Puerto Rico was spared the worst of Hurricane Irma, which grazed the island and caused huge power blackouts but did not ravage the US. territory in the same way it did other islands.
That will not be the case with Hurricane Maria, according to forecasters. The category 5 storm is barrelling towards Puerto Rico with winds of 165 mph and life-threatening storm surges. Maria is expected to hit Puerto Rico early Wednesday.
Officials are urging people living in homes not built to withstand the conditions to evacuate immediately, while U.S. President Donald Trump told the island’s residents that “our hearts are with you” and the federal government would assist with the recovery.
At 1:00 a.m. Eastern time, Maria began battering St. Croix, the southernmost and largest island of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The storm brought winds of 90 mph to the 50,000-population island, according to the National Hurricane Center (NHC).
Maria had moved 20 miles west of St. Croix by 2:00 a.m. and was moving towards Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. The hurricane is forecast to be the strongest storm ever to hit Puerto Rico; Maria is expected to bring between 12-18 inches of rainfall—and 25 inches in isolated pockets—to Puerto Rico, along with storm surges of up to nine feet.
Maria is moving along a similar path to its predecessor Irma, carving a destructive track through the Caribbean. After reaching Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning, the storm is forecast to skirt past the Dominican Republic on Thursday before passing the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday.
Hurricane warnings are in place for the US Virgin Islands, British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the two smaller islands of Culebra and Vieques and parts of the Dominican Republic.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló has said that around 500 storm shelters are available across the island and called upon residents late on Tuesday to evacuate before conditions worsened. “People need to move fast,” Rosselló told CNN, noting that once winds exceeded 50 mph, rescue workers would be ordered off the streets to seek shelter themselves.
Rosselló tweeted that as of 2:30 a.m. local time, around 10,000 people and almost 200 pets had sought refuge in official shelters.
The government in Puerto Rico has been stark in its warnings regarding the likely impact of Maria. Governor Rosselló has warned that anyone living in a flood zone or a wooden house is in danger, while the island’s public safety commissioner, Héctor Pesquera, issued a blunt notice to residents of endangered areas. “You have to evacuate—otherwise you are going to die. I do not know how to make this any clearer,” he said, according to NBC’s Spanish-language network Telemundo.
The White House approved an emergency declaration in Puerto Rico on Monday and ordered federal agencies to assist with responding to the impact of Maria. Trump tweeted his support to the people of Puerto Rico on Tuesday, which was welcomed by Governor Rosselló. (Newsweek)