September 8, 2017 at 8:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
HRC staffer rides out Hurricane Irma in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico Pulse nightclub victims, gay news, Washington Blade

Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation rode out Hurricane Irma at her parents’ home in Puerto Rico. (Image by Nicolas Raymond; courtesy Flickr)

A Human Rights Campaign staffer was with her family in Puerto Rico on Wednesday when Hurricane Irma brushed the U.S. commonwealth.

Lisbeth Meléndez Rivera, director of the HRC Foundation’s Latinx and Catholic Initiatives, was at her parents’ home in Caguas, a city that is roughly 20 miles south of the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan.

She told the Washington Blade on Thursday during a telephone interview the city “got a lot of wind early” Wednesday evening as Irma’s eye passed north of Puerto Rico. Meléndez said the wind knocked down fruit trees in her parents’ neighborhood.

Meléndez told the Blade her parents turned on their generators after they lost electricity at around 7 a.m. on Wednesday. The wind ripped awnings, but her parents’ house did not flood or sustain other damage.

“We’re doing well,” said Meléndez.

Media reports indicate Irma killed at least three people in Puerto Rico and left roughly a third of the island’s population without electricity.

Meléndez noted a storm surge caused some flooding in San Juan’s oceanfront neighborhoods and areas along Puerto Rico’s northeastern coastline. Damage to Culebra and other islands east of Puerto Rico was far more extensive.

Irma had sustained winds of 185 mph when it made landfall in Barbuda, St. Barts, St. Martin, Anguilla and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands on Wednesday. The Category 5 storm caused widespread destruction on the islands and killed at least 10 people in the region.

Lavonne Wise, an LGBT rights advocate in St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands on her Facebook page wrote Irma “spared” her home in Frederiksted, a town that is on the island’s west coast. She posted pictures that showed several downed trees around it.

“Big mess ahead,” wrote Wise.

Maurice Tomlinson, a gay Jamaican lawyer and activist who lives in the Jamaican resort city of Montego Bay and Toronto, was on the island of Dominica when Irma passed through the Lesser Antilles. He told the Blade on Thursday there were “high winds, rain and rough seas, but no major damage.”

Tomlinson was at the airport in Dominica for more than nine hours before his flight to Barbados took off late on Thursday. He told the Blade the country is “keeping a wary eye” on Hurricane Jose, which is forecast to be a Category 3 storm when it approaches the northern Leeward Islands on Friday night.

Cubans brace for Irma impact

Initial reports indicate Irma on Thursday caused widespread damage in the Turks and Caicos, a British island territory near the southeastern Bahamas. The hurricane is forecast to bring high winds, heavy rains and storm surge to the northern coast of Cuba on Friday as it moves northwest towards the Florida Keys and South Florida.

A Cuban journalist in Sierra de Cubitas, a town in the province of Camagüey that is located roughly 10 miles from the coast, told the Blade on Thursday in a series of tweets that Irma is expected to bring winds of more than 100 mph and heavy rain to the area. The journalist also said authorities will begin evacuations from low-lying areas on Friday morning.

Hatzel Vela, a reporter for WPLG, a South Florida television station, who is covering Irma from Remedios, a town in the province of Villa Clara that is three miles from the coast, told the Blade the area “will start feeling” the hurricane’s effects on Friday. Authorities in the nearby city of Sagua la Grande on Wednesday detained two gay journalists as they were reporting on Irma preparations in a bay front neighborhood.

A Soviet-era Lada parked on the beach in Caibarién, Cuba, on May 18, 2017. Hurricane Irma is expected to bring heavy rain and strong winds to the town as it passes between the Communist island and the Bahamas. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Francisco Rodríguez Cruz, a gay blogger in Havana who writes under the pen name Paquito el de Cuba, said Irma is not expected to have a big impact in the Cuban capital.

“I am worried about Miami,” Rodríguez told the Blade on Thursday.

Miami Beach, Florida Keys evacuated

Irma is forecast to be a Category 4 hurricane when it makes landfall in South Florida on early Sunday morning.

Authorities in Monroe, Miami-Dade and Broward Counties have ordered mandatory evacuations of barrier islands and low-lying areas. These include the Florida Keys, Miami Beach, portions of downtown Miami and areas of Fort Lauderdale that are east of U.S. Route 1.

Former Monroe County Mosquito Commissioner Steve Smith told the Blade on Thursday during a telephone interview from Key West that gay guesthouses and resorts and most other businesses on the island are “boarded up and closed up.” He said he and his husband will remain in their elevated home that is located across the street from the beach.

“There’s so many evacuations that have been called,” Smith told the Blade. “It would be Tennessee or further before you could find a hotel.”

Alexander’s Guesthouse in Key West, Fla., which caters to an exclusively LGBT clientele, is boarded up in advance of Hurricane Irma on Sept. 7, 2017. (Photo courtesy of Steve Smith)

Lynare Robbins and her partner “secured” their Miami Beach condo that is on Biscayne Bay. Robbins told the Blade on Thursday they will stay at their home in Miami Shores, which is north of downtown Miami, during Irma.

“Miami is a city of resiliency,” said Robbins. “Many of the people who live in Miami come from places like Cuba and Haiti and so many other countries where resiliency is woven into its national history, and its influenced who we are as Miamians.”

“I am really impressed with our local law enforcement, public safety, animal care providers, and our elected officials who have really responded well to Hurricane Irma days before she’s expected to reach us,” she added.

The Out Miami Foundation has created a hotline that allows residents of Miami-Dade and Broward Counties to report any incidents of discrimination that may take place at evacuation shelters. Equality Florida, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, continues to share information about Irma preparations in municipalities across the state.

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

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