Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico after slamming Dominica

Editor’s Note: This story was updated at 8 a.m. Wednesday

DANICA COTO, Associated Press

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — One of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit Puerto Rico pummeled the island Wednesday, tearing off roofs and sending doors flying from hinges as officials warned Hurricane Maria would decimate the power company’s crumbling infrastructure and force the government to rebuild dozens of communities.

Maria, which has killed at least nine in the Caribbean, made landfall early Wednesday in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (250 kph) winds, and it was expected to punish the island with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours, forecasters said.

People calling local radio stations reported that doors were flying off hinges and a water tank flew away in the island’s southern region. Meanwhile, widespread flooding was reported in the capital of San Juan, with water running down one apartment’s interior staircase.

“This is going to be an extremely violent phenomenon,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history.”

Metal roofs were already flying and windows were breaking as the storm approached before dawn, with nearly 900,000 people without power and one tree falling on an ambulance. Those who sought shelter at a coliseum in San Juan were moved to the building’s second and third floors, reported radio station WKAQ 580 AM. The storm was moving across Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning at 10 mph (17 kph), with a gust of 113 mph (182 kph) reported in the capital of San Juan, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.

Maria, which had previously been a Category 5 storm with 175 mph (281 kph) winds, hit Puerto Rico as the third strongest storm to make landfall in the United States based on a key measurement that meteorologists use: air pressure. The lower the central pressure a storm the stronger it is and Maria’s pressure was 917 millibars, lower than Irma’s U.S. landfall of 929 millibars in the Florida Keys earlier this month.

Puerto Rico had long been spared from a direct hit by hurricanes that tend to veer north or south of the island. The last Category 4 hurricane landfall in Puerto Rico occurred in 1932, and the strongest storm to ever hit the island was San Felipe in 1928 with winds of 160 mph.

As Maria approached, U.S. President Donald Trump offered his support via Twitter: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you- will be there to help!”

More than 4,400 people were in shelters by late Tuesday, along with 105 pets, Rossello said.

The storm’s center passed near or over St. Croix overnight Tuesday, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago. But this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mapp said.

“For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear,” he said during a brief news conference. “Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around. Something for your head in case your roof should breach. … I don’t really recommend you be sleeping from 11 o’clock to 4 (a.m.). … Be aware of what’s going on around you.”

Maria killed two people in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe and two people aboard a boat were reported missing off La Desirade island, just east of Guadeloupe, officials said.

About 40 percent of the island — 80,000 homes — were without power and flooding was reported in several communities.

The storm also blew over the tiny eastern Caribbean island of Dominica late Monday, where Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page, including that his own roof had blown away.

“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote before communications went down.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to Skerrit, said there have been seven confirmed deaths in the Caribbean country from Hurricane Maria. Hartley Henry didn’t give details about how the deaths occurred.

The storm knocked out communications for the entire island, leaving anyone outside Dominica struggling to determine the extent of damage, though it was clearly widespread. “The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in a telephone interview from New York.

She said she lost contact with the island about 4 a.m. At that point, officials had learned that 70 percent of homes had lost their roofs, including her own.

Flooding was a big concern, given the island’s steep mountains, cut through with rivers that rage even after a heavy rain. Dominica was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika, which killed 30 people and destroyed more than 370 homes in August 2015.

Forecasters said the storm surge from Maria could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) near the storm’s center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 centimeters) of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

To the north, Hurricane Jose weakened to a tropical storm Tuesday night. Forecasters said dangerous surf and rip currents were likely to continue along the U.S. East Coast but said the storm was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.

A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York’s Long Island and Connecticut.

Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

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The governor of the U.S. territory warned that Maria could hit “with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations.”

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page as the storm blew over the tiny country late Monday – but then stopped suddenly as phone and internet connections with the country were cut.

“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote before communications went down.

A few minutes later, he messaged he could hear the sound of galvanized steel roofing tearing off houses on the small rugged island. He said that even his own roof had blown away.

In the last message before falling silent, he appealed for international aid: “We will need help, my friends, we will need help of all kinds.”

The island’s broadcast service was also down on Tuesday and Akamai Technologies, a company that tracks the status of the Internet around the world, said most of Dominica’s internet service appeared to have been lost by midday.

The Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica reported a widespread loss of communication on the island, and relatives of students posted messages on its Facebook page saying they had been unable to talk to their loved ones since late Monday evening as the storm approached.

Officials on the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe reported at least one death: a person hit by a falling tree. They said two other people were reported missing after their boat sank off La Desirade island, just east of Guadeloupe.

About 40 percent of the island – 80,000 homes – were without power and flooding was reported in several communities.

Next in the storm’s path was St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago.

Authorities in the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, which looked likely to take a direct hit, warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm’s expected arrival on Wednesday.

“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” said Hector Pesquera, the island’s public safety commissioner. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that the storm could knock out power for days across the island.

This image of Category 5 Hurricane Maria moving through the eastern Caribbean Sea was taken on Sept. 19 at 11 a.m.
Credits: NASA/NOAA GOES Project

“This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We’re going to have to rebuild.”

In the capital of San Juan, streets and beaches that were normally bustling with people were empty Tuesday afternoon, with only the occasional sound of a hammer pounding nails into plywood sheets interrupting the silence. Shelves were bare after Puerto Ricans filled shopping carts with the limited amount of water, batteries, baby formula, milk and other items they could find.

Iris Tosado, a 64-year-old widowed housewife, scanned the nearly empty shelves before heading back home. She and her disabled son planned to spend the storm with relatives because their home is made of wood, and she prayed that it would not be destroyed.

“God, it’s the only thing I have,’” she said. “This is not looking good.”

Maria had maximum sustained winds of 160 mph late Monday when it slammed into Dominica.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria weakened briefly before recovering sustained winds of 160 mph. Its eye was about 110 miles southeast of St. Croix Monday afternoon and was moving west-northwest over the Caribbean at 10 mph.

Forecasters warned Maria would remain a Category 4 or 5 storm until it moves over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The storm’s hurricane-force winds extended out about 35 miles and tropical storm-force winds out as far as 125 miles.

Forecasters said the storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet near the storm’s center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters said the storm was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.

A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York’s Long Island and Connecticut.

Jose’s center was about 255 miles east-northeast of Cape Hattaras, North Carolina, on Tuesday afternoon and moving north at 7 mph. The storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.

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