Martinique escapes brunt of Hurricane Maria, Guadeloupe takes lashing

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PARIS (Reuters) - The French island of Martinique escaped Hurricane Maria largely unscathed but a communications blackout with Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, a senior French Civil Protection official said on Tuesday.

Maria, the second major storm to hit the Caribbean this month, lashed Guadeloupe’s southern shores as it tracked northwest toward the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

“In Martinique, reconnaissance operations are still underway but already we can see that there is no significant damage,” Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection and crisis response, told a news briefing in Paris.

He said the hurricane was currently less than 70 km (43.5 miles) south of Guadeloupe.

“Right now we’re in a blackout zone, so it’s very, very hard to communicate with Guadeloupe,” Witkowski said.

Video footage released by the Guadeloupe prefecture showed tree-bending winds whipping through deserted streets and shaking lamp posts when the storm first hit. It urged residents to stay indoors and take shelter in their most secure room.

Guadeloupe prefect Eric Maire said up to 400 millimeters of rain were forecast in some parts of the island. A storm surge could also flood low-lying coastal areas.

“We’ve already got some early information of flooding, flooded houses and submerged roads,” Maire said in a video recording posted on the prefecture’s Twitter handle.

Airport group Guadeloupe Pole Caraibes said Guadeloupe’s main international airport would be closed until at least 14:00 local time (1800 GMT) on Tuesday.

Reporting by Richard Lough; editing by Michel Rose/Jeremy Gaunt