Recovery efforts in the Caribbean now take a back seat to preparation for a new hurricane

Men remove boats from the water ahead of Hurricane Maria in the Galbas area of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe.
Men remove boats from the water ahead of Hurricane Maria in the Galbas area of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. AP

With recovery efforts in hard-hit Caribbean islands still in a fragile state, the region began preparing for another powerful hurricane that could begin lashing the Leeward Islands as early as late Monday afternoon.

St. Kitts and Nevis Foreign Affairs Minister Mark Brantley said it was time for prayers as Hurricane Maria took aim on the tiny islands. “We are busy preparing for Hurricane Maria and praying for God's mercy,” he said on Twitter.

Two weeks ago, the islands of the Caribbean were preparing for the arrival of another monster storm, Irma — the most powerful Atlantic hurricane in recorded history.

In its 2 p.m. advisory, the National Hurricane Center said Hurricane Maria was moving west northwest at about 10 mph per hour. Its current forecast track takes Maria into the Leeward Islands Monday, over the extreme northeastern Caribbean Tuesday and approaching Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands on Wednesday.

Winds could climb to 150 mph, they said, as the storm heads toward Puerto Rico.

Hurricane warnings were in effect for Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts and Nevis, Montserrat, Martinique, St. Lucia, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands.

Puerto Rico, Saba and St. Eustatius, St. Maarten, St. Martin, St. Barthelemy, and Anguilla were under hurricane watches, which means hurricane conditions are possible with winds strong enough to make outside preparations difficult within 48 hours.

Although St. Kitts and Nevis and Dominica emerged relatively unscathed from Hurricane Irma, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, which are also in Maria’s cross-hairs were among the most devastated islands.

Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit urged residents to take preparations for Maria seriously: “We should not take this storm lightly. It is not because the last one skipped us that we should believe this one will skip us. We have to treat every storm with the same level of preparation and preparedness.”

Schools and all non-essential government businesses were closed Monday and shelters were opened.

Rather than stockpiling weeks’ worth of food and supplies, he told Dominicans they should focus on cleaning up around their homes and properties and removing potential hazards. “This is not a system that will linger very long therefore the goal must not be on stockpiling supplies but mitigating damage caused by flying objects as well as fallen trees,” he said.

Skerrit said there were adequate supplies on the island to treat citizens should the need occur. And the government was prepared to call a countrywide curfew should it need to in order to prevent looting and other lawlessness.

Likewise, schools closed at noon Monday and government offices at 2 p.m. in St. Kitts and Nevis. All independence activities scheduled for Tuesday have been canceled.

If Maria poses a threat to Turks and Caicos, where Irma devastated South Caicos 10 days ago, the office of the premier said TCI would once again prepare to stand down a hurricane later this week. Residents were urged to make preparations “as best you are able.” Maria could affect the Turks and Caicos by Thursday or Friday.

In recent days, emergency supplies for Irma recovery, including bottled water, tarps and ropes for repairing roofs, and shelter kits, had arrived in Turks and Caicos. The United Kingdom military, which had been clearing debris and repairing buildings, was making headway.

But now the need to prepare for a hurricane with a potential storm surge of six to nine feet above normal tide levels is putting relief efforts on hold.

“I want to say to Dominicans this is not a time for heroism,” said Skerrit. “This much water in Dominica is dangerous given our terrain, and therefore persons should not wait for something to happen in order to take action.”

If there is one slight reason for optimism as Maria approaches it is that for the past week, residents and tourists have been evacuated from islands that have been stripped of electricity, running water and food in the wake of Hurricane Irma.

Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line ships became rescue vessels last week, carrying Irma victims and tourists to safety.

Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands braced for a second major hurricane in about a week’s time as Hurricane Maria continued to intensify Monday morning.

Residents of St. Martin also have been scrambling to get off the island, which is shared by the Dutch and the French.

The twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda was walloped unequally by Irma. Barbuda is so devastated that the decision was made to evacuate everyone who remained after Irma’s passage. Prime Minister Gaston Browne said that 95 percent of properties on Barbuda were a loss.

Now Antigua and Barbuda could get hit again. A tropical storm warning has been posted for the country as well as for Saba and St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and Anguilla.

Even as Hurricane Maria churned toward the islands, a 1,800-ton barge offloaded food and emergency supplies in the British Virgin Islands. The relief came from the government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines as well as farmers and business leaders.

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

Follow Jacqueline Charles on Twitter: @Jacquiecharles