Category Five Hurricane Irma devastated the Virgin Islands when it passed over the territory on Wednesday morning and afternoon.

The storm, which meteorologists called the largest hurricane ever recorded in the Atlantic basin, stripped wood roofs off concrete buildings, levelled wooden structures, flooded low-lying areas, overturned cars, uprooted trees and denuded the hills of vegetation.

The extent of the human casualties remains unclear: Communications are mostly down and many homes are largely inaccessible because roads are blocked with vehicles, telephone poles, roofing metal and other debris.

As the centre of the storm approached late Wednesday morning, residents struggled to stay safe as winds exceeding 175 miles per hour shattered windows and peeled away roofs.

At the St. George's Episcopal Church, about 20 people weathered the storm in the church hall, a squat concrete structure built in the 1870s. However, as the centre of the storm approached and winds gathered speed, the building's metal roofing began to dislodge, causing the wooden roof underneath to leak.

Fearing that the wood would give way, occupants huddled in the building's small basement as the storm roared outside.

The roof held, but when the eye of the storm arrived around 2 p.m., they rushed into the nearby sanctuary. That building's main doors and several windows already had been blown in, but occupants huddled in the choir area behind the altar as the wind picked back up.

From that vantage point, they stayed mostly dry as powerful gusts of wind and rain blasted back and forth across the centre of the sanctuary.

By 5 p.m. the storm had mostly passed, leaving carnage across the territory.

In Road Town roofs were ripped off several dwellings and businesses.

Much of the walls had been blown away from the upstairs of Bolo's Department Store. The top floor of the building that houses One Stop Mall was mostly missing aside from a single balcony door on corner. In the parking lot, an SUV lay upside down in floodwaters that separated Waterfront Drive from Main Street.

Main Street itself was blocked by wrecked vehicles, roofing material, trees and other debris.

As shelter occupants cleaned the sanctuary for the night, more than a dozen other residents arrived bringing bleak reports from other parts of the capital. Some said they had lost everything after the storm destroyed their roofs and windows.

In spite of the surrounding carnage, the sanctuary has electricity powered by a generator. And although phone and internet service is largely down, a few occupants were able to contact loved ones by cell phone or messaging apps.

These successes, however, were likely the exception: Across the territory most residents lack public electricity and water, and likely will for days if not weeks to come.

Hurricane Irma, meanwhile, continued on a path just north of Puerto Rico with its outer bands lashing the island as a category five storm. Irma is expected to reach Florida early Sunday morning and work its way along the east coast. 

Before reaching the VI, the storm also devastated other Caribbean nations, causing similar devastation in Barbuda, Anguilla and St. Martin.