The eye of Hurricane Maria exited Puerto Rico on Wednesday afternoon, but only after carving a vicious path that toppled trees, sheared roofs, engorged rivers and obliterated the electric grid — cutting off power for the entire island of 3.5 million people.
By 2 p.m., the weakened storm had moved into open water but the danger was far from over.
The top winds were still clocking in at 115 miles per hour – still a major life-threatening Category 3 storm – and punishing rain was expected to drench Puerto Rico through the rest of the day. The U.S. National Weather Service was predicting up to 18 inches of rain through Friday, with “life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.” News footage showed the muddy Guayama River overflowing and rushing in a brown torrent down streets .
“The truth is the danger continues,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told the island’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día. “It's going to keep raining hard. Flood zones are at critical levels. We're still going to have a full day of rain.”
The head of Puerto Rico’s emergency-management agency predicted: “When we can go out, we are going to find the entire island destroyed.”
Northwest of Puerto Rico, Maria was also expected to dump lethal amounts of rainfall on the Dominican Republic and Haiti while heading toward Turks & Caicos and the Bahamas later in the week. If Maria continues on its predicted path, the storm should not pose a danger to Florida but it was still too early to completely rule out some effects along the East Coast of the U.S.
The storm smacked the islands of Dominica, Guadeloupe and the U.S. Virgin Islands before making landfall in Puerto Rico early Wednesday at 6:15 a.m. near Yabucoa. That’s about 45 miles southeast of the densely populated capital of San Juan.
“What I'm seeing is incredible,” said retiree Rosita Galguerra, 66, who was riding out the storm with her husband in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan. “The rain is horizontal and all the trees are on the ground.
“The house is trembling – and my house is made of concrete with a concrete roof. The winds are like out of a horror movie and it's gusts, gusts, gusts. The island is going to be completely destroyed.”
Across the island, the full extent of the damage has come only in snippets as authorities have been unable to emerge and survey the damage and rescue those in need of help.
Emergency managers and local reporters were swamped with reports of burst windows, flooded buildings and downed communications – including the phone lines at WKAQ, where staffers had to evacuate one of the radio studios because of damage.
Local radar stopped functioning before 6 a.m., while El Nuevo Día reported a portion of a police station collapsed. Floodgates were opened at the Plata river, which could endanger nearby communities, according to the news agency Primera Hora. Puerto Rico’s power company estimated that the 100 percent of the island was without electricity.
More than 700 refugees sheltered at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum sports arena had to clear the bottom floor because of a roof leak, while staffers used a chain to keep the doors from blowing open. By the end of the morning, the shelter had no power or running water and the roof was “in pieces” although structurally sound, according to Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“The question is, when will we open the doors – as soon as the hurricane is gone, and we inform you it’s safe,” Yulín told refugees in the darkened arena.
As much as 90 percent of the island was without electricity, Gov. Rossello said, and most cell towers and other forms of communications are also down. “We should expect that at some point we will lose 100 percent communication,” he said.
Emergency managers had been able to communicate with people on the island of Culebra via radio and satellite communications. So far, there's been no word from the island of Vieques, he said.
Storm surge was estimated at between five to seven feet, and waves topping 20 feet have hit the shore, he said.
Maria hit the island as a Category 4 storm, the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since the San Ciprian hurricane killed more than 200 people in 1932. The storm made official landfall on the island's southeastern tip and its least developed coast line. The region is home to nature preserves, some beach resorts and sugar plantations.
Maria, forecasters said, went through an eyewall replacement cycle just offshore of Puerto Rico. That slightly weakened the storm but nearly doubled the width of its hurricane wind field, extending them out 60 miles. On a tiny island just 35 miles wide, that's likely brought Maria’s stronger right quadrant into San Juan.
The storm hit the U.S. territory more than a week after another major hurricane, Irma, churned through the Caribbean, cross the Florida Keys and slammed into the state’s west coast, leaving more than 40 dead in its wake. Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the winds nevertheless knocked out power to thousands – 70,000 still had no electricity as Maria approached.
Compared to Irma, Maria is a smaller storm but its trek across the Caribbean nevertheless inflicted major damage on the islands.
On the mountainous island of Dominica, Maria made landfall on Monday night as a Category 5 storm. The winds ripped off the roof of the home of prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who had to be rescued.
“So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” he wrote in a Facebook post Monday morning.
In Guadeloupe, a French-run island chain known for waterfalls and idyllic beaches, the hurricane killed at least one person late Tuesday but the full extend of the damage was unknown.
Staff writer Patricia Mazzei reported from San Juan. Staff Writer David Ovalle reported from Miami.