Puerto Rico faced Wednesday what officials said could be the strongest hurricane to ever hit the U.S. territory as they warned it would decimate the power company’s crumbling infrastructure and force the government to rebuild dozens of communities.
Maria barrelled toward the island with 282 km/h winds and was expected to make landfall Wednesday midmorning along Puerto Rico’s southeast coast as a Category 5 storm, punishing the island with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours, forecasters said.
“This is going to be an extremely violent phenomenon,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said. “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history.”
The number of power outages spiked as Maria approached, with the storm centred early Wednesday about 115 kilometres southeast of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and moving northwest at 17 km/h, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami.
Puerto Rico often spared
Maria ties for the eighth strongest storm in Atlantic history, when measured by wind speed. Coming in second is this year’s Irma, which had 300 km/h winds and killed 38 people in the Caribbean and another 36 in the U.S. earlier this month.
Puerto Rico had long been spared from a direct hit by hurricanes that tend to veer north or south of the island. The last Category 4 hurricane landfall in Puerto Rico occurred in 1932, and the strongest storm to ever hit the island was San Felipe in 1928 with winds of 257 km/h.
As Maria approached, U.S. President Donald 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!”
More than 4,400 people were in shelters by late Tuesday, along with 105 pets, Rossello said.
‘Make sure you have your shoes on’
The storm’s centre passed near or over St. Croix overnight Tuesday, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago. But this time, the island would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mapp said.
“For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear,” he said during a brief news conference….