CINCINNATI -- Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest Atlantic storms ever recorded, rendered the small Caribbean island of Barbuda "barely habitable" as it passed over Wednesday, destroying 95 percent of its buildings and leaving at least one person -- an infant -- dead.
Before it makes its anticipated Sunday landfall in Florida, it will visit Puerto Rico -- potentially endangering the lives of over 3 million people as it drops up to a foot of rain on their heads.
Those people include the family of WCPO reporter Paola Suro, who moved from Puerto Rico to South America and later on the United States mainland when she was three years old. Suro said Wednesday she was texting her relatives every hour to make sure they were still safe.
"I almost wish I was there to ride this out with them," she said.
Suro's aunt, grandparents and cousin all live in coastal Puerto Rico, positioning them in potentially one of the most vulnerable areas of the island. Governor Ricardo A. Rosello cautioned families to take shelter in their homes or government-run facilities by noon Wednesday to stay safe during the flooding.
Puerto Rican resident Aracelis Mendoza said Wednesday she had survived a hurricane before, but Irma's unprecedented strength made the experience "very scary."
"We hope nothing bad happens here," she said. "We've done everything they told us to do. We bought water, food. We have lights. We have a radio so we can know if we have to do something else."
The island's recent economic crisis, described in one CNN article as "utter economic misery," adds to the stress of the storm. Puerto Rico is $74 billion in debt and less than one third of its residents are employed, meaning reconstruction will likely depend on outside help.
Christina Curtis, regional disaster officer with the American Red Cross, said Wednesday that her organization is doing everything it can to deploy disaster relief personnel in the Caribbean even as it helps the Texan victims of Hurricane Harvey.
”We can provide people what we call a hot and a cot," she said. "So they have a safe place to be, get some food and get some comfort. … (But) part of the challenge in dealing with two very large relief operations is that it strains the normal day-to-day operations that we have. We have hurricanes going on, but house fires are still happening for us."
Even with outside help, Puerto Rican citizens will face a long road to recovery. Red Cross shelters anticipate that they will remain open potentially until Thanksgiving, and infrastructure repairs could take longer.
"People might not have electricity for six months," Suro said.
Curtis said the best way to help hurricane victims through the American Red Cross would be through financial donations. Physical donations of items such as clothes and water take time to sort through; financial donations can be used immediately for the most necessary items in the moment.