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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and turned some streets into raging rivers Wednesday in an onslaught that could plunge the U.S. territory deeper into financial crisis.

Leaving at least nine people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria blew ashore in the morning near the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (250 kph).

It punished the island of 3.4 million people with life-threatening winds for several hours, the second time in two weeks that Puerto Rico has felt the wrath of a hurricane.

"Once we're able to go outside, we're going to find our island destroyed," warned Abner Gomez, Puerto Rico's emergency management director. "The information we have received is not encouraging. It's a system that has destroyed everything in its path."

As people waited in shelters or took cover inside stairwells, bathrooms and closets, Maria brought down cell towers and power lines, snapped trees, tore off roofs and unloaded at least 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain.

Widespread flooding was reported, with dozens of cars half-submerged in some neighborhoods and many streets turned into rivers. People calling local radio stations reported that doors were being torn off their hinges and a water tank flew away.

Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Catano, told The Associated Press that 80 percent of the 454 homes in a neighborhood known as Juana Matos were destroyed. The fishing community near San Juan Bay was hit with a storm surge of more than 4 feet (1.2 meters), he said.

"Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this," he said.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily until Saturday to allow rescue crews and officials to respond to the hurricane's aftermath.

"We are at a critical moment in the effort to help thousands of Puerto Ricans that urgently need aid and to assess the great damage caused by Hurricane Maria," he said. "Maintaining public order will be essential."

Rossello said in an interview on CNN's "Anderson Cooper 360" that one fatality has been reported but because communications were knocked out in some areas, the total casualty count wasn't known.

As of 8 p.m. EDT, Maria had weakened into a Category 2 hurricane with winds of 110 mph (175 kph). It was centered just off the northwestern corner of Puerto Rico, moving at 12 mph (19 kph).

It was expected to pass off the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic late Wednesday and Thursday.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico's electrical grid was crumbling and the island was in dire condition financially.

Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion debt, and the government has warned it is running out of money as it fights against furloughs and other austerity measures imposed by a federal board overseeing the island's finances.

Rossello urged people to have faith: "We are stronger than any hurricane. Together, we will rebuild."

He asked President Donald Trump to declare the island a disaster zone, a step that would open the way to federal aid.

Many people feared extended power outages would further sink businesses struggling amid a recession that has lasted more than a decade.

"This is going to be a disaster," said Jean Robert Auguste, who owns two French restaurants and sought shelter at a San Juan hotel. "We haven't made any money this month."

More than 11,000 people — and more than 580 pets — were in shelters, authorities said.

Along the island's northern coast, an emergency medical station in the town of Arecibo lost its roof, while communication was severed with several emergency management posts. A hospital and a police station reported broken windows, and a tree fell on an ambulance.

As the storm closed in on the Dominican Republic, about 4,000 tourists in the Bavara-Punta Cana area on the eastern tip of the island were moved to hotels in Santo Domingo, the capital. About 100 flights were canceled and the government suspended school and sent workers home.

"The government has prepared itself for the worst case scenario and so should the people," presidential administrative secretary Jose Ramon Peralta said.

Maria posed no immediate threat to the U.S. mainland. The long-range forecast showed the storm out in the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles off the Georgia-South Carolina coast by Monday morning.

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 when Irma roared into the Florida Keys earlier this month.

Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, causing no deaths or widespread damage on the island but leaving more than 1 million people without electricity. More than 70,000 still had no power as Maria approached.

As Maria closed in, Trump offered his support via Twitter: "Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you - will be there to help!"

The storm's center passed near or over St. Croix overnight Tuesday, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to warn people to sleep in their street clothes and shoes just in case. St. Croix was largely spared by Irma.

There were no immediate reports of deaths or injuries on St. Croix, but it was still too dangerous Wednesday to venture out and conduct a thorough check, said Nykole Tyson, a spokeswoman at the U.S. Virgin Islands Emergency Operations Center.

On the island of Dominica, which got slammed late Monday, Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister, reported at least seven deaths and a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings." He said the country was "in a daze," with no electricity and little to no communications.

Dominica's airport and seaports remained closed, and authorities used helicopters to carry emergency food, water and shelter materials to the island, said Ronald Jackson, head of the Caribbean Disaster and Emergency Management Agency.

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This Instagram video shows Maria's winds ripping the roofs from buildings.

A post shared by Fred "FUZZY" Rasmussen (@fuzzyflies) on

The storm was so fierce, it broke two National Weather Service radars on the island.

Calls for rescue immediately started pouring in -- but to no avail.

"First responders cannot go out there," Mercader said, echoing the governor's earlier warning that emergency crews wouldn't go outside in winds stronger than 50 mph.

Maria was expected to cause widespread power outages across Puerto Rico. Shortly after landfall, the storm had wiped out power in the east coast city of Fajardo.

A video posted to Instagram showed floodwaters rushing through a condo complex in Puerto Rico.

A post shared by Jorge DeCastro Font (@jorgedecastrofont) on

Thousands of Puerto Ricans heeded calls to go to emergency shelters. "As of 2:30 a.m. we count 10,059 refugees and 189 pets (in shelters)," the island's governor, Ricardo Rosselló, tweeted.

Maria became the first hurricane of Category 4 strength or higher in nearly 80 years to hit the US territory, home to 3.3 million people.

As residents hunkered down in homes and shelters ahead of the direct impact, others in the most vulnerable, low-lying, flood-prone areas were evacuated.

The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan -- which was still housing Hurricane Irma evacuees from other Caribbean islands -- prepared to accept thousands more residents.

Potentially 'strongest ever' storm

The storm was likely to be a record-breaking event, CNN meteorologist Derek Van Dam said.

"This could potentially be the strongest hurricane to ever reach the shores of Puerto Rico," he said from San Juan, Puerto Rico's capital.

"A lot of people remember or have heard of the storms that hit in 1928 and 1930. Well, guess what? This could pale those in comparison. ... It will go down in the record books."

Storm surges of 6 to 9 feet were expected.

"Hurricane Maria is really scraping the upper echelon of what's possible with hurricanes, (with) 175 mph sustained winds right around the center of the storm," Van Dam said Tuesday.

The island's mountainous terrain was likely to act as a barrier and squeeze a lot of moisture out of Maria, he said, producing as much as 2 feet of rain in some places. That could lead to flash flooding, which Rosselló stressed often is the top cause of death following a storm like this.

Local politicians warned of the storm's potential impact but also heralded the islanders' spirit.

"We are going to be hit hard," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told CNN. "But we are blessed that we have what it takes to move and push on. We will make it, I bet you. I have no doubt, we're going to make it."

Stocking up

Residents in San Juan made sure to stock up ahead of the hurricane's arrival. A sign on one store shelf asked customers on Tuesday to limit themselves to two cases of water, but the supply had already run out by the time a CNN team arrived. The store still had food and other supplies.

At a gas station across the street, the attendant said the station ran out of regular gas Tuesday morning, then ran out of premium.

Shoppers hunting for essentials, such as ice, waited for hours to buy the commodity, which would be used to keep perishables cool during a power outage.

The government also had been "organizing" ahead of the storm, Rosselló told CNN's Anderson Cooper.

"We can get people out of harm's way -- flooding regions -- and make their way to safe shelters," he said. "What we're doing is making sure people can pass through, they can weather the storm."

"It's not going to be comfortable, but they're going to be safe. This is our key objective. We understand infrastructure is going to be devastated. We're going to have to rebuild. ... Lives are not replaceable, but infrastructure is." -Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico's governor

Tourists stranded

Some tourists found themselves stranded on the island as flights, already overbooked and increasingly expensive, became unavailable.

Heather Farrell was on her honeymoon with her husband, Luke, after their September 9 wedding. The couple had tried to cut the trip short when it became apparent they were in Maria's firing line, she said.

"We did try to get off, as early as Saturday, but all flights were either booked or canceled. We actually are on the ocean -- our room faces the ocean. It's pretty windy, but there is no rain. We'll stay inside for now," she said.

Hotel staff had asked all guests to head downstairs early Wednesday morning to take shelter in a safe room, Farrell said.

"I would rather be home than here, but I guess we're making the best of it," she said.

Nick Bailey, Brandon Edwards and John Michael Berndt -- three friends from northern California -- chose this week to vacation on the island. They were aware of Maria, which was only a tropical depression when they left California.

"Our hostel is taking good care of us," Berndt said, adding that staff there had boarded all the windows and created a concrete hurricane barrier. "We tried to take flights out last minute but that didn't work so we're going to ride through the storm."

"This is a good area, apparently," Bailey said. "It's close to hospitals and emergency centers."

The men also were moved to rooms deeper inside the hostel -- without any windows.

Prime Minister's house destroyed

As Maria pushed through the Caribbean toward Puerto Rico, two people were missing after a boat sank off the coast of La Désirade, a small island near the mainland of Guadeloupe. About 80,000 people, or 40% of households on the island, were left without power, the government said.

The storm also caused "widespread devastation" in Dominica, the country's Prime Minister said Tuesday. Maria ripped off the roof of his own house and left much of the island -- population 73,000 -- in ruins.

In just 30 hours, Maria's intensity exploded from 65 mph on Sunday to 160 mph by Monday night, the National Hurricane Center said.

Source : http://www.azfamily.com/story/36401447/puerto-rico-100-percent-without-power-as-maria-pounds-the-island

Maria destroys homes, triggers flooding in Puerto Rico
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