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Florida Braces For Hurricane Irma After Storm Hit The Caribbean


Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm with record-setting winds, is expected to rip into South Florida early Sunday. In preparation, emergency and mandatory evacuation orders are in place for areas around Fort Lauderdale, Miami and the Florida Keys. They affect almost a million people.


On its way to Florida, Irma is tearing through the Caribbean. Earlier today, I spoke with Gaston Browne. He's prime minister of the twin island nation of Antigua and Barbuda. On Wednesday, he rode out the storm in Antigua. That island was for the most part spared. After the storm, he went to Barbuda, which is home to about 1,600 people. There he found almost complete devastation.

PRIME MINISTER GASTON BROWNE: Was a complete contrast. In case of Antigua, the damage was limited. In fact we opened for business. It's business as usual in Antigua even though we had winds gusting up to about 130 miles per hour. It was very limited damage. But when I traveled to Barbuda, I saw a completely different contrast. It was almost unimaginable. I could not imagine that our twin island state that is literally about - what? - 29 miles away from us could have suffered that type of fate.

SHAPIRO: When you say almost unimaginable, what were you seeing?

BROWNE: Well, I mean 90 percent of the properties there were damaged, the roofs in particular, especially the concrete properties. The wooden structures were totally demolished. In fact Barbuda was literally relegated to rubble. And again, I didn't expect that level of damage because when we compare to what happened in Antigua where, you know, there was minimal damage limited to a few downed posts, downed lines - the utility lines - and some trees, I just cannot imagine that this storm would have literally flattened Barbuda.

SHAPIRO: Can you tell us a story of somebody you've spoken to who rode out the storm on the island?

BROWNE: Well, I want to tell you. I mean I really heard some horrendous stories. I mean there's some people who say that they literally saw cars flying, and that is no exaggeration. In fact I know that there were a couple of 40-foot containers close to the airport terminal. They were actually lifted and taken about a hundred yards away from where they were initially. So that will give you an idea of the wind strength.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any idea what the death toll is?

BROWNE: One - having said that, the level of preparedness was, I'd say, immaculate.

SHAPIRO: That's remarkable.

BROWNE: I'm told that the reason why that happened - apparently the home in which the toddler was living with his or her mother is - the property was destroyed. So they were actually seeking shelter elsewhere when the wind blew away the toddler, and the toddler got caught up in the storm water and drowned.

So in essence, the Barbudan people had taken a necessary precaution, but the sheer strength of the wind - I mean that storm was so powerful. It had tornadoes and gusts up to about 230 miles per hour...


BROWNE: ...That it literally overwhelmed the infrastructure. So you know, this was easily one of the strongest storms to have stormed its way through the Caribbean, and it was just unfortunate that Barbuda was in its direct path.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that the island can rebuild?

BROWNE: Well, we have no choice. And one thing I'll tell you about the Antiguan and Barbudan people - we are resilient people. In fact our biggest challenge will be to rebuild the island. And the truth is, rebuilding the island - the resources that are required are beyond the resources of the state. But at the same time, you know, we have lots of regional and international partners who we're pretty sure will assist us to raise additional resources that will supplement the domestic resources. And I believe that ultimately Barbuda will stand out as a country in which there's great resilience and that there will have been a speedy recovery from the storm.

SHAPIRO: Gaston Browne, prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, thank you for speaking with us, and good luck with the cleanup and recovery.

BROWNE: A pleasure. Thank you very much. Cheers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.