Hurricane Maria hammers Puerto Rico, causes wide destruction

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 20 (Reuters) - 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.

SEE ALSO: Hurricane Maria roars ashore in Puerto Rico

25 PHOTOS
Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico
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Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico
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
A damaged house is seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A damaged supermarket is seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A man rides a bicycle next to a flooded road after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Debris and 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 woman cuts a fallen tree into pieces after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Toys are seen in a damaged house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A damaged pier is seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Puerto de Jobos, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
A man runs on the street next to debris and damaged cars after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Constructions debris are carried by the wind 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
Branches lie on the ground as trees blow in the wind from the passage of the Hurricane Maria, seen outside Roberto Clemente Coliseum where residents have sought shelter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on September 20, 2017. Hurricane Maria closed in on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on September 20 as forecasters warned of a 'potentially catastrophic' storm that has already killed at least two people in the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
This view shows the rain from the passage of the Hurricane Maria from Roberto Clemente Coliseum where residents have sought shelter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on September 20, 2017. Hurricane Maria closed in on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on September 20 as forecasters warned of a 'potentially catastrophic' storm that has already killed at least two people in the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Residents seek shelter inside Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on September 20, 2017, as Hurricane Maria passes the island. Hurricane Maria closed in on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on September 20 as forecasters warned of a 'potentially catastrophic' storm that has already killed at least two people in the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
A general view of Aguirre thermoelectric plant during the rain before the arrival of the Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins
Residents seek shelter inside Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on September 20, 2017, as Hurricane Maria passes the island. Hurricane Maria closed in on the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on September 20 as forecasters warned of a 'potentially catastrophic' storm that has already killed at least two people in the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
The top of a church is seen through branches as Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo, on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
A man looks as trees are toppled in a parking lot at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017, during the passage of the Hurricane Maria. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Trees are toppled in a parking lot at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017, during the passage of the Hurricane Maria. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico in Fajardo. on September 20, 2017. Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummeling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean. The US National Hurricane Center warned of 'large and destructive waves' as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
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"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 heading away and it was located just north of the island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. As expected when hurricanes move over hilly or mountainous ground, it had lost strength. But with top winds of 115 mph (185 kph), it was still a Category 3 on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, a major hurricane.

It 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, 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.


More on Irma's destruction

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NASA photos show islands before and after Hurricane Irma
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NASA photos show islands before and after Hurricane Irma

Virgin Islands on August 25, 2017

(Photo via NASA)

Virgin Islands on September 10, 2017

(Photo via NASA)

Virgin Gorda before and after Hurricane Irma

(Photo via NASA)

Barbuda and Antigua on August 21, 2017

(Photo via NASA)

Barbuda and Antigua on September 8, 2017

(Photo via NASA)

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FRAGILE HOMES

Maria was expected to dump as much as 25 inches (66 cm) of rain on parts of Puerto Rico, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.7 meters.)

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 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."

The Weather Undergound website said Maria, classified as a Category 4 hurricane when it landed, was the second strongest hurricane ever recorded to hit Puerto Rico, behind only the 1928 San Felipe Segundo hurricane, which killed more than 300 people.

Maria brought its destruction at a time when Puerto Rico is struggling financially, grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid disputes with creditors.

Even though Irma grazed north of Puerto Rico and did not hit the island directly, 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, describing viewing the island. "I'm in a very densely populated area now and I see a tremendous amount of confusion. A lot of trees are down."

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 in a statement.

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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