UK tourists are evacuated as US begins hurricane relief efforts
Expats and tourists have spoken of their terror at the most powerful storm ever in the Atlantic Ocean, and shock at the extent of the damage.
The hurricane was downgraded to a tropical storm yesterday after battering Florida with 100mph winds and torrential rain overnight.
Recovery and aid efforts were taking place in the worst-affected islands, while many British nationals are working to piece together their lives from the ruins of the storm.
Yesterday, Boris Johnson defended the government’s response to Hurricane Irma, amid claims the UK has done less to evacuate its citizens than other nations.
The Foreign Secretary said there had been an “unprecedented” effort to deal with the aftermath of the storm.
He said: “This is a very big consular crisis and I am confident we are doing everything we possibly can to help British nationals.”
One British family told how they sheltered in a wardrobe as Irma hit their home in Tortola in the British Virgin Islands as a category five storm.
Clare Chilton, husband Hadley and their two children spent more than 24 hours holed up with a mattress protecting their heads during the worst of the hurricane.
Ms Chilton, 40, who is originally from Middlesbrough, said she felt like “one of the lucky ones” after being rescued and taken to Puerto Rico with her three-year-old son and seven-year-old daughter.
Others on the island were less fortunate, including the family of British DJ Laura Elliott, who are surrounded by a “collapsed jungle” and awaiting rescue.
Ms Elliott, 38, who was working abroad when the hurricane hit, said she fears her fiancé and two young children may run out of supplies in the coming days.
About 2,350 UK holidaymakers in Cuba are being evacuated by Thomas Cook. The tour operator said it is also sending extra support staff to the island, which suffered severe damage due to the extreme weather.
In Florida, 10ft storm surges overwhelmed roads and buildings, cutting off Florida Keys from the mainland.
Residents and holidaymakers were ordered to stay indoors until the storm had passed.
House-to-house searches were beginning in Florida Keys yesterday, looking for people who need help and assessing the damage. Monroe County Administrator Roman Gastesi said they were “prepared for the worst” and suspected there may be fatalities.
More than 6.2 million homes and businesses remained without power, and 220,000 people huddled in shelters. Officials warned it could take weeks for electricity to be restored to everyone. One death in Florida, that of a man killed in a road accident during the storm, was blamed on Irma.
At least 36 people were killed in the Caribbean as Irma ravaged a string of resort islands long known as holiday playgrounds for the rich.
Matt and Zoe Caveney, from Liverpool, were forced to spend much of their honeymoon confined to their hotel room at Walt Disney World in Orlando.
Mr Caveney, 28, who married Zoe, 22, on 5 August, said: “I’ve never seen rain or wind like it in my life.
“With Orlando being in central Florida we aren’t getting it as bad as the coastal towns, but there are very strong winds and heavy rain battering down. We can hear the wind battering the door and trees outside.”
James Stuart, who is on holiday in Orlando with his mother and brother, said they were “holed up helplessly” and the weather was “unbelievable”.
At least 34 people are reported to have been killed as Irma made its way across the region, while thousands have been left homeless.
In the US, The National Hurricane Centre said the storm “should continue to lose strength and fall below hurricane intensity” during the day, as it continues its path northwards.
But forecasters have warned the threat to life remains as powerful storm surges continue.