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'We have lost all what money can buy': Hurricane Maria devastates Dominica

Shelves emptied of water at the Selectos supermarket ahead of Hurricane Maria in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Sept. 18, 2017. Maria, what the National Hurricane Center called a “potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane,” raced towards Puerto Rico and the already-pummeled British and U.S. Virgin Islands on Monday. (Erika P. Rodriguez/The New York Times)

As Hurricane Maria bore down on Dominica on Monday evening, some of the most revealing updates about the storm's havoc came in the succinct, prayerful Facebook posts of Roosevelt Skerrit, the prime minister of the tiny Caribbean island nation.

Earlier in the day, Skerrit had warned residents that the looming hurricane would be one of the most dangerous storms to pass over Dominica and ordered schools and nonessential government services to close; he urged private businesses to do the same.

By Monday evening, Skerrit was feeling firsthand Maria's "merciless" 160-mph winds and relentless rain.

"We do not know what is happening outside. We not dare look out. All we are hearing is the sound of galvanize flying. The sound of the fury of the wind. As we pray for its end!" Skerrit wrote shortly after 8 p.m. Monday.

His home "may have sustained some damage," he added later.

By 9:20 p.m., there was no question about whether his home had been affected by the storm: Its roof had been torn off.

"I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane," Skerrit wrote. "House is flooding."

Though he said he was rescued a short while later, Skerrit's posts prompted others to wonder: If the storm had so devastated the prime minister's home, what of the others on the island? A handful of videos from Dominica posted to social media - before many people there apparently lost cell service - showed roaring wind and rain battering the island in the dark of night.

Just after 1 a.m. Tuesday, initial reports trickled in through Skerrit once again - and they didn't look good for Dominica.

"So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace," the prime minister wrote. "My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains."

The winds, he said, had swept away the roofs of nearly every person he had contacted; his own roof reportedly had been one of the first to go. Skerrit described the physical damage as "devastating . . . indeed, mind boggling."

"Come tomorrow morning we will hit the road, as soon as the all-clear is given, in search of the injured and those trapped in the rubble," Skerrit wrote. "My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured.

"We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds."

Skerrit added that Dominica's airport and seaport would likely be out of operation for a few days. He appealed to "friendly nations" and other organizations to help with helicopter services and other aid.

Late Monday, a police official told the Associated Press there were no casualties reported yet but noted officers had been unable to do a full assessment because of the storm.

"Where we are, we can't move," Inspector Pellam Jno Baptiste told the AP in a brief phone interview.

Dominica, whose population is about 72,000, is a country about the size of greater New York City that bills itself the "Nature Island" of the Caribbean for its lush volcanic mountains and tropical rain forests. It is a sovereign nation that gained its independence from Great Britain in 1978.

The island is also home to Ross University School of Medicine, whose students are primarily U.S. citizens. Late Monday, the school posted an update to its Facebook page indicating there would be a roll call the following afternoon "in the event of complete loss of Internet and cellphone signals." Just before 10 a.m. Tuesday, the school posted again saying there was a "widespread loss of communication on the island."

Through Tuesday, the school's page was filled with comments from anxious family members and friends who said they had not been able to contact their loved ones on the island. A call to the school's 24-hour hotline Tuesday led to a prerecorded message asking people to leave a message.

Authorities were still trying to reach Dominica on Tuesday morning but had been unable to establish communications there since the storm hit, said Mandela Christian, program officer for preparedness and response for the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. They had teams on standby, he said, to conduct aerial surveys of damage "so we can see how we need to focus our interventions there."

Lorenzo Violante, who had been coordinating Irma-related operations for the Red Cross, said his aid organization had also lost contact with Dominica after Maria hit.

"Since 8 p.m. we haven't had much information with the Dominica Red Cross," Violante said. "We made contact at midnight, and since then communications haven't been reactivated."

Just last week, Dominica Red Cross Society in Roseau, the island's capital, was collecting emergency supplies to deliver to St. Martin, which had been battered by Hurricane Irma. Now, Violante said, they are the ones who need aid.

"What we know is that there's a very important level of destruction, but that was basically at the beginning of the hurricane so we're anticipating massive destruction across the island," he said. "In fact, the people we talked to from the [Dominica Red Cross in Roseau], they had incurred damage themselves. They lost their roofs and had to go to shelters."

Violante added the Red Cross is preparing an emergency operation to Dominica.

"It's very probable that there were many landslides and that we'll need to deploy search and rescue teams," he said.

Many of Dominica's residents had just finished rebuilding after Tropical Storm Erika devastated the island in 2015, making Hurricane Maria's timing that much more punishing. On Monday, Maria rapidly strengthened as it approached Dominica, becoming the first Category 5 hurricane to make landfall on the island in recorded history.

After Dominica, Maria moved north to batter the French territory of Guadeloupe. The Associated Press reported that there was one fatality on the island, the first attributed to the storm.

Videos posted overnight by the territory's official Twitter account showed sheets of rain slamming Basse-Terre, one of Guadeloupe's two main islands, while trees were whipped sideways by the force of the wind.

On Tuesday morning, officials on Guadeloupe said 80,000 homes there were without power, and that there was an increased risk of flooding and landslides. Images from the islands showed felled trees strewn about the roads and neighborhoods submerged in water.

Although the French island of Martinique also received heavy wind and rain Monday night and Tuesday morning - resulting in some flooded neighborhoods - it eluded the full force of Maria compared to neighboring islands.

"In Martinique, reconnaissance operations are still underway but already we can see that there is no significant damage," Jacques Witkowski, France's head of civil protection and crisis response, said at a news conference in Paris, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile, officials on the islands of St. Martin and St. Barthelemy raised alert levels Tuesday morning as Hurricane Maria headed their way. As The Washington Post reported, Maria has the potential for more widespread destruction as it continues along its path through the Caribbean, including many places already hit by Hurricane Irma:

"On Tuesday, Maria is predicted to mostly pass through a patch of the Caribbean free of islands before potentially closing in on St. Croix, now under a hurricane warning, late in the day or at night. This island was one of the few Virgin Islands that was spared Irma's wrath, but may well get hammered by Maria.

"The other U.S. Virgin Islands as well as the British Virgin Islands will also need to carefully monitor and prepare for Maria. While they may remain north of its most severe effects, they could easily face hurricane conditions.

"By Wednesday, the storm is likely to pass very close to or directly affect Puerto Rico from southeast to northwest. A hurricane has not made landfall in Puerto Rico since Georges in 1998.

"Just one Category 5 hurricane has hit Puerto Rico in recorded history; Maria could become the second if it maintains its strength. The last Category 4 storm to strike the island occurred in 1932."

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