Bogota, Colombia — The small Colombian island of Providencia has been hit hard by the powerful Category-5 hurricane Iota on Monday which has caused severe damage to the majority of local’s homes and the already scant public infrastructure.
Colombia’s President, Ivan Duque, said it is the first Category 5 – the most serious of hurricanes – to hit the Andean nation in its history.
President Duque managed to speak to the mayor of the predominantly Afro-Colombian island on Monday evening via satellite phone, who confirmed one person had died so far and efforts were being made to clear the island’s one aeroplane runway to allow humanitarian aid to arrive.
In a news conference Tuesday morning, President Duque said his administration has had communication difficulties with the island due to its damaged communications infrastructure.
“When we talk about a category five hurricane we are talking about one like Katrina or Andrew, which was devastating in the United States. We have to prepare for a total destruction of infrastructure and, therefore, start a reconstruction plan,” he said, adding that a “transformation plan” will be put into action to repair damage on the island within 100 days.
The president said he hopes to be able to travel to the island on Tuesday with the country’s armed forces when they assess the situation.
A Colombian naval ship is also expected to arrive at the Caribbean island on Tuesday.
On Monday evening, the government confirmed that 98 percent of Providencia’s infrastructure has been damaged.
“We are up against something that has characteristics never before been seen in our country,” President Duque said.
The damage to the island’s communication infrastructure means there is no detailed information or images of the destruction yet.
Providencia island has a population of 5,000 people and is part of the Archipelago of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Caralina located in the Caribbean Sea about 775km (481 miles) northwest of mainland Colombia. Geographically, it is closer to the central American country of Nicaragua.
The government said it has been unable to take immediate humanitarian action due to the isolated location of the island and the dangerous sea and air travel caused by hostile weather conditions.
Most of the island’s residents who live on Colombia’s mainland or elsewhere have been unable to make contact with family and friends as internet and telephone services have been down for more than 24 hours.
Saskia Cabeza Mejia, 30, a local of the island who now lives in Colombia’s second-largest city, Medellin, said all she knows is that “everything’s been destroyed” relying on the scant information Providencia’s mayor was able to communicate. The house she grew up in and where her parents still live is located on the shorefront.
She said she was last in contact with her family at 4:20am (09:20 GMT) on Monday, just before the hurricane approached.
“My parents went to stay with some neighbours because the roof was lifting up … I haven’t been able to sleep because of the stress,” Mejia, a psychotherapist, told Al Jazeera on the phone. “No one knows anything about what’s happened in Providencia,” she said, waiting to hear about specific damage.
Another local living in Colombia’s mainland city of Pereira said his mother’s roof blew off and she was taking refuge in a house with 10 neighbours.
“We’ve never lived through something like this before. It’s the first time a hurricane of this scale has hit us,” said Ryan Howard Theran, 31, a teacher at a bilingual school. “I’ve been trying to keep calm … it’s a very stressful situation.”
Theran has been working alongside many other of the island’s citizens on mainland Colombia to establish means of communication with people on the island and to advocate for humanitarian aid donations.
“It’s been helping me keep busy and to keep my mind from worrying,” he said.
The hurricane was first considered a Category 2 but just before passing Providencia it developed into a Category-5 tropical cyclone which NASA said can have wind speeds of up to 253km/h (157mph) and has the ability to cause catastrophic damage.
Neighbouring larger island San Andres also faced damage to its infrastructure, albeit less intense. Northern Colombian coastal cities, like Cartagena, have flooded and are battling high winds.
Although part of Colombia, Providencia island is geographically closer to the central American nation of Nicaragua, which was also hit by Hurricane Iota — by then downscaled to a Category 4 — on Monday at 10:40pm (04:40 GMT Tuesday).
According to the United States Office of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 has had the highest hurricane activity in the Atlantic since official records began in 1851.