For Caribbean residents, Irma could last months

Wrath of Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean
Wrath of Hurricane Irma on the Caribbean

The 28 island nations that make up the Caribbean are accustomed to hurricane season, but the Category 5 storm that has been pummeling these popular vacation spots has plenty of residents worried.

Travel and tourism contributed $56 billion to the total gross domestic product in the Caribbean last year -- about 15% of the region's total GDP, according to the World Travel & Tourism Council.

"This is a very important economic activity for the region," said Gloria Guevara, the president and CEO of the tourism council. "Something like a hurricane, of course, can have a very significant impact."

Related: Puerto Rico nervously awaits Hurricane Irma after storm rips Caribbean islands

Emergency authorities say people on some of the most at-risk islands left the area by plane before the storm hit, while others have been riding it out inside hotels or other shelters built to withstand storms.

The storm left at least nine people dead as it tore through St. Martin, St. Barthélemy, Barbuda and other islands. Barbuda is barely inhabitable with nearly all its buildings damaged, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda said.

Puerto Rico was spared a direct hit, but it still got lashed by strong winds and torrential rains. Hundreds of thousands lost power because of the storm, officials said.

Anguilla also saw significant damage, including to facilities that house the elderly and sick, according to Ronald Jackson, the executive director of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, who spoke to CNNMoney Wednesday morning.

Jackson said at the time that it will be a couple weeks before officials can tally preliminary estimates of Irma's destruction.

But some fear that Irma could leave its mark for months to come, if not longer. Tourism season in the Caribbean doesn't get into full swing until December, and Irma's effects could still be felt once holiday travelers descend.

Related: Hurricane Irma isn't what Puerto Rico needs right now

"The Bahamas is taking this very, very seriously," said Joy Jibrilu, director general of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism. Irma could hit some of the southern islands of the Caribbean archipelago.

Jibrilu said that could be potentially devastating for the commonwealth, which just last year fell in the path of Hurricane Matthew.

"The areas that were directly hit by Hurricane Matthew -- they are still in recovery mode," she said. "Homes are still being repaired, or not repaired. People are still trying to get their lives back to normal."

Estimates for the destruction wrought by Matthew in the Bahamas range from $60 to $600 million, Jibrilu said. Two hotels on Grand Bahama are still closed, she said, leaving many residents there without work.

Hugh Riley, the secretary general of the Caribbean Tourism Organization, said cleanup after the storm will need to happen quickly and effectively.

And he stressed that prospective visitors need to understand that damage to one part of the region does not render every island uninhabitable.

"No one ever wants to minimize the importance of what happens in one particular part of the Caribbean versus another," Riley said. "But it really doesn't mean that we're closed for business."

But even after the storm clears the Caribbean, Jibrilu said she's worried about where it may go next.

Related: Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida businesses

About three-quarters of American tourists to the Bahamas come from Florida, she said, where Irma could hit as soon as Sunday.

"The focus of Floridians will be on their repair," she said. "That will have a devastating impact on our tourism economy."

Jibrilu said her commonwealth is doing as much preparation for the storm as it possibly can. All that's left to do afterward, she said, is pray.

"We don't want it to hit any of our neighbors," Jibrilu said. "The prayer is that the hurricane goes out to sea."

--CNN's Faith Karimi and Steve Almasy contributed to this story.

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