Hurricane Maria brings ‘staggering’ floods to Puerto Rico as entire island loses power

Life-threatening conditions expected to last for several hours.

Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to  Puerto Rico two weeks ago. Hurricane Maria is expected to be worse. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti
Hurricane Irma caused extensive damage to Puerto Rico two weeks ago. Hurricane Maria is expected to be worse. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carlos Giusti

All of Puerto Rico lost power Wednesday as Hurricane Maria slammed the U.S. territory as a Category 4 storm — only two weeks after Hurricane Irma caused major damage to the island.

Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. As of 2 p.m. ET, Maria had weakened to a Category 3 hurricane with maximum sustained winds down to 155 mph as the storm moved over the island.

“We are 100 percent without power,” a spokesman for the Puerto Rico governor’s office told CNN Wednesday afternoon.

Maria is the first Category 4 hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since the San Ciprian hurricane in 1932, according to AccuWeather.com. “In addition to the staggering floods, hurricane-force winds have been reported around Puerto Rico and even on neighboring islands,” the weather service reported. “A wind gust of 113 mph was reported in San Juan with a gust of 137 mph reported on Isla Culebrita.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Maria “is an event like we have never seen before. This event will damage our infrastructure and will be catastrophic.” Puerto Rico was only brushed by Irma, and yet the storm knocked out electricity to 75 percent of the island. Nearly 70,000 people on the island, with a population of about 3.4 million, still were without power prior to Maria’s landfall.

Rainfall totals for Puerto Rico are projected at 12 to 18 inches, with as much as 35 inches in isolated areas. In a statement, the National Hurricane Center said Maria’s winds “will bring catastrophic damage” and that “severe injury is possible in less than a strong structure.” Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the center said.

Maria is the fourth hurricane to hit a strength of Category 4 or 5 this season, joining Jose, Irma, and Harvey. Half of all Atlantic hurricanes this season have been Category 4 or 5.

Climate scientists have pointed out that weaker storms have been strengthening much more rapidly into stronger storms than they ever did before. “Storms are intensifying at a much more rapid pace than they used to 25 years back,” explained the author of a 2012 study. “They are getting stronger more quickly and also [to a] higher category. The intensity as well as the rate of intensity is increasing.”

Hurricane Maria is expected to put on hold Puerto Rico’s efforts to provide assistance to the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands in the Caribbean that were harder hit by Hurricane Irma. Prior to the arrival of Maria, Puerto Rico had been facilitating travel and access to Puerto Rican hospitals for Virgin Island residents in need of medical assistance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had deployed about 70 personnel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to inspect damage from the storm and assess environmental recovery efforts.

More than 500 shelters had been opened, according to the governor’s office, though it could not vouch for the storm-worthiness of all of those structures, the New York Times reported.

The American Red Cross said its workers on both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are taking shelter and will begin service delivery after Maria passes over the islands and it is safe to do so. “In Puerto Rico, local officials are opening evacuation shelters, and the Red Cross is mobilizing volunteers and supplies to be ready to help after the storm passes,” the organization said Tuesday.

This piece was updated Wednesday afternoon with the latest information on Maria’s landfall.