(TNS) — A ferocious Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico just before dawn Wednesday as some 3.5 million people girded for a day of vicious winds and drenching rain expected to devastate the American territory.
The eye of the storm made official landfall at 6:15 a.m. near Yabucoa, about 45 miles southeast of the densely populated capital of San Juan.
Winds were lashing the island, toppling trees and sparking flash-flood warnings in the territory’s capital. Maria weakened slightly as it approached the island but its sustained winds remained at 155 mph, still a monster Category 4 storm, when it struck.
“What I'm seeing is incredible,” said retiree Rosita Galguerra, 66, who is 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.”
By 9 a.m., as the storm raked the island and the core passed west of San Juan, the strongest winds weakened slightly to 145 miles per hour. Authorities 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 studio because of damage.
Local radar stopped functioning, while El Nuevo Dia reported that 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.
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.
Just before landfall, the National Weather Service, via local radio, began warning residents in structures with weak roofs to take cover in interior rooms or bathtubs, with mattresses as covers.
“These hours are going to be very uncomfortable,” Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rossello told WKAQ 580AM on Wednesday morning. “It's time to hold on and stay safe.”
Maria hit the island’s eastern coast after a trek that left the islands of Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands in shambles. As a Category 4 storm, it is the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since the San Ciprian hurricane killed more than 200 people in 1932.
After Maria crosses the island, it will approach the Turks and Caicos Islands early Friday, still expected to be a major hurricane. If the storm continues on the track forecast at 5 a.m. by the National Hurricane Center, it will post no threat to Florida and would stay well offshore of the East Coast of the United States as it moves north through the weekend.
In Puerto Rico, Maria made official landfall on the island's southeastern tip and its least developed coastline. The region is home to nature preserves, some beach resorts and sugar plantations.
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.
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 to bring Maria’s stronger right quandrant into San Juan as the storm crosses cuts across the island throughout the morning.
San Juan’s National Weather Service office had predicted 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. A gust of 113 mph was reported at Yabucoa Harbor as the storm moved ashore, the National Hurricane Center reported. Weather radar at the National Weather Service in San Juan appeared to go down around 6 a.m.
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. She 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 11,000 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. Rossello said in an address to the island 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 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 extent of the damage was unknown.
Staff writer Patricia Mazzei reported from San Juan. Staff Writer David Ovalle reported from Miami.
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