Hurricane Irma sent much of Puerto Rico into darkness as the monsterous Category 5 storm raked the island with heavy wind and rain while staying just out to sea.
Its path heads towards the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
To the east, authorities struggled to get aid to small Caribbean islands devastated by the storm’s record 298kph wind, while people in Florida rushed to get ready for a possible direct hit on Miami.
Communications were difficult with areas hit by Irma, and information on damage trickled out.
Nearly every building on Barbuda was damaged when the hurricane’s core crossed almost directly over the island early Wednesday and about 60 per cent of its roughly 1,400 residents were left homeless, Antigua and Barbuda prime minister Gaston Browne said.
“It is just really a horrendous situation,” Mr Browne said after returning to Antigua from a plane trip to the neighbouring island.
He said roads and telecommunications systems were wrecked and recovery would take months, if not years. A two-year-old child was killed as a family tried to escape a damaged home during the storm, Mr Browne said.
On St Thomas in the US Virgin Islands, Laura Strickling spent 12 hours hunkered down with her husband and one-year-old daughter in a boarded-up basement apartment with no power as the storm raged outside. They emerged to find the lush island in tatters. Many of their neighbours’ homes were damaged and once-dense vegetation was largely gone.
“There are no leaves. It is crazy. One of the things we loved about St Thomas is that it was so green. And it’s gone,” SMrs trickling said. “It will take years for this community to get back on its feet.”
Significant damage was also reported on St Martin, an island split between French and Dutch control. Photos and video circulating on social media showed major damage to the airport in Philipsburg and the coastal village of Marigot heavily flooded.
Midcie Francis, spokesperson for the National Office of Disaster Services for Antigua and Barbuda, said the government had so far confirmed one death on Barbuda and heavy destruction on the island.
“A significant number of the houses have been totally destroyed,” said Lionel Hurst, the prime minister's chief of staff.
France sent emergency food and water rations to the French islands of Saint Martin and Saint Barthelemy, where Irma ripped off roofs and knocked out all electricity. Dutch marines who flew to three Dutch islands hammered by Irma reported extensive damage but no deaths or injuries.
By Wednesday evening the centre of the storm was 40 miles northwest of St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands and 55 miles northeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and heading west-northwest at 16 mph (26 kph).
Richard Branson, who owns Necker Island which was hit by Irma, hunkered
The US National Weather Service said Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of Irma's magnitude since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, which killed a total of 2,748 people in Guadeloupe, Puerto Rico and Florida.
“We have to prepare for the worst,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “If we don’t, it could be devastating.”
The federal government stepped in, with President Donald Trump this week approving an emergency declaration for the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. That means the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies can remove debris and give other services that will largely be paid for by the US government.