Caribbean residents left reeling over Irma's destruction

- Tens of thousands of Irma victims across the Caribbean fought desperately to find shelter or escape their storm-blasted islands altogether Friday as another hurricane following close behind threatened to add to their misery.

With Irma and its 155 mph winds taking dead aim at the Miami metropolitan area of 6 million people, the death toll in the storm's wake across the Caribbean climbed to 22.

Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and the eastern part of Cuba reported no major casualties or damage by mid-afternoon Friday after Irma rolled north of the Caribbean's biggest islands.

But many others were left reeling after the storm ravaged some of the world's most exclusive tropical playgrounds, known for their turquoise waters and lush green vegetation. Among them: St. Martin, St. Barts, St. Thomas, Barbuda and Anguilla.

Irma knocked out power, water and telephone service, trapped thousands of tourists, and stripped trees of their leaves, leaving an eerie, blasted-looking landscape.

On Friday, looting and gunshots were reported on St. Martin, and a curfew was imposed in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

LINK: Track Hurricane Irma on MyFoxHurricane.com

Many of Irma's victims fled their islands on ferries and fishing boats for fear of Hurricane Jose, a Category 4 storm with 150 mph winds that could punish some places all over again with high winds and heavy rain over the weekend.

"I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to know that further damage is imminent," said Inspector Frankie Thomas of the Royal Police Force of Antigua and Barbuda.

On Barbuda, a coral island rising a mere 125 feet above sea level, authorities ordered an evacuation of all 1,400 people to neighboring Antigua, where Stevet Jeremiah was reunited with one son and made plans to bury another.

Jeremiah, who sells lobster and crab to tourists, was huddled in her wooden home on Barbuda early Wednesday with her partner and their 2- and 4-year-old boys as Irma ripped open their metal roof and sent the ocean surging into the house.

Her younger son, Carl Junior Francis, was swept away. Neighbors found his body after sunrise.

"Two years old. He just turned 2, the 17th, last month. Just turned 2," she repeated. Her first task, she said, would be organize his funeral. "That's all I can do. There is nothing else I can do."

The dead included 11 on St. Martin and St. Barts, four in the U.S. Virgin Islands, four in the British Virgin Islands and one each on Anguilla and Barbuda.

Also, a 16-year-old junior professional surfer drowned in Barbados on Tuesday while surfing large swells generated by an approaching Irma.

Many victims picked through the rubble of what had once been Caribbean dream getaway homes.

On St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, power lines and towers were toppled, a water and sewage treatment plant was heavily damaged, and the harbor was in ruins, along with hundreds of homes and dozens of businesses.

Opera singer Laura Strickling and her husband, Taylor, moved to St. Thomas three years ago from Washington, D.C., so he could take a job as a lawyer. They rented an apartment at the top floor of a house with a stunning view of the turquoise water of Megan's Bay, which is surrounded by low hills covered by trees.

Strickling huddled with her husband and their year-old daughter in a basement apartment along with another family as the storm raged for 12 hours.

"The noise was just deafening. It was so loud we thought the roof was gone. The windows were boarded up, so it was hot and we had no AC, no power," she said. She said she and the three other adults "were terrified but keeping it together for the babies.

Strickling, who used to visit her husband in Afghanistan when he worked there, added: "I've had to sit through a Taliban gunfight, and this was scarier."

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When they emerged they found their apartment on the top floor was unscathed and the trees had no leaves.

"We're obviously worried the thought of having to do it all again with Hurricane Jose. It's a little, a little, well, it's not good," she said, her voice trailing off.

Irma threatened to push its way from northward one end of Florida to the other in what many feared could be the long-dreaded, catastrophic Big One. Across Florida and Georgia, about 1.4 million people were ordered to leave their homes, clogging interstates as far away as Atlanta.

At the same time, thousands of miles to the east, authorities commandeered a ferry from Montserrat, with room for 350, and began moving people from Barbuda to the larger island of Antigua. The owners of several fishing boats also volunteered to help.

Thomas, the royal police inspector, said few structures were left standing in Barbuda, and even those that were not destroyed had some damage.

On St. Martin, which is divided between Dutch and French control, cafes and shops were swamped, and the storm left gnarled black branches stripped of leaves. Battered cars, corrugated metal, plywood, wrought iron and other debris covered street after street. Roofs were torn off numerous houses.

There was little left of St. Martin's Hotel Mercure but its sign, painted on a still-standing wall.

The cleanup was already underway for some. One man chopped at the branches of a bare tree. Another heaved what appeared to be furniture stuffing onto a pile. People sat in chairs outside a hospital, waiting to be seen.

William Marlin, prime minister of the Dutch side of St. Martin, said recovery was expected to take months even before Jose threatened to make things worse.

"We've lost many, many homes. Schools have been destroyed," he said. "We foresee a loss of the tourist season because of the damage that was done to hotel properties, the negative publicity that one would have that it's better to go somewhere else because it's destroyed. So that will have a serious impact on our economy."

On St. Thomas, Jodi Jabas and Matt Biwer were combing through the wreckage of home they had been busy remodeling before the storm. They huddled in a studio apartment on the ground floor as Irma roared overhead.

The storm took off the roof and a good section of the house with it.

"We found it funny that the only thing left standing was this stupid closet that we hated," said Matt Biwer, a 36-year-old originally from North Dakota.

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Weissenstein reported from Havana. Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami, Ian Brown in St. Thomas, U.S Virgin Islands; Danica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report. 

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