SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Early aerial images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria here show waterlogged neighborhoods, roofs peeled off homes and shopping centers, and once-lush landscape denuded of leaves from a storm that officials say has left at least six people dead.
Three of the fatalities occurred in the municipality of Utuado as a result of mud slides, the U.S. territory’s public safety department said in a statement. Two others died in flooding in Toa Baja, and one other person died in Bayamón when a panel struck him in the head. More deaths are likely to be reported in the coming hours and days, officials said.
“We are aware of other reports of fatalities that have transpired by unofficial means but we cannot confirm them,” said the secretary of the department of public safety, Héctor M. Pesquera.
In an indication of the ongoing danger here, the National Weather Service said Friday afternoon that the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of the island was failing, causing flash-flooding and prompting evacuations.
“This is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION,” the San Juan office of the NWS tweeted. “Buses are currently evacuating people from the area as quickly as they can.”
Authorities have been hampered in their ability to assess damage because foul weather continues to batter parts of the island, as well as the fact that the storm knocked out power and communication systems across the island. But the breadth and depth of the devastation Puerto Ricans face as they begin to clear out and rebuild is clear in new photographs from above.
Photos taken from a helicopter surveying the damage in the southeast part of the island, encompassing an area that on a good day would be a two-hour drive from the capital of San Juan, show entire neighborhoods blanketed in murky water, the waves in some cases reaching near the first-floor windows. Tops of buildings were sliced open, their top-floor rooms visible like dollhouses.
“We saw houses with the roof ripped away totally,” said Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo, a freelance photographer for The Washington Post. One shopping center had a huge hole in the roof, “open like a can of tuna,” he said. “You could see all the merchandise, clothes hanging in the shelves.”
A mansion on a coastal luxury resort, once with enviable ocean views, is now partially floating over open air as rocks and mud crumbled under one corner and fell into the sea. Windmills broke and shattered solar panels shone “like broken mirrors,” Pichardo said. One reassuring sign, he said, is that people appeared to have fled many of the flood-damaged areas; occasionally people peeked out of second-floor windows or lingered on balconies, apparently waiting for the waters to recede.
The reports are the latest indication of the damage inflicted by Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in more than 80 years and the third major hurricane to batter parts of the Caribbean and the United States this season. Maria also pummeled parts of the U.S. Virgin Islands, lashed Turks and Caicos on Friday morning and took aim at the Bahamas, where it could dump as much as 20 inches of rain.
Damaging floods continued to plague Puerto Rico in Maria’s wake, hampering rescue missions and making it difficult for officials to survey the full extent of the destruction. Authorities have not yet been able to reach or contact some remote communities, in part because of the power outages and damage to communication systems, including cellphone towers and landlines.
Shock has given way to frayed nerves as officials warn residents that it could be months before power is restored. People queued up at gas stations to fuel cars as well as generators, and long lines snaked from grocery stores. Residents unable to reach family members in remote areas took to the roadways to try to find them, only to meet downed trees and other debris. News was particularly scarce from the southern and central parts of the island, as well the tiny island of Vieques to the east.
On Radio Isla Friday morning, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló urged residents to stay in their homes.
“It’s still not safe in the roads. There’s still a great deal of flooding,” he said. “Now is not the time — unless it’s an emergency — to be on the roads.”
He said that Puerto Rican residents and civilians have been essential in the rescue and recovery efforts.
“That solidarity is how we’re going to be able to get people out of danger” and help lift Puerto Rico out of this, he said.
The enormity of what they had just been through — and what was yet to come — appeared to be sinking in for many people, including those who considered themselves hurricane-hardened.
“This storm was something,” said Geraldo Ramirez, 36, a resident of San Juan’s La Perla neighborhood. “I was here for Hurricane Georges back in ’98, and that was a hard to believe, how badly it affected the island. But this, Maria, was something altogether different. I don’t even have the words.”
Ramirez lives in a small, three-story purple house near the waterfront on Calle San Miguel with his sister, her husband and their two children. His house, a sturdy cinder-block structure, was built 17 years ago, and did not suffer much structural damage. But rain and ocean water managed to find its way into every room in his house.
Asked when the power would likely return to his small neighborhood, he answered, without hesitating, “Three or four months, at least. Maybe six.”
He added: “But it’s okay, we will make do. We’ve are used to it and it’s always the same. Georges, Hugo, we lose power and we lose water. But we know how to survive.”
Somashekhar reported from Washington.
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