Hurricane Maria 'devastates' Dominica, targets Puerto Rico

For many residents of the Sea Breeze Resort in Islamorada, Florida Hurricane Irma not only destroyed their homes, but also their way of life. Due to current building codes many will not be able to replace their older mobile homes. Kelly Jordan, USA TODAY

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - Hurricane Maria was rumbling toward this exposed Caribbean island Tuesday as an angry, Category 5 storm after hammering Dominica, where the prime minister said his nation has lost all that "money can buy and replace."

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said the initial reports were "of widespread devastation" on the island. His said roofs of many homes, including his own official residence, had been torn off by Maria's howling winds. He was concerned that heavy rains would cause deadly mudslides in his mountainous country.

"I am honestly not preoccupied with physical damage at this time, because it is devastating. Indeed, mind boggling," he said in a Facebook post. "My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured.

"We will need help, my friend, we will need help of all kinds."

Maria has been fluctuating between a Category 4 and Category 5 status — a major storm driving deadly wind, rain and storm surge. At 11 a.m. on Tuesday, Maria was a Category 5 storm with sustained winds of 160 mph., the National Hurricane Center said.

Officials on the French island of Guadeloupe on Tuesday reported the first fatality attributed to Hurricane Maria. 

The storm was about 150 miles southeast of St. Croix, rolling west-northwest at 10 mph.

AccuWeather senior meteorologist Rob Miller said Maria should make landfall over southeast Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning, bisecting the island as a Category 5 storm.

"They were spared the worst of (Hurricane) Irma, but their luck has run out," Miller said.

It is still too early to determine whether the storm will impact the U.S. East Coast — and any threat would not be until early next week.

Miller said, however, that the storm will most likely take a course similar to Hurricane Jose, which swept north and had only an indirect impact on the U.S. continental East Coast. Florida, he said, likely will be spared Maria's wrath.

"That is good news for the United States, certainly not for the Caribbean," Miller said. "But we take it where we can get it."

The National Weather Service in Puerto Rico warned that "catastrophic winds" are expected from Maria beginning Tuesday afternoon. "Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months." In addition, "major to record rains and flooding are expected to accompany Maria," the weather service said.

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló warned citizens that this will be a storm unlike any other they’ve seen and urged them to seek shelter.

“This will be a very violent event for Puerto Rico,” he said at a press conference. “These are going to be hard times. This will not be a comfortable 72 hours.”

Rescue teams will likely not be able to go out for the next 72 hours, so residents in flood-prone areas or in unsecure buildings should evacuate now, Rosselló said.

“This is the biggest storm we’ve seen in a century,” he said. “We’re going to see a lot of damage, we’re going to have to rebuild, but right now let’s focus on saving lives.”

Rosselló said the government has prepared hundreds of shelters capable of housing more than 100,000 evacuees if necessary.

In Old San Juan, residents and tourists grabbed last minute supplies and continued fortifying homes and businesses. Crews drilled plywood planks over the windows of Mojito's Restaurant. The restaurant had been closed for the summer, but owner Guillermo Hernandez said he feared the damage Maria could bring.

"It's coming strong for San Juan," he said. "We need to reinforce."

Store owner Heber Hernandez said he realizes Maria will be the strongest storm the island has seen in over seven decades. But improved technology has made it easier to inform citizens and help them better prepare for storms, he said. Hernandez said he expects to ride out the storm at home, but admits that "in my 24 years in this city, I've never seen anything like this."

In San Juan's Condado neighborhood, a mix of tourist hotels and residential neighborhoods, open-air cafeterias served patrons lunch and people went about their business. Cixto Calderón sold $5 bunches of quenepas — small, sweet, lime-like fruits purported to have medicinal qualities ranging from relieving stress to combating cancer — from the trunk of his car. 

Calderón, 57, was later going to ride out the hurricane in his nearby home.

"I'm making a little money but this is also a service to the people," he said. "This will relieve their stress, take their mind off Maria."

First, however, Maria will storm past the U.S. Virgin Islands, still reeling from the brutal assault of Irma. Maria should sweep to the south of St. Croix, close enough to blast the island with hurricane-force winds. Tiny St. John's should remain a bit more out of the line of fire, but could see sustained, tropical force winds with hurricane-level gusts, he said.

The storm's center reached Dominica late Monday, pounding the mountainous island with strong winds and heavy rains.

“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote at the start of a series of Facebook posts. “My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding.” He later said he was rescued.

Skerrit said it was too early to determine the condition of the airport and seaports, but he said they probably would be inoperable for a few days.

"That is why I am eager now to solicit the support of friendly nations and organizations with helicopter services" so he can fly over his country and survey the damage.

The storm is moving west-northwest at 9 mph on a course that threatens islands already devastated by Hurricane Irma. 

Meanwhile, Hurricane Jose's 75-mph sustained winds will continue to bring rip currents and rough surf to the U.S. East Coast over the next several days.

Tropical-storm warnings have been posted along the southeastern New England coast, including most of the Rhode Island and Massachusetts coastline. Jose will produce heavy rain as it passes near southern New England and the Mid-Atlantic on Tuesday and Wednesday, the hurricane center said.  Total accumulations of 3 to 5 inches of rain are expected.

Jervis reported from Puerto Rico, Bacon from McLean, Va. Contributing: Doyle Rice, Jane Onyanga-Omara, The Associated Press



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