Hurricane Maria, the sixth fastest intensifying hurricane on record, likely slammed parts of mountainous Puerto Rico with fiercer winds than previously reported, the National Hurricane Center said Monday in a final assessment of the lethal storm.
Maria struck the island’s southeast coast Sept. 20, lingering for nearly eight hours and leaving a death toll that remains a matter of dispute.
A day before the storm struck, its intensity fluctuated between Cat 4 and Cat 5 strength. But just before landfall, it weakened after the eyewall collapsed and was replaced, which happens frequently in fierce storms. The National Weather Service reported sustained winds reached over 155 mph as it roared ashore. But in Monday’s report, hurricane specialists Richard Pasch, Andrew Penny and Robbie Berg concluded that more intense winds blowing at higher elevations almost certainly reached parts of the mountainous island.
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Monday’s report also put the official damage tally in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands at $90 billion, with 90 percent certainty, making it the third costliest on record and the island’s most destructive. Only Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey rang up higher damage totals.
Less than two months before the start of a new hurricane season, much of Puerto Rico remains in ruins. At least 70,000 homes were destroyed, blue tarps still covering countless roofs. Eighty percent of the island’s utility poles were knocked down and, as of March, about 150,000 homes were still without power. Last week, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced it was sending more personnel and equipment to help rebuild the grid after FEMA sent another $140 million to extend a $510 million contract.
The report also noted that while the official death count stands at 65, hundreds more will likely be added in an official government review.
In addition to wind, Maria generated dangerous storm surge and huge amounts of rain as it barreled through the Caribbean. Storm surge reached between nine and 9.5 feet along the coast and four to seven feet farther inland near Yabucoa, Maunabo and Patillas. In the Virgin Islands, storm surge reached one to three feet. As it moved north, Maria also sent a storm surge far to the west, pushing water one to three feet above ground along the North Carolina coast.
Rainfall was widespread, triggering brutal mudslides. Dominica, a lush island that the report notes was “reduced to an immense field of debris,” was pounded with 22.8 inches. One location in Puerto Rico recorded 38 inches.
The rain and surge also helped fuel unprecedented flooding, especially in the northern parts of Puerto Rico, the report said. The entire valley around the island’s longest river, La Plata, flooded, stranding hundreds of families on rooftops.
Forecasting the storm also proved tricky. Forecast models under-predicted the storm’s rapid intensification two days before it struck Puerto Rico. And global models failed to predict Maria’s formation until just before it became a tropical storm. However, beginning with the storm’s second official forecast, every advisory warned it would become a major hurricane with winds topping at least Cat 3 intensity by the time it reached Puerto Rico, giving the island 84 hours advance warning. Cat 4 intensity was forecast 54 hours in advance, the report noted.
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