Hurricane Irma, one of the most powerful storms ever recorded in the Atlantic, has ravaged parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands, tearing off roofs and crippling the only hospital on St. Thomas.
"St. Thomas and St. John are pretty devastated," Rep. Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands' delegate to Congress, told USA TODAY. "We've had houses slamming into other houses."
Irma's fierce winds ripped off the roof of the Roy Schneider Medical Center on St. Thomas, and the local authorities were working Thursday to evacuate patients to the island of St. Croix via helicopter, Plaskett said.
No fatalities have been reported, but Plaskett said officials still are assessing damage. The islands' 911 emergency system is down, she said, and still-rough seas and damage to St. Thomas' airport also complicate recovery efforts. Officials are working to clear the runway of debris.
"We are islands," she said. "There are not just trucks that can roll in to help us."
Residents who still had Internet access took to social media to report lashing winds as the storm spun over St. Thomas and a wrecked landscape of twisted galvanized roofing, smashed cars and toppled trees in Irene's aftermath.
These islands, a tourist mecca often called America's Paradise, have been hit by powerful hurricanes before, most notably Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Hurricane Marilyn in 1995.
"Irma made Hurricanes Hugo and Marilyn look like a passing shower," Steve Rockstein, a photographer and documentary filmmaker who lives on St. Thomas, told USA TODAY on Thursday via Facebook.
"This was ominous throughout, but when the eye wall hit, it was absolutely terrifying," he said.
Relatives of Virgin Islanders took to Facebook, including USVI Hurricane Irma Alert, seeking updates on family members.
St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lies roughly 40 miles south of St. Thomas and sustained far less damage, although residents report downed trees and power outages.
Irma's winds and rain have left a path of destruction throughout the islands of the Caribbean. The Associated Press reported that Britain's Foreign Minister Alan Duncan said Anguilla, one of its island territories, took the full brunt of Irma and the British Virgin Islands sustained "severe damage."
Tiny Barbuda, with a population of roughly 1,400, was "literally rubble" after the storm, Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Brown told ABS TV/Radio Antigua.
Plaskett said most of the U.S. Virgin Islands' structures met building codes for hurricanes, but "the strength of this storm was such that they did not withstand."
Plaskett said the U.S. military and the Federal Emergency Management Agency made early preparations, shipping water, tarpaulins and medical supplies to the territory in advance of the storm.
U.S. Navy vessels also had been pre-positioned off Cuba to assist, she said.
Plaskett said it likely will take years for St. Thomas to rebuild. The storm "is devastating to our economy," she said.
"Our hotels have been damaged," Plaskett added. "Getting those back up and running and in a position where people will want to come and be tourists there will take some time."