Hurricane Maria smashes Dominica, now menaces other islands

2017-09-19 22:29
An uprooted tree covers a small house in the village of Viard - Petit Bourg, near Pointe-a-Pitre, on September 19, 2017 in the French territory of Guadeloupe after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (AFP)

An uprooted tree covers a small house in the village of Viard - Petit Bourg, near Pointe-a-Pitre, on September 19, 2017 in the French territory of Guadeloupe after the passage of Hurricane Maria. (AFP)

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Roseau - Hurricane Maria smashed into Dominica with 160 mph winds, ripping the roof off even the prime minister's residence and causing what he called "mind-boggling" devastation on Tuesday as it plunged into a Caribbean region already ravaged by Hurricane Irma.

The storm was on a track to wallop Puerto Rico on Wednesday "with a force and violence that we haven't seen for several generations," the territory's governor said.

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on his Facebook page that "initial reports are of widespread devastation" and said he feared there would be deaths due to rain-fed landslides.

He said even his own house had lost its roof, adding "I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding." Seven minutes later, he reported he had been rescued.

Maria's eye roared over the island late on Monday night. The storm briefly dipped to Category 4 strength early on Tuesday before regaining Category 5 status.

Fierce winds and rain lashed mountainous Dominica for hours. A police official on the island, Inspector Pellam Jno Baptiste, said late on Monday night that there were no immediate reports of casualties but it was too dangerous for officers to check conditions.

"Where we are, we can't move," he said in a brief phone interview while hunkered down against the region's second Category 5 hurricane this month.

"The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God," Skerrit wrote at the start of a series of increasingly harrowing posts on Facebook.

'Remain inside' 

A few minutes later, he messaged he could hear the sound of galvanized steel roofs tearing off houses on the small rugged island.

He then wrote that he thought his home had been damaged, and added: "Rough! Rough! Rough!"

On the nearby island of Martinique, officials said about 25 000 households were without electricity and two small towns without water after Maria roared past.

The head of French civil security, Jacques Witkowski, told reporters that it was too soon to say whether the French department of Guadaloupe had fared as well.

Prefect Eric Maire, the highest French official of Guadaloupe, said in a video on Twitter that some roads and homes were flooded and heavy rain expected to continue. He told the population to "remain inside."

Authorities in the US territory of Puerto Rico, which faced the possibility of a direct hit, warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm's expected arrival there on Wednesday.

"You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you're going to die," said Hector Pesquera, the island's public safety commissioner. "I don't know how to make this any clearer."

Maria had maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph) late on Monday when it slammed into Dominica.

The US National Hurricane Center said Maria weakened briefly before recovering sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph) strength shortly before daybreak on Tuesday. Its eye was located about 275km southeast of St. Croix, and the storm was moving west-northwest over the Caribbean at 9 mph (15 kph).

Forecasters warned Maria could even intensify over the next 24 hours or longer, noting its eye had shrunk to a compact 10 miles across and warning: "Maria is developing the dreaded pinhole eye."

'Weaker hurricanes'

That generally means an extremely strong hurricane will get even mightier, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami. He said it just like when a spinning ice skater brings in their arms and rotates faster.

"You just don't see those in weaker hurricanes," he said.

The storm's hurricane-force winds extended out about 45km and tropical storm-force winds out as far as 205km.

Hurricane warnings were posted for the US and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Guadeloupe, Dominica, St. Kitts, Nevis and Montserrat. A tropical storm warning was issued for Martinique, Antigua and Barbuda, Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Maarten and Anguilla.

Forecasters said storm surge could raise water levels by 1.8 to 2.7m near the storm's center. The storm was predicted to bring 25 to 38cm of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

Close to its path is the island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, where territorial Gov. Kenneth Mapp said on Tuesday would be "a very, very long night."

St. Thomas and St. John are still stunned from a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, which did extensive damage and caused four deaths on the two islands.

'Losing infrastructure' 

Barry University said it chartered a private plane to carry students and staff from its St. Croix facility to Florida in preparation for Maria. It said 72 people connected to the Barry's Physician Assistant Program and a few pets were on Monday's evacuation flight.

In neighboring Puerto Rico, nearly 70 000 people were still without power following their earlier brush with Irma and nearly 200 remained in shelters as Maria approached.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Puerto Rico had 500 shelters capable of taking in up to 133 000 people in a worst-case scenario. He also said the Federal Emergency Management Agency was ready to bring drinking water and help restore power immediately after the storm, which could hit as a Category 5 hurricane.

"This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven't seen for several generations," he said. "We're going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We're going to have to rebuild."

Rossello warned that an island-wide power outage could last a "long time" given the power company's deteriorated and weak infrastructure.

To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the US East Coast, though forecasters said the storm was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.

A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York's Long Island and Connecticut.

Jose's center was about 560km south-southwest of Nantucket, Massachusetts, early on Tuesday and moving north at 9 mph (15 kph). The storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph)

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