A ferocious Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico early Wednesday as the island girded for an entire day of vicious winds and drenching rain expected to devastate the nation.
As of 5 a.m, the center of the storm was 50 miles southeast of San Juan and just off the eastern end of the island – but winds overnight had already pummeled Puerto Rico, toppling trees and sparking flash-flood warnings in the nation’s capital.
With sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, Maria weakened slightly, enough to make it a still-lethal Category 4 storm.
The storm was tracking toward the nation’s eastern coast and the eyewall was over the Puerto Rican island of Vieques; maximum sustained winds there were clocked at 110 miles per hour. Local press noted reports of flooding in homes and downed communications in Humacao, just south of the famed El Yunque national park. Water was seeping into the shelter at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum sports arena, forcing refugees to move their cots.
“The eye of Hurricane Maria about to make landfall in southeast PR very soon,” San Juan’s National Weather Service tweeted just after 5 a.m.
Maria was expected to make landfall on the island’s eastern coast after a violent that left the islands of Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands in shambles. If it hits as a Category 4 or 5 storm, it will be the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since the catastrophic San Felipe Segundo hurricane in 1928 that killed thousands.
The storm will 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. 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.
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 more likely to bring stronger winds into the densely populated capital of San Juan when Maria makes expected landfall on the southeastern coast.
San Juan’s National Weather Service office was predicting sustained winds of 90 to 125 mph across much of the island, with gusts up to 175 mph that could easily destroy older buildings. Storm surge of up to 9 feet could also unleash flooding, with rainfall of between 12 and 18 inches, and spots of up to 25 inches.
Across the island, before the storm, Puerto Ricans secured their shutters, gathered water and bought last-minute supplies, including at a Walmart where some clamored to buy battery-powered fans, though no batteries were too be found.
“Everything's warm,” said Barbara Toner, 35, one of those who still has no power, as she hauled away final supplies from a Walmart in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce.
She was upbeat, even in the face of a dangerous storm. Her and her husband, who moved from Vermont, have gotten to know their neighbors and even attended a block party thrown with no power.
“People are starting to really freak out,” she said. “I'm kind of excited. This is something new for me. I know it's scary. I feel really bad for the people on the coast.”
More than 10,000 people huddled into over 500 government shelters across Puerto Rico, and authorities were warning of widespread damage and misery for an island already battered by fiscal crisis and crushing poverty.
“Now we’re looking down the barrel of Maria, a historic category 5 hurricane,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in an address to the nation on Tuesday night. “Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers.”
Compared to Irma, Maria is a much smaller storm, with hurricane-force winds extending about 35 miles from the eye. 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.