After hours of hurricane-force winds and torrential rain, Puerto Ricans emerged from shelters to find that their island was still under threat from landslides, flash floods and crippled water and electricity systems.
Hurricane Maria – the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years – felled trees, smashed buildings and tore roofs from homes. Chest-deep floodwaters forced people to use boats, paddleboards or jetskis to seek medical help or reach family and friends.
“Devastation – it’s everywhere,” Carlos Mercader, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s governor, told the Guardian. “It’s total devastation.”
The full extent of the destruction was unclear because communications have been severely disrupted, Mercader said.
“Now that the sun has come up, it is the time to assess all of the damages,” he said.
The government has dispatched people with satellite phones to report on the scene in rural areas. There is also a curfew in place from 6pm to 6am every night through Saturday morning.
The onslaught began early on Wednesday, with winds growing gradually until they reached category 4 hurricane strength as the storm rampaged across the territory, knocking out the power supply and tossing vehicles from the road.
As the storm cleared on Thursday, rescuers were forced to thread their way through a maze of toppled trees and collapsed communication services. And while many streets remained flooded, Mercader said 70% of the island was without drinking water.
In Carolina, a municipality on the island’s north-east coast, floodwaters were still 2ft deep on Thursday morning; trees lay strewn across the roads and most wooden homes were completely destroyed.
In Levittown, a suburb of San Juan, about 40 families were rescued from the roofs of their homes overnight after several people managed to contact the governor’s office. The suburb is less than 20km from downtown San Juan, but it took the national guard an hour and a half to reach the neighborhood, said Mercader. The rescuers traveled by boat and were working into Thursday morning to save about 100 people, he said.
Debris littered the streets of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, where residents were spotted cleaning up debris. One of those people was Male Álvarez, whose home had been lashed by unrelenting wind and rain for hours. “The house shook – it felt like an earthquake,” Álvarez told the Guardian.
Her neighborhood was without electricity, water and internet but she was emphatic that the island would rebuild.
“Puerto Ricans went out of their way to help all the islands around [after Hurricane Irma],” Álvarez said. “They were heroes, and that’s who Puerto Ricans are – and I know we’re we are going to rebuild.”
Álvarez had been able to contact family and friends in the continental US after walking a few blocks from her home to find a cellphone signal, but thousands of people with family members in Puerto Rico, and other Caribbean islands, were still trying to reach family members they hadn’t heard from in days.
Even Mercader, with his government connections, had not been able to reach his parents in Puerto Rico. He last heard from them on Tuesday before Maria touched down. “I’m a person of faith – I think that they’re doing well,” he said.
He said the government would provide guidance on how to communicate once the system was restored. “Keep calm, the government’s working very, very, very hard to re-establish communication throughout the island,” he said.
Fourteen thousand people are currently taking refuge in 520 shelters across the island. The government expects that number to increase, as people typically return home after the storm – only to realize that the destruction is too great and that they need to remain in shelter.
The White House on Thursday morning declared Puerto Rico “a major disaster” zone and ordered federal assistance to be directed to dozens of municipalities in the territory. Donald Trump said the island had been “absolutely obliterated” by the heavy winds. “All you have to do is read or turn on the television and you will see a place that is practically leveled,” he said.
Before hitting Puerto Rico, Maria left a trail of destruction in smaller Caribbean islands including the British Virgin Islands, Montserrat and Dominica.
The prime minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, said at least 15 people died and 20 were missing.
Maria weakened to a category 2 storm overnight but had regained strength by morning as it headed along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic towards the Turks and Caicos islands. Maximum sustained winds remained near 185km/h (115mph) on Thursday morning, according to the US National Hurricane Center (NHC), which warned more strengthening was possible.
Sophie Newstead, who works for the charity Hurricane Irma Relief Turks and Caicos (HIRTAC), said the islands were still in “recovery mode” from Irma. She said: “We are not stable enough to cope with even a mild storm.”
Sylvie Wigglesworth, principal of British West Indies Collegiate, said she was waiting out the storm at home because her mother has Alzheimer’s and the local shelters wouldn’t take her dog.
“The biggest worry is water. All the buildings are weakened [from Irma], so if it rains a bit you can see water dripping in parts,” Wigglesworth said. “It is going to be a disaster.”
By Amanda Holpuch, Norbert Figueroa and Carmen Fishwick. Source: The Guardian