(photo credit: JPOST STAFF)
SAN JUAN - Hurricane Maria rampaged across Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the US territory in nearly 90 years, causing major flooding, damaging homes and knocking out power to the whole island after killing at least nine people in the Caribbean.
Maria, the second major hurricane to roar through the Caribbean this month, was carrying winds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 kph), when it made landfall near Yabucoa, on the southeast of the island of 3.4 million people.
It ripped the roofs off buildings and turned low-lying streets into rushing rivers of debris knocked down by winds.
Its winds downed trees and damaged homes and buildings, including several hospitals, local media reported. News pictures showed whole blocks flooded in the Hato Rey neighborhood of the capital, San Juan.
Streets in San Juan's old town were left strewn with debris, from broken balconies and downed power lines to air conditioning units, shattered lamp posts, uprooted trees and dead birds.
"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." Maria was producing widespread and dangerous flooding across the island, the National Weather Service said Electricity was believed to be out across the island, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for Governor Ricardo Rossello.
Authorities had not yet been able to assess the extent of the damage, he said.
Thousands of people had sought safety in shelters.
"God is with us; we are stronger than any hurricane," Rossello said on Twitter. "Together we will rise again." 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 US mainland.