This article titled “Hurricane Maria: category 5 storm batters Caribbean – live” was written by Claire Phipps (now) and Sam Levin (earlier), for theguardian.com on Wednesday 20th September 2017 01.31 UTC
This image from the GOES16 weather satellite shows Maria bearing down on St Croix, in the US Virgin Islands.
The island of Vieques is then next in its path, before the hurricane is forecast to smack into Puerto Rico, seen here in the green outer band to the north-west of the eye.
Ross University school of medicine, which is in Dominica, says it is is still working to account for its students – more than 80% of whom are US citizens, with close to 10% from Canada – after Maria swept the island.
But many relatives and friends outside Dominica say the hotline number provided is unavailable and they have been unable to make contact with the school or students.
The university building itself is reportedly built to withstand category 5 hurricanes, but most students live off-campus.
Maria is intensifying. With wind speeds now up to 175mph (280km/h) and barometric pressure down to 909hPa, it is now one of the most intense hurricanes in Atlantic history:
It is currently almost 9pm in the US Virgin Islands, where Hurricane Maria is expected to hit around midnight.
The hurricane was expected to pass near St Croix, the part of the US Virgin Islands that escaped the brunt of Irma. St Croix is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.
US Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents of St Croix that they would feel the brunt of the hurricane’s winds around midnight. St Thomas and St John, to the north of St Croix, were not likely to suffer a direct hit, he said.
Mapp warned that police and military troops would be pulled off the streets well before the storm’s arrival, meaning that rescue would be unavailable to anyone out in the winds. He told residents in an afternoon broadcast:
If you’ve identified a spot, a closet, a corner on the inside of your home and you have some breach in your roof, one of the things you can do is take a mattress or something and have it as a barrier to make sure that you’re safe.”
Many USVI residents fled to shelters around midday on Tuesday. Mapp urged islanders to focus on saving themselves:
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. The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it.”
US airlines said on Tuesday they would cap one-way fares at $99 to $384 to aid evacuations. Maria was predicted to be the worst storm to hit St Croix since Hugo, a category 4 storm, in 1989.
Ricardo Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, which is expected to be struck by Hurricane Maria within the next 24 hours, says more than 4,000 people – and 100 pets – have already sought refuge in official emergency shelters:
‘Significant damage’ seen in Dominica
The first reconnaissance flights over Dominica reveal “significant damage”, according to Ronald Jackson, executive director of the Caribbean disaster and emergency management agency.
Rogelio Sierra Díaz, Cuba’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, has also offered support for Dominica as the island begins to assess the damage wrought by Maria:
At least six dead in Dominica – reports
News from Dominica – which took the full brunt of Maria’s category five winds and rain on Monday night – has been very slow to arrive.
Prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit said in the early hours of Tuesday, in a post to his Facebook page:
So far we have lost all what money can buy and replace. My greatest fear for the morning is that we will wake to news of serious physical injury and possible deaths as a result of likely landslides triggered by persistent rains.
Antigua’s Daily Observer says there are unconfirmed reports from Dominica of at least six deaths. The Guardian has not been able to verify these reports, and it could be some time before the true picture emerges.
Gaston Browne, the prime minister of Antigua and Barbuda, said his country was ready to help Dominica. Barbuda was obliterated by Hurricane Irma barely two weeks ago, with most of its residents now evacuated to Antigua.
The government and people of Antigua and Barbuda stands in solidarity with the government and people of the Commonwealth of Dominica during this time of need.
We express our deep sorrow at the loss of life and property resulting from the passage of Hurricane Maria over the island. We stand ready to lend support to our brothers and sisters in Dominica.
Current hurricane warnings
A hurricane warning means residents should expect hurricane conditions and make immediate preparations to protect life.
Warnings are currently in place for the following islands:
- US Virgin Islands
- British Virgin Islands
- Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques
- Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata
This is Claire Phipps picking up our live coverage as Hurricane Maria continues to barrel its way across the Caribbean.
The latest advisory from the US National Hurricane Center, at 8pm local time, warns that the category 5 hurricane is moving closer to St Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands. Maria is currently about 60 miles (100km) south-east of the island, with winds of 175mph (280km/h).
The NHC urges:
Preparations against life-threatening storm surge and rainfall flooding and destructive winds should be rushed to completion.
- Hurricane Maria continues to strengthen as it edges closer to the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.
- Maria winds reached 175 mph as of 7pm local time.
- Maria “brutalized and devastated” the Caribbean island of Dominica, according to the country’s prime minister who had to be rescued from his flooded home.
- Officials in Puerto Rico say Maria is expected to be the most intense hurricane to make landfall since 1928.
- In the French Caribbean islands of Guadeloupe and Martinique, at least 150,000 homes have lost electricity.
- Maria claimed the life of at least one person in Guadeloupe, the first official fatality attributed to the storm.
- As of 6pm, only 373 evacuees had registered in the over 500 shelters across Puerto Rico – a small fraction of the people living in flood-prone areas.
- Puerto Rico’s governor has warned of the potential for a “total collapse of the energy system”.
- Some in Puerto Rico could be without power for months, and the recovery may require billions in federal aid.
Journalist Norbert Figueroa, reporting on the ground in San Juan, has an update on the potentially devastating impacts to Puerto Rico’s infrastructure:
Puerto Rico’s struggling and decaying power and telecommunications infrastructures are expected to be some of the most affected by this hurricane. It’s possible all communications and power networks could collapse at some point on Wednesday.
The island has about 1,600 telecommunication towers, but most of them are located inland and at high altitudes in the mountains – where the hurricane eye is expected to have a direct impact. There is concern that most of these towers were built over 20 years ago and were designed to withstand up to 130 mph winds, short of the expected wind speed across the island.
Telecommunication towers erected in the past five years were designed to sustain 165 mph winds, but as of 7pm, Maria had increased its sustained winds to 175 mph, which presents an imminent threat to the entire communications system in the island.
Over 1m residents lost power as Hurricane Irma battered the island earlier this month, even though the hurricane didn’t hit the island directly. As of Monday, 46,401 still had no power and 9,756 had no potable water. Due to the severity and direct impact of Maria, the government is advising locals to prepare for the possibility of being without power for months and without water for several days.
Puerto Rico will need billions in federal aid after Hurricane Maria, according to a report in the Miami Herald.
Existing fiscal challenges combined with the devastation of both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria means Puerto Rico will be in a very difficult position financially, the paper reports:
The island’s utility provider filed for a form of bankruptcy in July, and two months later Hurricane Irma passed just north of San Juan, knocking out power to nearly 1 million people and causing an estimated $1 billion in damage. With thousands still without power, Hurricane Maria is approaching…
The Puerto Rican government, which sought bankruptcy relief in exchange for supervised fiscal belt-tightening in May, will need federal assistance to recover from Maria and Irma. Repairing and replacing power lines and stations throughout the territory after Maria will likely cost billions, though the island doesn’t have any voting power in Congress.”
NHC: Maria ‘still strengthening’
The National Hurricane Center’s latest update says that as of 7pm local time, Maria remains a category 5 hurricane that is “extremely dangerous” and “still strengthening”.
Officials report that the maximum sustained winds have increased to 175 mph (280 km/h).
In the eastern portion of St Croix in the US Virgin Islands, a wind gust of 63 mph was recently reported, according to the NHC.
Hundreds evacuate in Puerto Rico
Reporter Norbert Figueroa has an update from the ground in Puerto Rico, where evacuations and hurricane preparation continue:
In San Juan, the wind is slowly incrementing, but it’s still not sustained. Rain is also intermittent but becoming more recurrent as time passes.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, has repeatedly insisted that people take shelter and prioritize life over property:
We are going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico and we’ll have to rebuild. But that’s secondary to life.”
“We are very worried because it is the first time we’re experiencing such a strong hurricane,” said Consuelo Quezada, a resident of Carolina, which is expected to be hit by the eyewall around Wednesday at noon. “I’m anxious, but I hope to God that it’ll all be alright in the end.”
One major concern is that there are fallen trees and a lot of debris still laying around from Hurricane Irma, which battered Puerto Rico just over a week ago. Those are potential projectiles that could cause injuries or damage property.
In Piñones, just 15 miles east of San Juan, it’s been reported that the sea has already receded some 65 feet from the shore.
Most businesses ceased their operations as of 5pm, just hours from the expected sustained tropical storm winds. But even at that hour, people were still filling up their gas tanks and buying whatever necessities they could get before everything shut down.
As of 6pm, only 373 evacuees had registered in the over 500 shelters across the island – a small fraction of the people living in flood-prone areas expected to take shelter during the storm. The shelters have a combined capacity of over 66,000 people and up to 133,000 in cases of urgency.
Puerto Rico warns of ‘total collapse of energy system’
The Puerto Rico governor, Ricardo Rosselló, is now warning of a “total collapse of the energy system in Puerto Rico”. He told National Public Radio that Maria will cause significantly more damage than Hurricane Irma:
Here is recent footage of the San Juan mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, giving an emotional interview from a shelter:
I’m scared for the people I’m responsible for. And I’m scared that when we come out of here, the devastation and the loss of lives would be great. So I’m just scared for my people.”
She added: “The electrical infrastructure in Puerto Rico was very weakened before Hurricane Irma came. We’re looking at about four months of no electricity.”
Asked about federal support, the mayor said: “At least the communication channel has been opened, and we have felt like at least somebody is listening on the other side of the ocean.”
Hurricane center forecasters have said it “now appears likely” that Maria will still be at category 5 intensity when it moves over the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, according to the AP.
The center of the storm was forecast to move over or near the US Virgin Island of St Croix and Puerto Rico on Tuesday night and Wednesday, leading to “life-threatening” floods.
Maria is expected to produce rain accumulations through Thursday of 10 to 15 inches in the US and British Virgin Islands; 12 to 18 inches in Puerto Rico; 10 to 15 inches in central and southern Leeward Islands; 2 to 4 inches in the Windward Islands and Barbados; and 4 to 8 inches in eastern Dominican Republic.
San Juan braces for the storm
Reporter Daniel Cassady provided this update from San Juan earlier this afternoon as Maria continued to edge closer:
The capital city of Puerto Rico seemed calm this afternoon. In the morning, there was a sense of urgency on the road, and the few people who were out on the street were securing their windows with plywood or corrugated steel. From Guaynabo to Old San Juan, most businesses, with the exception of grocery stores and gas stations, were closed.
There were small lines outside ATM machines, and most gas stations had a few customers filling up portable tanks and topping off their cars and trucks. Grocery stores had few gallons of water left, if any at all.
Officials have asked residents near the coast to evacuate, including in La Perla, a small neighborhood in Old San Juan that sits directly on the waterfront. Those closest to the water have mostly left, but some have decided to stay in their homes, board up the windows and sit out the impending storm.
The temperature dropped and thick grey clouds started gathering later in the afternoon.
Damage in French Caribbean islands
France’s interior minister has reported that at least 150,000 homes have lost electricity after Maria passed over two French Caribbean islands. In Guadeloupe, 80,000 households were without power and in Martinique, 70,000 were affected, according to the Associated Press report on Gerard Collomb’s remarks in Paris late Tuesday.
Here is earlier footage from Guadeloupe:
The full extent of the damage is still to be determined. In Martinique, three were injured, including one seriously, according to Collomb. He warned that Maria was still passing through St Martin and St Barts islands, French territories still recovering from the extreme damage of Hurricane Irma.
Sam Levin here, taking over our continuing coverage of Hurricane Maria. Here is the latest on the storm, which has grown in force and is continuing to batter the Caribbean:
- Maria is now edging closer to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico and has reached winds of 165 mph.
- The storm remains a category 5 hurricane and is threatening Caribbean islands still working to provide basic services after Hurricane Irma led to vast devastation.
- Maria has “brutalized and devastated” the Caribbean island of Dominica, according to the country’s prime minister.
- The prime minister, Roosevelt Skerrit, had to be rescued from his flooded home.
- Maria has claimed the life of at least one person in the French island of Guadeloupe, considered the first official fatality attributed to the storm.
- A curfew has been imposed on the Virgin Islands, and Irma relief efforts there have been halted.
- The UK foreign office has warned against traveling to the BVI, Montserrat, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
- Officials in Puerto Rico say Maria is on track to be the most intense hurricane to make landfall since 1928.
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