PUERTO RICO — Hurricane Maria kept thrashing Puerto Rico on Wednesday, ripping trees out of the ground and hammering two-thirds of the island with hurricane-force winds.
“This is total devastation,” said Carlos Mercader, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s governor. “Puerto Rico, in terms of the infrastructure, will not be the same. … This is something of historic proportions.”
Maria killed seven people on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, said Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. Browne said he had been communicating with the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, who reported “widespread devastation” and whose own house was shredded by the storm.
Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday near the city of Yabucoa with winds of 155 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. By 11 a.m., those winds had weakened to 140 mph, but Maria was still a Category 4 hurricane capable of ripping roofs off houses.
It was expected to dump at least 12 to 18 inches of rain on the island before barreling toward the Dominican Republic starting Wednesday night, then on to Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas by Thursday night, the National Hurricane Center predicted.
Holed up in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, Geffrard Dejoie said his hotel already was deluged by midmorning Wednesday.
“We are all sheltered in the hallways, as a few windows in some rooms have broken,” Dejoie, a traveling tennis coach, said. “We also are located very close to the lagoon, and the water is coming up on the lobby, so we had to move to higher floors.”
Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic under the gun
Beyond Puerto Rico, a hurricane warning was in effect for the British and US Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata, the hurricane center said.
At 11 a.m. ET Wednesday, Maria was centered about 25 miles west of San Juan. It was heading northwest at 12 mph.
Dangerous storm surges “accompanied by large and destructive waves” will raise water levels 10 to 15 feet above normal tide levels in the hurricane warning areas of the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, the hurricane center said.
And the British and US Virgin Islands could get pummeled with at least 5 to 10 inches of rain.
‘First responders cannot go out there’
The hurricane slammed Puerto Rico with such intensity, it broke two National Weather Service radars on the island.
Calls for rescue immediately started pouring in — but to no avail.
“First responders cannot go out there,” Mercader said, echoing the governor’s earlier warning that emergency crews wouldn’t go outside in winds stronger than 50 mph.
Maria was expected to cause widespread power outages across Puerto Rico. Shortly after landfall, the storm had wiped out power in the east coast city of Fajardo.
Maria became the first hurricane of Category 4 strength or higher in 85 years to hit the US territory, home to 3.3 million people.
Escaping the storm
Thousands of Puerto Ricans heeded calls to go to emergency shelters. “As of 2:30 a.m. we count 10,059 refugees and 189 pets (in shelters),” the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, tweeted.
As residents hunkered down in homes and shelters ahead of the direct impact, others in the most vulnerable, low-lying, flood-prone areas were evacuated.
The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan — which was still housing Hurricane Irma evacuees from other Caribbean islands — prepared to accept thousands more residents.
Some tourists found themselves stranded on the island as flights, already overbooked and increasingly expensive, became unavailable.
Heather Farrell was on her honeymoon with her husband, Luke, after their September 9 wedding. The couple had tried to cut the trip short but couldn’t.
“We did try to get off, as early as Saturday, but all flights were either booked or canceled,” she said. “We actually are on the ocean — our room faces the ocean. It’s pretty windy, but there is no rain. We’ll stay inside for now.”
Hotel staff had asked all guests to head downstairs early Wednesday morning to take shelter in a safe room, Farrell said.
Nick Bailey, Brandon Edwards and John Michael Berndt — three friends from northern California — chose this week to vacation on the island. They were aware of Maria, which was only a tropical depression when they left California.
“Our hostel is taking good care of us,” Berndt said, adding that staff there had boarded all the windows and created a concrete hurricane barrier.
“This is a good area, apparently,” Bailey said. “It’s close to hospitals and emergency centers.”
The men also were moved to rooms deeper inside the hostel — without any windows.
Prime Minister’s house destroyed
As Maria pushed through the Caribbean toward Puerto Rico, two people were missing after a boat sank off the coast of La Désirade, a small island near the mainland of Guadeloupe. About 80,000 people, or 40% of households on the island, were left without power, the government said.
The storm also caused “widespread devastation” in Dominica, the country’s Prime Minister said Tuesday. Maria ripped off the roof of his own house and left much of the island — population 73,000 — in ruins.
In just 30 hours, Maria’s intensity exploded from 65 mph on Sunday to 160 mph by Monday night, the National Hurricane Center said.