London/Boston/Pointe-à-Pitre — The Caribbean island of Barbuda is a scene of "total carnage" after the passage of Hurricane Irma and the tiny two-island nation will be seeking assistance from the international community to rebuild, its prime minister said on Thursday.

Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, told the BBC that about half of Barbuda’s population of about 1,800 were homeless while nine out of 10 buildings had suffered some level of devastation, many of them total destruction.

"We flew into Barbuda only to see total carnage. It was easily one of the most emotionally painful experiences that I have had," Browne said in an interview on BBC Radio Four.

"Approximately 50% of them [residents of Barbuda] are literally homeless at this time. They are bunking together, we are trying to get … relief supplies to them first thing tomorrow morning," he said, adding that it would take months or years to restore some level of normalcy to the island.

Irma barrelled towards Florida after battering Puerto Rico and devastating a chain of small Caribbean islands, as the Category 5 hurricane threatens to turn into the most expensive storm in US history.

Irma, one of three hurricanes spinning toward North America, is forecast to hit Florida by Sunday afternoon, a prospect that has roiled markets for everything from orange juice to insurance and natural gas. A mandatory evacuation order has been issued for some areas, including downtown Miami and Miami Beach. Barclays has estimated insured losses in a worst-case scenario from the storm at $130bn.

"On the forecast track, the extremely dangerous core of Irma will move away from Puerto Rico" on Thursday morning, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory at 2am New York time. The agency warned of "life-threatening" storm surges "accompanied by large and destructive waves".

Hurricane Jose was just behind Irma in the Atlantic and was also forecast to move just north of Puerto Rico while a third hurricane, Katia, churned in the Gulf of Mexico, threatening to come ashore in Mexico.

Hurricane watches may be issued for parts of the Florida Keys and the Florida peninsula as soon as Thursday as Irma approaches. Reinsurance companies could take a big hit as primary insurers have reduced exposure to Florida in recent years, analysts say. Volatility in stocks across the sector will probably continue until the storm’s path and damage become more certain.

The system may knock out power to almost 2-million people, curb natural gas demand in one of the largest US markets and threaten $1.2bn worth of crops in Florida — the top US grower of fresh tomatoes, oranges, green beans, cucumbers, squash and sugarcane.

By late Wednesday, Irma was expected to have generated more energy than the entire 2013 Atlantic hurricane season, said Phil Klotzbach, a storm researcher at Colorado State University.

The storm damaged or destroyed as much as 95% of homes on the small island of Barbuda, crippled its airport runway and broke a cellular tower in two, complicating relief efforts, Prime Minister Gaston Browne said on national television. "It is absolutely heart-wrenching."

At least eight people were killed another 21 wounded as Hurricane Irma swept across the Caribbean island of St Martin, emergency workers on the French-run side of the island said on Thursday.

The toll was given by Col Vincent Boichard, head of a public safety mission, who updated an earlier figure of six dead on St Martin, which is located south of the island of Anguilla, and is divided between the Netherlands and France.

Mandatory evacuations

In the US, mandatory evacuations were issued for the Florida Keys and governor Rick Scott said he expected additional evacuation orders. President Donald Trump said in a Twitter post that he was "watching hurricane closely" and his team was already in the state.

In addition to Miami-Dade’s mandatory evacuations, Broward and Collier counties issued voluntary evacuation orders for some areas.

Irma comes less than two weeks after Hurricane Harvey smashed ashore in Texas, knocking offline almost 25% of US oil refining capacity and causing widespread power outages and flooding. Current models show Irma veering away from gas and oil platforms off the coast of Texas and Louisiana, sparing Houston more devastation.

The storm’s top winds weakened slightly to 290km/h from 297km/h as of 3am New York time, making the system a Category 5, the highest measure on the five-step Saffir Simpson scale. It was about 394km east southeast of Grand Turk Island.

A direct strike on Miami at Category 4 strength could lead to insured losses of $125bn-$130bn, Jay Gelb, an analyst at Barclays, wrote in a note Tuesday. Uninsured losses would add to that.

Losses from Katrina, both insured and uninsured, reached $160bn in 2017 dollars after it slammed into New Orleans in 2005.

Once past Florida, the misery would not be over for the US because the storm could run up the East Coast or drive deep into the continent, bringing flooding rains, said Knabb.

Only three Category 5 hurricanes have hit the contiguous 48 US states, according to Weather Underground: the Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 that devastated the Florida Keys; Hurricane Camille in 1969; and Hurricane Andrew that cut across Florida in 1992.

Reuters, Bloomberg, AFP

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