Hurricane Maria brings destruction, heavy floods to Puerto Rico

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria rampaged across Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly 90 years, bringing widespread flooding and knocking out power across the island after killing at least nine people in the Caribbean.

Maria, the second major hurricane to roar through the region this month, was carrying winds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 kph), when it landed near Yabucoa, on the southeast of the island of 3.4 million people.

It ripped the roofs off some buildings and turned low-lying streets into rushing debris-laden rivers.

The streets of historic Old Town in the capital, San Juan, were strewn with broken balconies, air conditioning units, shattered lamp posts, downed power lines and dead birds. Few trees escaped unscathed: thick branches were torn down from most and others were simply uprooted.

“The danger continues - there are flood warnings for the whole of Puerto Rico,” Governor Ricardo Rossello warned residents on Twitter as the storm headed offshore. “Stay in safe places.”

News pictures showed whole blocks flooded in areas of the capital such as the Hato Rey neighborhood.

“When we are able to go outside, we are going to find our island destroyed,” Abner Gomez, the director of the island’s emergency management agency, known by its Spanish language acronym AEMEAD, was quoted as saying by El Nuevo Dia newspaper. “It’s a system that has destroyed everything in its path.”

Electricity was believed to be out across the island, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the governor. Authorities had not yet been able to assess the extent of the damage, he said.

Thousands of people had sought safety in shelters.

By 2 p.m. ET (1800 GMT), Maria’s center was located just north of the island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. As expected when hurricanes move ashore over hilly or mountainous ground, it had lost strength. But with top winds of 115 mph (185 kph), it was still a major hurricane.

Rainfall dumped on Puerto Rico had ranged between 10 to 15 inches (25-38 cm), with up to 25 inches (66 cm) across portions of the eastern interior, the National Weather Service said. Flash flooding continued across much of the island, with major rivers and tributaries out of their banks, it said.

The storm was forecast to maintain strength as it passed the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic later on Wednesday.

At one point a rare Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, Maria killed at least seven people on the island of Dominica, government officials said, and two people in the French territory of Guadeloupe as it barreled through the Caribbean. It also caused widespread damage on St. Croix, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, also left a trail of destruction in several Caribbean islands and Florida this month, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

FRAGILE HOMES

Many homes and businesses across Puerto Rico have wooden or tin roofs, cheaper building materials that also keep homes cooler in the balmy Caribbean climate, but that are no match for storms of the intensity of Maria.

“This might be a new, permanent part of our lives,” said Ramon Claudio Ortiz, 71, a retired lawyer. “We’re going to have to revisit our building codes.”

Maria, a Category 4 hurricane when it landed, was the second strongest hurricane ever recorded to hit Puerto Rico, behind the 1928 San Felipe Segundo hurricane, which killed more than 300 people.

Its destruction came at a time when the island is struggling financially, grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. Both its government and the public utility have filed for bankruptcy protection amid disputes with creditors.

Even though Irma passed north of Puerto Rico, it knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

DOMINICA ‘IN A DAZE’

Before hitting Puerto Rico, Maria ripped off roofs and downed trees as it passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents.

Some 65 to 70 percent of the buildings on St. Croix were damaged by the storm, said Holland Redfield, who served six terms in the U.S. Virgin Islands senate.

“There were a lot of homes that had lost their roofs. It was a sad sight,” Redfield said in a phone interview. “I’m in a very densely populated area now and I see a tremendous amount of confusion. A lot of trees are down.”

Officials on St. Croix could not be reached for comment.

In Guadeloupe, at least two people were killed, according to France’s minister for overseas territories. Many roads were blocked and 40 percent of the population was without power, the overseas territories ministry said.

The island of Dominica, with a population of about 73,000, was devastated by Maria earlier in the week. Hartley Henry, principal adviser to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, said in a Facebook post on Wednesday that “the country is in a daze.”

Maria was expected to move near the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday, the NHC said. So far, it looked unlikely to threaten the continental United States.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough and French language service in Paris; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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