Puerto Rico forecast to take 'potentially catastrophic' direct hit from Hurricane Maria

‘You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,’ warns US territory’s safety commissioner as devastation of Dominica emerges

At least six people have reportedly been killed and 90% of buildings destroyed after Hurricane Maria lashed the Caribbean island of Dominica, as Puerto Rico braced for its turn in the eye of a “potentially catastrophic” category five storm.

Puerto Rican officials urged residents to evacuate to government-run shelters on the island, which is expected to take a direct hit from a storm that currently has sustained wind speeds of 165mph (270km/h). Thousands of people have already fled to safety.

US president Donald Trump described the storm as a “monster hurricane” and promised support in the aftermath, saying: “Be careful, our hearts are with you.”

Much of the Caribbean is still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which hit two weeks ago and devastated large swaths of the region.

“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” said Hector Pesquera, the island’s public safety commissioner. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”

The storm is forecast to hit the eastern half of the island, home to the capital San Juan and more densely populated, on Wednesday morning. There are about 500 shelters open on the island and the hurricane could be the most powerful to make landfall on the US territory since 1928.

“We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico,” Ricardo Rosselló, the territory’s governor, said. “We’re going to have to rebuild.”

An island-wide power outage and communication blackouts are likely and could last for days, he added, saying the hurricane could hit “with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations”.

Even when the storm was still 95 miles (155km) from San Juan, the island’s power authority said 184,658 homes – or 12.9% of the total – were without power.

Weather conditions on Puerto Rico were equivalent to those of a weak tropical storm in the early hours of Wednesday. Peak rainfall is expected to reach 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30cm), according to the US National Weather Service.

Supermarkets shelves were devoid of bottled water with signs asking customers to limit buying only two cases per person.

After passing over Puerto Rico, the storm is expected to pass north-east of the Dominican Republic, according to the US Hurricane Center.

The hurricane first hit Dominica, where aerial footage showed hundreds of flattened buildings and debris strewn across the landscape after wind gusts of up to 160mph (260km/h), while the nation’s prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, described the destruction as “mind boggling”.

Aerial footage shows devastation in Dominica after Hurricane Maria

“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote in a series of Facebook posts from his home, where he said he lost his roof.

St Lucia, Martinique and Trinidad and Tobago are mobilising to help Dominica assess the scale of the damage and plan to begin emergency relief efforts on Wednesday.

At least one person has died in the French island of Guadeloupe, considered the first official fatality attributed to the storm, and about 40% of homes are without power.

St Croix, the southernmost of the US Virgin Islands, was spared the eye of the storm but still faced heavy rain and strong winds as Hurricane Maria skirted past.

“You lose your life the moment you start thinking about how to save a few bucks to stop something from crashing or burning or falling apart,” Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents. “The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it.”

The British Virgin Islands are also under a hurricane warning and Governor Gus Jaspert said that with up to 90% of houses destroyed or damaged by Irma barely two weeks ago, “shelter is a real issue”.


Benjamin Haas, and Nicolas Figueroa in Puerto Rico

The GuardianTramp

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