Hurricane Maria-devastated Puerto Rico faces up to six month without power

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Published 21.09.2017 17:10
Updated 21.09.2017 17:36
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Millions of people in Puerto Rico could face up to six months without electricity after Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean island, officials said Thursday.

Mayor of San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico, said the devastation of the city was unprecedented.

"The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there," Cruz told MSNBC. "We're looking at 4 to 6 months without electricity" in Puerto Rico, which is home to nearly 3.5 million people.

Rescuers fanned out to reach stunned victims Thursday after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, knocking out electricity to the entire island and triggering landslides and floods.

The extent of the damage is unknown given that dozens of municipalities remained isolated and without communication after Maria hit the island Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years.

Uprooted trees and widespread flooding blocked many highways and streets across the island, creating a maze that forced drivers to go against traffic and past police cars that used loudspeakers to warn people they must respect a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed by the governor to ensure everyone's safety.

"This is going to be a historic event for Puerto Rico," said Abner Gomez, the island's emergency management director.

Meanwhile, U.S. President Donald Trump has approved a disaster declaration for Puerto Rico, the White House said Thursday.

"Yesterday, President Donald J. Trump declared that a major disaster exists in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and ordered Federal assistance to supplement Commonwealth and local recovery efforts," the White House said in a statement.

Federal aid includes grants for home repairs and temporary shelter as well as low-coast loans to pay for uninsured property losses.

Making a statement in the aftermath of the hurricane, Trump said Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated and its electrical grid was totally destroyed.

Trump said he is starting to work on the challenges of the island that was in a "very perilous shape," adding that he planned a visit.

Maria has thus far been blamed for 10 deaths in the Caribbean, and though the storm has swirled back out to sea, Puerto Rico is now girding for potentially catastrophic flash flooding.

"If possible, move to higher ground NOW!" the National Weather Service station in San Juan warned in a tweet.

Previously a Category 5 with 175 mph (281 kph) winds, Maria hit Puerto Rico as the third-strongest storm to make landfall in the U.S., based on its central pressure. It was even stronger than Hurricane Irma that storm roared into the Florida Keys earlier this month.

In San Juan, towering eucalyptus trees fell nearly every other block over a main road dotted with popular bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, some of which were damaged. Outside a nearby apartment building, 40-year-old tourism company operator Adrian Pacheco recounted how he spent eight hours in a stairwell huddled with 100 other residents when the hurricane ripped the storm shutters off his building and decimated three balconies.

"I think people didn't expect the storm to reach the point that it did," he said. "Since Irma never really happened, they thought Maria would be the same."

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 Puerto Rico, including 80 percent of houses in a small fishing community near the San Juan Bay, which unleashed a storm surge of more than 4 feet.

"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.

The sound of chain saws began to fill the silence that spread across San Juan late Wednesday afternoon as firefighters began to remove trees and used small bulldozers to lift toppled concrete light posts. Some neighbors pitched in to help clear the smaller branches, including Shawn Zimmerman, a 27-year-old student from Lewistown, Pennsylvania who moved to Puerto Rico nearly two years ago.

"The storm didn't bother me," he said. "It's the devastation. I get goosebumps. It's going to take us a long time."

Maria weakened to a Category 2 storm later in the day but re-strengthened to Category 3 status early Thursday with winds of 115 mph (185 kph). It was centered about 70 miles (110 kilometers) north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, and moving northwest near 9 mph (15 kph).

The hurricane was still dumping rain overnight Wednesday in Puerto Rico, where crumbled red roof tiles lay scattered across many roads, and curious residents sidestepped and ducked under dozens of black power lines still swaying in heavy winds. But they posed no danger: Maria caused an island-wide power outage, with officials unable to say when electricity would return.

Puerto Rico's electric grid was crumbling amid lack of maintenance and a dwindling staff even before the hurricanes knocked out power. Many now believe it will take weeks, if not months, to restore power.

Edwin Rosario, a 79-year-old retired government worker, said an economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of nearly half a million Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland will only make the island's recovery harder.

"Only us old people are left," he said as he scraped a street gutter in front of his house free of debris. "A lot of young people have already gone...If we don't unite, we're not going to bounce back."

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