Hurricane Maria thrashed parts of the Dominican Republic with heavy rain and high winds as it passed near its east and north coasts early Thursday after making a direct hit on Puerto Rico, where it caused severe flooding and cut power to the island.
Maria has killed at least 18 people while raging through the Caribbean, which was also hit earlier this month by Hurricane Irma. The U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Maria was headed toward the Turks and Caicos Islands later Thursday and the southeastern Bahamas, bringing dangerous storm surges and torrential rain.
It was classified as a Category 5 storm when it struck Dominica on Monday night, ripping roofs off almost all structures on the island country where 15 people were confirmed dead. The country’s prime minister said Thursday afternoon that 20 people were still missing.
Maria was a Category 4 storm with sustained winds of up to 250 km/h when it hit Puerto Rico on Wednesday. It is the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly 90 years.
The Captain Cook restaurant lies damaged on Cofrecito Beach after the crossing of Hurricane Maria over Bavaro, Dominican Republic, on Thursday. (Tatiana Fernandez/Associated Press)
It ripped apart homes, snapped power lines and turned roadways into torrents laden with debris as it cut a diagonal swath across the island.
The entire island of 3.4 million people was under a flash flood warning early Thursday. The storm was forecast to dump 50 to 76 centimetres of rain on much of Puerto Rico through Friday, according to the NHC.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the only fatality immediately reported was a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.
“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.
A man tries to salvage a table from his restaurant before the arrival of Hurricane Maria in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. (Ricardo Rojas/Reuters)
U.S. President Donald Trump approved a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico on Thursday. The declaration makes federal funding available to residents affected by the storm and can help them access grants for temporary housing, home repairs, and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses.
At a news conference, Trump said the island had been obliterated and its electrical grid destroyed. He said he is planning to visit the Puerto Rico soon.
Maria weakened as it went over land in Puerto Rico but picked up strength again early Thursday passing over warm Caribbean waters.
Hurricane Maria blasts through Puerto Rico1:21
Now a Category 3 storm, with maximum sustained winds of 185 km/h, it was about 175 kilometres east-northeast of Punta Cana, on the east coast of the Dominican Republic, at 11 a.m. ET, with the storm’s large eye offshore of the northeast coast, the NHC said.
Maria was 255 kilometres southeast of Grand Turk Island and was moving northwest at about 15 km/h.
As Maria headed toward the Turks and Caicos islands it continued to bring heavy rainfall and flooding to Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC said.
“Strong gusty winds are still possible today over portions of Puerto Rico, especially in heavier rainbands that are moving over the island,” the centre said.
Punta Cana, a popular tourist area, was hit with wind gusts of 93 km/h and Maria was forecast to bring storm surges — when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels — of up to 1.8 metres in the Dominican Republic, it said.
Maria is expected to pick up strength as it churns toward the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas. Storm surges on those islands could be as high as 3.6 metres, the centre said.
Maria is expected to move north in the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend. There was no indication Thursday morning as to whether it would hit the continental United States.
Based on an aerial survey, about 95 per cent of roofs in Dominica, one of the poorest countries in the Caribbean with a population of about 73,000, were damaged or destroyed by Maria, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It said damage to the island could be in the billions of dollars.
Passing early Wednesday just west of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, Maria damaged an estimated 65 per cent to 70 per cent of the island’s buildings, said Holland Redfield, who served six terms in the U.S. Virgin Islands Senate.
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