Puerto Rico entirely without power as Hurricane Maria hammers island with devastating force – Washington Post

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Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico on Wednesday, leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post)

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria delivered a destructive full-body blow to this U.S. territory on Wednesday, ripping off metal roofs, generating terrifying and potentially lethal flash floods, knocking out 100 percent of the island’s electrical grid and decimating some communities.

With sustained winds of 155 mph at landfall — a strong Category 4 storm and nearly a Category 5 — Maria was so powerful that it disabled radar, weather stations and cell towers across Puerto Rico, leaving an information vacuum in which officials could only speculate about property damage, injuries or deaths.

“Definitely Puerto Rico — when we can get outside — we will find our island destroyed,” Abner Gómez, director of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency, said in a midday news conference here. “The information we have received is not encouraging. It’s a system that has destroyed everything it has had in its path.”

The entire island experienced hurricane conditions, with 20 inches or more of rain falling, often at torrential rates of up to seven inches per hour, leading to reports of raging floodwaters and people seeking help to escape them.

The storm, having passed through the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier, made landfall on the Puerto Rican coast near Yabucoa at 6:15 a.m. It was the first Category 4 storm to strike the island directly since 1932. By midmorning, Maria had fully engulfed the 100-mile-long island.

Winds snapped palm trees, shredded homes and sent debris skidding across beaches and roads. Recreational boats sank in San Juan’s marinas. Across the island, residents reported trees downed and blocking roadways. Far inland, floodwaters inundated homes that had never before flooded.

In San Juan, the capital, Maria shook buildings and blew out windows. Residents of high-rise apartments sought refuge in bathrooms.

First responders, including a fire-rescue team deployed from Fairfax, Va., had to ride out the storm for hours before emerging to help people. In the meantime, calls to emergency services went in vain. A family in the southern coastal town of Guayama, for example, reportedly pleaded for help as they were trapped in their home with rising water. In Hato Rey, a San Juan business district, a woman sought assistance as she was experiencing labor pains. “Unfortunately, our staff cannot leave,” Gómez said at the news conference. “They will be rescued later.”

Macarena Gil Gandia, a resident of Hato Rey, helped her mother clean out water that had started flooding the kitchen of her second-floor apartment at dawn.

“There are sounds coming from all sides,” Gil Gandia said in a text message. “The building is moving! And we’re only on the second floor, imagine the rest!”

Farther west, in the community of Juana Matos, in the city of Catano, 80 percent of the structures were destroyed, the mayor of Catano told El Nuevo Día.

“The area is completely flooded. Water got into the houses. The houses have no roof,” the mayor said. “Most of them are made of wood and zinc, and electric poles fell on them.”

William “Brock” Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told The Washington Post that rescue and recovery operations are poised to help the U.S. territories — and had significant resources already deployed in the area as a result of Hurricane Irma, which hit the region just days ago.

“Right now we’re in wait-and-see mode,” Long said Wednesday afternoon. “We know that St. Croix took a tremendous hit, and we know obviously Puerto Rico took the brunt of the storm. Once the weather clears and the seas die down, we’ll be in full operation.”

Satellite images showed that Maria became disorganized, without a defined eye, and weakened as it moved slowly across the high terrain of Puerto Rico. Late Wednesday afternoon, the center of the vast storm exited the north coast of the island, its peak winds having dropped to 110 mph as a dangerous but less powerful Category 2 storm.

As Maria journeys across open Atlantic waters, it is expected to reorganize and gain strength. It is moving parallel to the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic, heading toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeast Bahamas.

The storm track and atmospheric conditions suggest it will stay offshore of the U.S. East Coast and eventually curve northeast and out to sea. But forecasters warn that it is too soon to say with certainty that the U.S. mainland is in the clear.

Southern New England already is dealing with pounding surf and powerful wind gusts from Hurricane Jose. That storm could help in keeping Maria away from the coast by drawing it to the northeast. If Jose weakens too quickly, Maria could drift closer to the East Coast by the middle of next week.

Maria was the most violent tropical cyclone to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years. It had raked St. Croix hours earlier, just two weeks after that island was the only major land mass in the U.S. Virgin Islands that was spared Hurricane Irma’s wrath. Maria also produced flooding in St. Thomas, an island that Irma hit.

In the French island of Guadeloupe, officials blamed at least two deaths on Maria, and at least two people were missing after a ship went down near the tiny French island of Desirade. At least seven deaths have been reported on the devastated island of Dominica.

Del. Stacey Plaskett, who represents the U.S. Virgin Islands in Washington, said St. Croix had been a staging ground for relief efforts after Hurricane Irma devastated other parts of her district before Maria’s eye skimmed the edge of St. Croix on Tuesday night as a Category 5 storm with winds of 175 mph.

The damage has yet to be fully assessed, but in a sign of the possible devastation, Plaskett said the roof of the local racetrack blew into the runway of the airport, complicating relief efforts.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló on Wednesday afternoon imposed a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew for the general public, which will continue until Saturday.

“Resist, Puerto Rico,” the governor tweeted earlier as the storm blew in. “God is with us; we are stronger than any hurricane. Together we will lift up.”

Speaking on NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday, Rosselló said, “This is clearly going to be the most devastating storm in the history of our island.”

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