Hurricane Maria clobbers Puerto Rico, plunges island into darkness

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years, carved a path of destruction through the U.S. territory on Wednesday, causing severe flooding and plunging the island into darkness as the storm’s death toll in the Caribbean rose to at least 10.

Maria, the second major hurricane to rage through the region this month, was left considerably weakened by its encounter with Puerto Rico and on a course projected to pass north of the Dominican Republic, the Miami-based U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.

Hours earlier, Maria pummeled St. Croix, the largest and southern-most of the U.S. Virgin Islands, as a rare Category 5 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, causing widespread heavy damage.

Moving on to Puerto Rico ranked a Category 4 storm, with sustained winds of up to 155 miles per hour (250 km per hour), Maria ripped roofs from buildings and turned low-lying roadways into rushing debris-laden rivers as it cut a diagonal swath across the island.

The island’s governor, Ricardo Rossello, said the only fatality immediately reported was a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.

The streets of Puerto Rico’s historic Old Town in the capital, San Juan, were strewn with broken balconies, air conditioning units, shattered lamp posts, fallen power lines and dead birds. Few trees escaped unscathed. Thick branches were torn down from most and others were simply uprooted.

“It’s nothing short of a major disaster,” Rossello said in a CNN interview, adding it may take months for the island’s electricity to be completely restored. Earlier he imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew for the island.

The Hurricane Center reported “catastrophic flash flooding” in portions of the island, and news pictures showed whole blocks under water in areas of the capital.

“When we are able to go outside, we are going to find our island destroyed,” Abner Gomez, the director of the island’s emergency management agency, was quoted as saying by El Nuevo Dia newspaper. “It’s a system that has destroyed everything in its path.”

Virtually the entire island was left without electricity as night fell, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for the governor.

By 8 p.m. EDT (midnight GMT), Maria’s center was drifting away from Puerto Rico and was located 55 miles (90 km) off the eastern tip of the Dominican Republic, the NHC said.

As is typical for hurricanes passing over hilly or…

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