Hurricane Maria destroys hundreds of homes and triggers flooding in Puerto Rico

The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and triggered heavy flooding on Wednesday.

The onslaught could plunge the US territory deeper into financial crisis.

Leaving at least nine people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria blew ashore in the morning in the south-east coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155mph.

It was expected to punish the island of 3.4 million people with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours.

"Once we're able to go outside, we're going to find our island destroyed," said Abner Gomez, Puerto Rico's emergency management director.

"The information we have received is not encouraging. It's a system that has destroyed everything in its path."

It was the second time in two weeks that Puerto Rico felt the wrath of a hurricane.

There was no immediate word of any deaths or serious injuries.

As people waited it out in shelters or took cover inside stairwells, bathrooms and closets, Maria brought down power lines, snapped trees, tore off roofs and unloaded at least 20 inches of rain.

Widespread flooding was reported, with dozens of cars half-submerged in some neighbourhoods and many streets turned into rivers.

Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Catano, told The Associated Press that 80% of the 454 homes in an area called Juana Matos were destroyed.

"Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this," he said.

As of 2pm local time, Maria had weakened to a Category 3, with winds of 115mph.

It was off Puerto Rico's north-west coast, moving at about 15mph, and was expected to pass off the coast of the Dominican Republic late on Wednesday and on Thursday.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico's electrical grid was crumbling and the island was in dire condition financially.

Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion debt, and the government has warned it is running out of money.

Governor Ricardo Rossello urged people to have faith: "We are stronger than any hurricane. Together, we will rebuild."

He later asked President Donald Trump to declare the island a disaster zone, a step that would open the way to federal aid.

Many feared extended power cuts would further sink businesses struggling amid a recession that has lasted more than a decade.

"This is going to be a disaster," said Jean Robert Auguste, who owns two French restaurants and sought shelter at a San Juan hotel.

"We haven't made any money this month."

More than 11,000 people - and more than 580 pets - were in shelters, authorities said.

Along the island's northern coast, an emergency medical station in the town of Arecibo lost its roof, while communication was severed with several emergency management posts.

A hospital and a police station reported broken windows, and a tree fell on an ambulance.

As the storm closed in on the Dominican Republic, about 4,000 tourists in the Bavara-Punta Cana area on the eastern tip of the island were moved to hotels in Santo Domingo, the capital.

Previously a Category 5 with 175mph winds, Maria hit Puerto Rico as the third-strongest storm to make landfall in the US, based on its central pressure.

It was even stronger than Hurricane Irma when it roared into the Florida Keys earlier this month.

Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on September 6, causing no deaths or widespread damage on the island but leaving more than a million people without electricity. More than 70,000 still had no power as Maria approached.

The last Category 4 hurricane to blow ashore in Puerto Rico was in 1932, and the strongest ever to hit the island was San Felipe in 1928 with winds of 160mph.

As Maria closed in, Mr Trump offered his support via Twitter: "Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you - will be there to help!"

The storm's centre passed near or over St Croix overnight on Tuesday, prompting US Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to warn people to sleep in their street clothes and shoes just in case.

On the island of Dominica, which got slammed late on Monday, Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister, reported at least seven deaths and a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings".

He said the country was "in a daze," with no electricity and little to no communications.


KEYWORDS: Hurricane Maria

 

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