Hurricane Maria Devastates Puerto Rico

Storm Leaves Puerto Rico Facing Months Without Power

Millions of people across Puerto Rico woke up Thursday to a grim new reality.

Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. territory in almost a century, ravaged the island, demolishing homes and knocking out all electricity. It could take half a year to restore power to the nearly 3.5 million people who live there.

The eye of the storm moved offshore overnight, but the danger remained Thursday: Intense flooding was reported, particularly in San Juan, where many residential streets looked like rushing rivers.

The storm has been blamed for the deaths of 18 people, including two in Puerto Rico, but many fear that toll could climb as authorities were beginning to assess the extent of the damage and search for survivors.

San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said the devastation in the capital city was unlike any she had ever seen.

“The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there,” Cruz told MSNBC. “We’re looking at 4 to 6 months without electricity.”

Yennifer Álvarez Jaimes, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló’s press secretary, said all power across the economically strained island had been knocked out.

The National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning for the entire island shortly after 12:30 a.m. ET Thursday. Residents were urged to move to higher ground if possible.

The storm, with its fierce winds and heavy rain, toppled trees, shattered windows, and ripped roofs and doors off homes. Widespread flooding blocked many highways and streets across the island Thursday, creating a maze that forced drivers to go against traffic.

“Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this,” Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Catano, told The Associated Press.

President Donald Trump has approved a federal disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, the White House announced.

Hurricane Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, leaving more than 1 million people without power but causing no deaths or widespread damage like it did on nearby islands.

Maria, however, blew out windows at some hospitals and police stations, turned some streets into roaring rivers and destroyed hundreds of homes across the island. A storm surge of more than 4 feet was also reported.

Puerto Rico’s electric grid was crumbling amid lack of maintenance and a dwindling staff even before Maria and Irma hit the island. The territory’s infrastructure has gone neglected for years, and its power company defaulted on a debt-restructuring deal in July.

Airports in San Juan, Aguadilla and Ponce were ordered closed until Friday at the earliest because of flooding and debris, authorities said.

Maria, the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, had maximum sustained winds of 155 mph when it made landfall as a Category 4 storm near the town of Yabucoa just after 6 a.m. ET on Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said.

The storm weakened as it battered Puerto Rico, but strengthened to a Category 3 hurricane early Thursday.

At 11 a.m. ET, it was moving past northeastern Dominican Republic on its way to the Turks and Caicos.

With maximum sustained winds of near 115 mph, Maria was expected to move near the British overseas territory and the southeastern Bahamas Thursday night and into Friday.

The center warned that Maria could regain some strength in the next day or so.

Maria left a trail of “total destruction” in Dominica, where the prime minister said at least 15 people have died. Two more people lost their lives as the result of the storm, one in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe and two in Puerto Rico.

Forecasters said it remained too early to know how close Maria will move to the U.S. mainland.