Hurricane Maria lashes Virgin Islands, eyes Puerto Rico

Branches lie on the ground as trees blow in the wind from the passage of the Hurricane Maria, seen outside Roberto Clemente Coliseum where residents have sought shelter in San Juan, Puerto Rico, early on September 20, 2017.

Hurricane Maria, the powerful category-5 storm, has slammed into the US Virgin Islands lashing the archipelago with rain as Puerto Rico braced for the hurricane’s expected landfall on Wednesday.

The hurricane’s outer eyewall lashed St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, and the storm was forecast to cut diagonally, southeast to northwest, through Puerto Rico later in the day.

After slicing through the islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe, Hurricane Maria, described as “potentially catastrophic” by the National Hurricane Center (NHC), was moving west-northwest over the northeastern Caribbean Sea, with maximum sustained winds of 280km/h, at about 1 a.m. on Wednesday, the New York Times reported.

The storm was expected to produce more than 12 inches of rainfall, which will cause “life-threatening flash floods and mudslides” in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, the hurricane centre said.

US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you — will be there to help!”

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló called Maria potentially historic and warned residents to take it seriously. Authorities preemptively dredged canals to funnel away floodwater, set up 500 emergency shelters and urged residents to stock up on food and water.

The grave warnings echo those delivered by authorities in Florida, Texas and other areas ahead of devastating hurricanes in recent weeks that have claimed dozens of lives in the US and the Caribbean.

Just over a week ago, Florida and parts of the Virgin Islands were strafed by Irma, a massive storm that struck the Florida Keys as a Category 4. Days before that, Hurricane Harvey swept across the Gulf of Mexico to deliver record floodwater to Houston as the storm stagnated over Texas.

The first aerial footage of the Dominica island showed “significant damage”, said Ronald Jackson of the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency. Dominica had been virtually cut off with telecommunications severed. Local radio operators said more than 90 per cent of properties had been damaged.

The former British colony, which has a population of 72,000 and is less than 50 km long and 25 km wide, escaped the worst of Hurricane Irma two weeks ago.

The storm was also blamed for at least one death on the French island of Guadeloupe.