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Hurricane Maria Slams Into Puerto Rico

20/09/2017 6:32 PM AEST | Updated 22/09/2017 8:55 AM AEST
Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
Rescue workers help people after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

All of Puerto Rico is without power after Hurricane Maria slammed into the U.S. territory on Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm, bringing vicious winds, storm surge and rain to areas across the island before losing strength by nightfall.

The storm weakened to a Category 2 late Wednesday, but was upgraded to a Category 3 early Thursday as it pounded the Dominican Republic. The storm is expected to next take aim at Turks and Caicos, which were devastated by Hurricane Irma earlier this month.

Widespread outages were also reported on the U.S. Virgin Islands, which also took a beating on Wednesday, Federal Emergency Management Agency director Brock Long said.

“Both territories are basically without power and will be so for a very long time,” he told Fox Business. “They both have very fragile power systems.”

Ongoing storm conditions have prevented FEMA workers from fully assessing how Maria has affected the people on the islands, he continued. 

“We don’t have a good handle on the search and rescue at this point from the standpoint of fatalities or people trapped.”

In Puerto Rico, “catastrophic flash flooding” continued into Wednesday evening across the island, the National Hurricane Center said in its latest advisory. 

Carlos Garcia Rawlins / Reuters
People walk on the street next to debris after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

The outlook for the storm’s long-term damage is very grim, Abner Gómez Cortés, the island’s emergency management director, said at a Wednesday press conference. 

“Once we’re able to go outside, we’re going to find our island destroyed,” he said. 

Puerto Rico residents will be returning to an unfamiliar place, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz told MSNBC on Wednesday. “The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there.” She estimates the island, home to 3.5 million people, will be without power for four to six months.

Once we’re able to go outside, we’re going to find our island destroyed. Abner Gómez Cortés, Puerto Rico's emergency management director

On Wednesday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló initiated an island-wide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. that is expected to stay in place until Saturday. Speaking to CNN that day, he emphasized the historical context of such a powerful storm. 

“This is the most devastating storm either in a century or quite frankly in modern history,” he said. 

The hurricane’s eyewall first passed over Vieques around 4 a.m. Eastern time before heading toward the main island, the NHC said. The storm made landfall on the eastern part of the island, near Yabucoa, around 6:15 a.m. with wind speeds of up to 155 mph.

Puerto Rico residents and visitors ― 10,000 of which had evacuated to the island’s 500 shelters before the storm hit posted real-time updates early Wednesday about the conditions of the storm.

A video shared by Weather Channel meteorologist Mike Seidel on Wednesday showed streetlights barely hanging on and palm trees billowing in the wind. 

Josh Morgerman‏, a storm chaser, tweeted around 4:20 a.m. that he could hear “smashing sounds” and “sounds of destruction.”

Valeria Collazo‏, a Telemundo reporter in San Juan, tweeted around 7 a.m.: “The noise. I’ve never heard anything like it. Not one video can capture it.”

Puerto Rico is among the many Caribbean islands still reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irma. While that storm largely spared Puerto Rico, it knocked out power for about a million residents ― many of whom were still without power when Maria barreled toward the island. 

The ongoing power outage issues are a symptom of Puerto Rico’s decade-long economic crisis. The island has more than $74 billion in debt and an additional $50 billion in pension liabilities, totalling roughly $34,000 in debt per resident. 

The island’s sole power provider, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), has accrued about $9 billion in debt in recent years, and customers’ bills have risen during that time even as the utility has struggled to provide consistent service. Before Irma hit, PREPA’s director warned that storm damage could leave some areas of the island without power for up to six months.

HECTOR RETAMAL via Getty Images
Trees are toppled in a parking lot at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017, during the passage of the Hurricane Maria. 

Earlier, Puerto Rico residents got a preview of the damage Maria could cause when it passed through Dominica on Monday night, devastating the small island. The damage was “mind-boggling,” said Dominica’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit.

″[T]he winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” he wrote in a Facebook post. “The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go and this apparently triggered an avalanche of torn away roofs in the city and the countryside.”

The French island of Guadeloupe was also hit hard by the storm. At least one person is dead and two others are missing, local officials said.

Looking forward, the NHC says Maria ― now carrying maximum wind speeds of 110 mph ― will continue to move away from Puerto Rico’s northwest coast and toward the Dominican Republic throughout Wednesday evening. It will likely remain a dangerous hurricane for the next few days and gain intensity as it moves across the water, bringing “life-threatening storm surge” to the islands in its path, according to the NHC. 

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story stated that the hurricane made landfall in Vieques. Landfall occurs when the eye, not the eyewall, moves over land.

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