Storm Maria brings fear, pain and shock to Puerto Ricans

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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria's destruction in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot and her dog in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A car is viewed stuck in a flooded street in Santurce, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 21, 2017. Puerto Rico braced for potentially calamitous flash flooding on Thursday after being pummeled by Hurricane Maria which devastated the island and knocked out the entire electricity grid. The hurricane, which Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello called 'the most devastating storm in a century,' had battered the island of 3.4 million people after roaring ashore early Wednesday with deadly winds and heavy rain. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Fishing boats with severe damage at Club Nautico in the San Juan Bay. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. San Juan September 20, 2017. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Men walk past damaged homes after the passage of Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017. Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on, cutting power on most of the US territory as terrified residents hunkered down in the face of the island's worst storm in living memory. After leaving a deadly trail of destruction on a string of smaller Caribbean islands, Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico's southeast coast around daybreak, packing winds of around 150mph (240kph). / AFP PHOTO / Hector RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: A local shop sustained damages after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 20: Trees block the streets after Hurricane Maria at Escambron Beach in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 20, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man walks close to damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Agapito Lopez looks at the damage in his house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
TOPSHOT - A man rides his bicycle through a damaged road in Toa Alta, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 24, 2017 following the passage of Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed on September 23, 2017 to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment after the window was blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: People sit in their apartment with the window blown out by the winds of Hurricane Maria as it passed through the area last week on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: A flooded street is seen as people deal with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Maria left widespread damage across Puerto Rico, with virtually the whole island without power or cell service. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
An aerial photo shows damage caused by Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, September 27, 2017. Picture taken September 27, 2017. REUTERS/DroneBase
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - Miguel Cruz awoke to the descent of Hurricane Maria on his home on Wednesday morning when the massive storm peeled off most of the roof, sent his belongings flying in all directions, but left intact an icon of Jesus hanging above his bed.

Cruz was one of thousands of Puerto Ricans picking through the wreckage left by Maria after the hurricane devastated basic services on the debt-laden U.S. territory, pitching most of its 3.4 million residents into darkness as night fell.

Crashing into Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, Maria flipped the tops off buildings, knocked out phones and electricity across the island and turned low-lying roads into swollen rivers awash with debris.

"I was terrified. I prayed to God that the door and windows wouldn't open," said Sonja Alvarez, 52, who spent 10 hours shut in a bedroom with her family while Maria raged outside. "But there came a point when I thought they would."

Trees were torn apart, windows shattered and exposed homes turned inside out by Maria, which killed at least one man, who was struck by a piece of flying lumber. The storm also killed at least nine elsewhere in the Caribbean.

By 11 p.m. EDT (0300 GMT), Maria was drifting away from Puerto Rico. The slowing storm was blowing maximum sustained winds of 110 mph (175 kph) and was 55 miles (90 km) off the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, the National Hurricane Center said.

The brutal winds left streets in the historic Old Town of the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, strewn with rubble, from collapsed balconies to fallen lamp posts and dead birds.

Among the most dramatically damaged areas in the capital was La Perla, a small barrio nestled into the steep hill separating the stone walls of Old San Juan from the sea.

Once a notorious slum, La Perla's image has brightened in recent years as it has become an artsier enclave with colorful homes providing the setting for the megahit "Despacito" by Puerto Rican singers Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee.

However, the red, wooden home of area resident Cruz was reduced to a roofless jumble, with the front door hanging at right angles to the frame. Behind it, a painting of the Sacred Heart of Jesus looked out from a bare white wall.

"(Maria) has turned my house into a convertible. I can see the stars," the 45-year-old self-employed laborer said wryly, after relating how he had fled to a bunker downstairs with his pit-bull, Estrella. "I'm sort of used to these things," Cruz added. "But this was tough."

Down the slope from his home stood the shattered hulk of a concrete and steel garage with five cars trapped under the roof and sidewall that gave way under Maria's battering.

Beyond his home, near the stone walls of the 500-year-old city, a cooker, a fridge and a toilet stood exposed atop another wooden house with views of the Caribbean.

"There used to be another floor," said Angela Torres, 32, explaining that the rest of the kitchen, two bedrooms and living room had been stripped from the building by Maria.

After the rooms flew off, Torres, who had hunkered down on Tuesday night with her 87-year-old grandmother one floor below, learnt that Maria had knocked down one wall and the balcony of her own home a few miles away.

"I almost died when they sent me the photos," she said. "But I haven't been able to go yet because you can't get out."

Many in the capital left their coastal homes for refuge elsewhere, filling hotels across the city. Some returned to find their flats ruined by Maria, battered and full of water.

Gingerly entering her sodden fifth-storey flat in the heart of Old San Juan, Aida Pietri was suddenly gripped by panic as the battered door to her rooftop terrace slammed open and shut in the wind and a bird flew through it.

"Where are my daughter's ashes?" she said, rummaging through the scattered cushions, plants and papers. Eventually her eyes alighted on a metal box, and she found them, undamaged.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

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