue teams to French territories. 

A 200-strong French delegation of troops, rescuers, soldiers and medics flew to the French island of Guadeloupe where rescue efforts are being co-ordinated for surrounding territories.

"The situation in St Martin and St Barts is dramatic – there is no drinking water, electricity, public buildings are unusable, houses have been destroyed. We estimate that some 60, 70 per cent of the houses have been destroyed in St Martin," according to the Prefect of Guadeloupe.

On a regional level, the CDEMA Co-ordinating Unit has deployed an initial Caricom Disaster Relief Unit (CDRU) to the BVI via two aircraft; the team comprised nine soliders from the Barbados Defence Force.

An 18-member combined Rapid Damage and Needs Assessment Teams (RNAT) and Caricom Disaster Assessment and Co-ordination (COST) and Caricom Operational Support Team (CDAC) deployment was made to Anguilla and the BVI led by the CDEMA Co-ordinating Unit. This deployment comprised members of Caribbean Tourism Organisation, Engineers from the Barbados Association of Professional Engineering, Caribbean Media Corporation, Undac, DFID, CHASE and Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO). The teams were deployed at 18:15, Thursday, September, 07, 2017 to Antigua via the Caribbean airline LIAT 

Jamaica’s Office of Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management will be providing a 200-member Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART). The country had also placed another DART on standby, as well as CDAC and COST teams to provide support to the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands. 

CANTO, a non-profit association made up of operators, organisations, companies and individuals in the ICT (telecommunications) sector, placed two emergency telecommunications specialist on stand-by

Regional Security System (RSS) Airwing, deployed two aircraft to support the initial CDRU deployment and to transport equipment, while two Barbados Defence Coast Guard vessels were on standby for deployment after the passage of Jose. The RSS was also willing to co-ordinate movement of supplies and logistics, as well as being available to provide additional airlift support before Hurricane Jose passes through the area.  

Meanwhile, on an international level, a European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) emergency support team was on standby and two airport specialists were on standby from Global Affairs Canada.

There are concerns that disease could spread rapidly in areas where drinking water and sanitation services have broken down, and officials have warned that the death toll is likely to rise. UN Women has identified a social protection specialist for deployment to support RNAT and provided dignity kits. A consultant from the PAHO completed a pre-impact assessment of the hospital in the Turks and Caicos and deployed a three-member team to support the environmental health conditions in Barbuda. The PAHO also deployed two teams to Anguilla and St Maarten to support preparations for the passage of Jose. A Unicef WASH expert was deployed with RNAT team to Antigua for onward deployment to Anguilla and BVI.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has an emergency expert stationed in Haiti to conduct agricultural assessments post impact and Unicef has authorised the release of emergency supplies out of Antigua and Panama and said it will assist in education, water and sanitation, school refurbishment and child protection.

The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has made emergency telecommunications equipment available for dispatch, including 20 iridium SAT phones, 50-60 additional SAT phones and Broadband Global Area Network (BGAN) units for use in Haiti.

The Government of the United Kingdom has pledged £32 million in aid and a C17 airplane has been dispatched to provide support to the British overseas territories. A UK Army Needs Assessment team has been deployed to the BVI.

The Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Aid (UN OCHA) deployed six UNDAC specialists in support of the CDEMA RNAT to Antigua and a seven person team deployed to Jamaica for TCI and Bahamas to augment capacity in Haiti and Dominican Republic. 

Prior to Irma, Red Cross societies across the Caribbean prepared for the hurricane’s imminent by mobilising volunteers across the region to take preparedness messages into communities, and relief supplies. The experts were on standby in Panama and the Dominican Republic.

Irma is projected to move towards Cuba and the Bahamas.

The worst of the storm is expected to hit east and central Cuba, with the eye of the storm predicted to pass between the north coast of Cuba and the Bahamas. About 50,000 tourists are fleeing or have fled Cuba, with resorts on the north coast now empty, according to reports. Hurricane Irma was downgraded to a category 4 storm, and warnings were issued for South Florida and the Florida Keys in the US.

Meanwhile, Jose and Katia are both gaining strength, according to NOAA’s National Hurricane Center.

Thumbnail credit: Infrared imagery from Suomi NPP revealed cloud top temperatures as cold as (white) 190 kelvin (minus 83.1 degrees Celsius/minus 117.7 degrees Fahrenheit) from Irma's northern quadrant, stretching through the eastern side to the south of the eye (NOAA/NASA/UWM-CIMSS, William Straka III)  

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