SAN JUAN, P.R. — Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico with a one-two punch of high winds and driving rain on Wednesday, and sent thousands of people scrambling to shelters.
Electricity was knocked out on the whole island, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rico State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management said. The authorities warned weary residents not to let down their guard, because flash flooding and mudslides could be more deadly than the initial winds.
The storm, now a category 3 system, brought new challenges to an island that has been groaning under the weight of a debt crisis that has crippled the public health and infrastructure systems and sent professionals fleeing to the mainland.
More than 500 shelters had been opened, according to the governor, Ricardo Rosselló, though he said he could not vouch for the storm-worthiness of all of those structures.
About 600 people took refuge in one of the biggest, the Robert Clemente Coliseum in San Juan, which was near the center of the storm. Witnesses said the stadium’s roof had come off and the shelter lacked electricity and hot water.
“It’s looking ugly, ugly, ugly over here,” Shania Vargas, a resident of Carolina who sheltered in the stadium, said over the phone. But in a video shared on Twitter by the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz,, she said, “As uncomfortable as we are, we are better off than any other place.”
Here’s the latest:
• The storm made landfall at Yabucoa in Puerto Rico’s southeast shortly after 6 a.m., with winds as strong as 155 m.p.h. It had crossed the United States Virgin Islands as a Category 5 storm, then weakened slightly but remained “extremely dangerous.”
• Governor Rosselló said that 11,000 people were reported to have gone to shelters, but that the real number was most likely higher.
• Hartley Henry, an adviser to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit of Dominica, told The Associated Press on Wednesday that there had been seven confirmed deaths from Hurricane Maria on that island. Two people were also killed on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officials said.
Flooding is a major concern in Puerto Rico
“This is just the beginning,” Gov. Rossello said in an interview with El Nuevo Dia, the largest daily newspaper in Puerto Rico. “We know there are severe damages along different rivers and reservoirs, and water has overflowed from riverbanks, causing flooding,” he added.
The island had not seen a category 4 storm since 1932. As of 2 p.m., Maria’s core was offshore of the northwestern coast of Puerto Rico with 115 m.p.h. winds, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was expected to produce “life-threatening flooding,” with 20 to 25 inches of rain falling in Puerto Rico through Friday and an additional five to 10 inches of rain in the Virgin Islands.
Forecasters warned that winds could strike with more force on the windward sides of hills and mountains and on high-rise buildings. Tornadoes were possible over Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, and Maria was expected to remain a dangerous hurricane through Friday.
As the storm continued on its northwestward path, tropical storm conditions were expected to begin on the southern coast of the Dominican Republic Wednesday afternoon, worsening into hurricane conditions. The storm would move on to the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas Thursday morning, forecasters said.
Puerto Ricans woke up to strong winds
Residents of Puerto Rico braced for a more direct hit than from Irma, which killed three people there and knocked out power to many.
As the storm moved in, Jerika Llano, 27, took refuge with three family members in her concrete home in Bayamón, a town near the island’s capital. She said the wind was “blowing hard and screaming.”
“Almost all the trees have fallen, and I can see aluminum roofs flying,” she said. “The doors and gates vibrate because of the power of the gusts.”
In the town of Cataño in northern Puerto Rico, several houses lost their zinc roofs and the roof of a church was ripped apart, Felix Delgado Montalvo, the town’s mayor, said on a local radio station.
“My message now is not to leave your houses until the situation is over,” he told listeners.
Federal officials say they are prepared to help
President Trump said on Wednesday that he had “never seen” winds like the ones generated by Hurricane Maria as it made landfall in Puerto Rico.
“We have a big one going right now — I’ve never seen winds like this — in Puerto Rico,” he said as he entered a meeting in New York with King Abdullah II of Jordan. “You take a look at what’s happening there, and it’s just one after another.”
The king extended his “condolences” to residents in the path of the three storms that have hit the United States over the last several weeks, adding, “For us sitting on the outside, looking at how the Americans came together at a difficult time, is really an example to everybody else.”
On CNN, Brock Long, the administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said that the agency was well positioned to help in Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands.
Mr. Long confirmed that both areas had fragile power systems. “It’s going to be a very frustrating event to get the power back on,” he said.
‘There was howling in every part of this house,’ said a St. Croix resident
Residents of the Virgin Islands, whose homes were damaged by Irma two weeks ago, had been urged to find new shelters to ride out Maria.
The storm began pounding the Virgin Islands on Tuesday evening, and a flash-flood alert was sent to residents’ cellphones at 10:05 p.m., Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp of the United States Virgin Islands said. He had warned that hurricane-strength winds were likely to batter the islands until Wednesday morning.
The core of the storm passed south of the Virgin Islands, with the outer eyewall lashing St. Croix.
“There was howling in every part of this house,” said Ernice Gilbert, a journalist who lives on the east side of the island. “In my area, the winds were ferocious. But the bulk of the winds were expected to hit strongest in the southwest.”
At one point, he said, the rafters of his house began “cracking,” and part of his wall had cracked. The strong winds forced him to barricade his doors with couches, Mr. Gilbert said.
“That was the scariest portion of the ordeal for me,” he said by telephone.
Maria had battered the island nation of Dominica a day earlier. Prime Minister Skerrit described the damage as “mind-boggling” and wrote on Facebook that he had to be rescued after winds ripped the roof off his official residence. But little information has emerged since then, with the storm having taken out phone and power lines on Dominica.
Luis Ferré-Sadurní reported from San Juan, and Austin Ramzy from Hong Kong. Jonah Engel Bromwich contributed reporting from New York.
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