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Dominica knocked to its knees by Hurricane Maria's might

Hurricane Maria's first victim was Dominica, and it was clear from a flight Wednesday over the island nation that the storm showed absolutely no mercy.

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Michael Holmes
Dominique van Heerden (CNN)

Hurricane Maria's first victim was Dominica, and it was clear from a flight Wednesday over the island nation that the storm showed absolutely no mercy.

At least 15 people are dead after the hurricane barreled through the island, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said.

Those who made it through the storm have "gone into survival mode," Charles Jong, a spokesman for Dominica prime minister's office, told CNN.

A CNN crew that flew over the scarred landscape witnessed heartbreaking devastation.

This Caribbean island of 73,000 residents is -- or was -- a place of lush greenery, punctuated by waterfalls and rain forests. But nearly two days after Maria made landfall, an aerial survey showed that nearly every tree was touched -- thousands snapped and strewn across the landscape -- and the island was stripped of vegetation.

The rain forests appear to have vanished.

Communities also paid heavily, with roofs torn away, entire homes ripped open and debris littering the land like confetti. The breadth of the destruction is staggering -- intact or untouched homes hard to find amid the chaos.

The Prime Minister said his country has been "devastated" by Maria, which continued its rampage Wednesday, causing widespread damage in Puerto Rico.

Maria tore the roof off the Prime Minister's residence. He is now "homeless" and is "bunking up in an area called St. Aroment," Jong said.

"I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating ...indeed, mind boggling," Skerrit posted on Facebook. "My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured."

Green and blue replaced by a muddy brown

CNN saw little sign of activity during the flight -- a handful of cars driving along a seaside road, but no one else from the air. The plane, which took off from neighboring Antigua and Barbuda, was unable to land on Dominica because the runways at the two airports had yet to be inspected.

Communications towers on hilltops have been snapped in two, explaining why gathering information from the island has been so difficult.

Dominica is mountainous and before Maria's arrival there had been concerns about landslides. CNN saw evidence of dozens of them, although not in population centers. The usually blue green seas in many places are now a muddy brown from the earth swept down hillsides and into the water.

The island has an agriculture-based economy; sugar cane, banana plantations and citrus fruits are all grown here, and most of it is exported. All of that appears at first glance to have vanished; the potential loss of those resources and income will be devastating for the island and its people.

The island was developing a tourism sector based on those rain forests. But, now, waterfalls stand out from a brown and stark backdrop, rather than green and towering trees.

Little known about scope of casualties

Of course, the immediate concern among the government and relief agencies is Dominica's residents. Little is known of their fate, although early reports indicate people are missing. Those with relatives and friends on Dominica are desperate for information about their fate.

The truth is, right now, no one knows much at all.

Speaking to CNN in a series of WhatsApp messages, Jong said "being in Dominica for Maria was the most horrifying experience." He said he doesn't have power, water or food and there is widespread looting on the island.

Philmore Mullin, head of Antigua and Barbuda's National Office of Disaster Services, said relief efforts for the people of Dominica will be coordinated from the island of St. Lucia.

The plan, he told CNN, is to get search and rescue teams, as well as medical personnel and basic supplies such as water and plastic sheeting, to the island by nightfall Wednesday, with more relief flights to begin Thursday morning.

Mullin said reports from Dominica indicate the main hospital and police station had been damaged, along with the main communications networks. The only power is from generators and car batteries, he said

"The need is great," Mullin says. "Damage is severe and widespread. We know of casualties, but not in detail. We've heard of many missing, but we just don't know much at the moment."

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