Hurricane Maria churns toward Turks and Caicos and leaves 32 dead

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 22 (Reuters) - Hurricane Maria churned toward the Turks and Caicos on Friday after lashing Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands with winds and rain that destroyed homes, flooded streets, crippled economies and left at least 32 people dead.

Maria is the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It knocked out the island's power and several rivers hit record flood levels.

At least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día‏ newspaper reported. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told cable TV news channel CNN he had reports of at least 13 people on the island being killed.

"We have a lot of flooding," he said in the interview, adding there "was a major disaster here in Puerto Rico."

Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the U.S. Virgin Islands.

13 PHOTOS
Hurricane Maria's damage in St. Croix from above
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Hurricane Maria's damage in St. Croix from above
A man stands outside a destroyed home in this aerial photo from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Roof shingles, a playground and the sign of a restaurant lie scattered on hurricane-battered St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Toppled trees lie on a tennis court after Hurricane Maria battered St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Classrooms in severely damaged school are revealed as seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A destroyed home is seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Damaged buildings and strewn debris are seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Shipping containers strewn around the main port are seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying damage from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A badly damaged neighborhood is seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Toppled shipping containers and destroyed road is seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying damage from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
Residents working on their roof in badly damaged neighborhood are seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying the aftermath from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
A destroyed home is seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying damage from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Destroyed homes are seen from a Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey surveying damage from Hurricane Maria in St. Croix, , U.S. Virgin Islands, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake
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The death toll in the Caribbean is likely to rise when searches resume at daybreak.

Rossello imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday for the island's 3.4 million people. He said about 700 people have been rescued from floodwaters and communication was difficult with the southeastern part of the island.

Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 20 miles (32 km) west of San Juan, Mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper.

Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.

In the heart of the island's capital San Juan, which has a fort and buildings from the Spanish colonial era, the storm left a trail of wreckage. Toppled trees cut power lines and streets were turned into rivers.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been "totally obliterated" and he planned to visit.

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history.

A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

STORM SURGES

Maria is a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of up to 125 mph (205 kph). It was 35 miles (55 km) east-northeast of Grand Turk Island as of 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT), the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

It was forecast to bring storm surges of up to 12 feet (3.7 m) to the southeastern Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos, it said, adding that a gradual weakening was forecast for the next 48 hours as it heads north in the Atlantic Ocean.

Maria was expected to bring as much as 40 inches (102 cm) of rain to Puerto Rico and an island-wide flash flood watch was in effect. Between eight and 16 inches (20 to 40 cm) of rain was expected on Turks and Caicos, which could cause flash floods and mudslides, the National Hurricane Center said.

20 PHOTOS
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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Maria looked unlikely to hit the continental United States but its storm swells will reach the southeastern coast from Friday, the NHC said.

"These swells are likely to cause dangerous surf and life-threatening rip currents along the coast for the next several days," it said.

Utility crews from the U.S. mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid and the U.S. military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.

More than 95 percent of wireless cell sites were not working on Thursday afternoon on the island, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission said. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, more than three-quarters of cell sites are out of service.

LONG ROAD TO RECOVERY

In Dominica, Maria damaged about 95 percent of roofs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It struck as a Category 5 storm on Monday, ripping foliage off plants and obliterating the island's vital agricultural sector.

The storm caused flooding in the Dominican Republic when it passed nearby from Wednesday night.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday as a Category 5 storm, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

"The worst is behind us," Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. The government has imposed a 24-hour curfew until further notice.

About 600 people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands are in emergency shelters and many parts are without power, Mapp said.

"It's going to be a long road to recovery," Mapp said. Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.

(Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis in New York and Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

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