SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria destroyed buildings and knocked out power across Puerto Rico before flooding parts of the Dominican Republic and then regaining some of its strength as it approached the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night.
The second major hurricane to rage through the Caribbean this month, Maria has killed at least 18 people and devastated several small islands, including St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Dominica.
Maria is now a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour (205 km per hour) and 80 miles (130 km) southeast of Grand Turk Island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.
Maria’s strength was not expected to change during the next few days, the center said. The storm looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.
Officials in Puerto Rico were still assessing the damage after Maria slammed the island on Wednesday with winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph). Ranked a Category 4 storm when it made landfall, it was the strongest hurricane to hit the island in nearly 90 years.
U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been “totally obliterated” and that he planned to visit.
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said there was one death reported so far, a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.
“It’s nothing short of a major disaster,” he told CNN, adding it might take months for electricity to be completely restored to the island, which has a population of 3.4 million. He imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday.
Maria struck Dominica as a Category 5 storm on Monday night, damaging about 95 percent of the roofs on the island, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. At least 14 people died, CNN quoted Charles Jong, a spokesman for the Dominica prime minister’s office, as saying.
Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one person on the U.S. Virgin Islands.
ROADS BLOCKED, COMMUNICATIONS DOWN
Utility crews from the U.S. mainland were headed to Puerto Rico to help try to restore the battered power grid and the U.S. military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.
Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, according to a source familiar with the legal proceedings.
In the historic heart of the island’s capital San Juan, which has a fort and buildings from the Spanish colonial era, the storm left a litter of debris.
Some roads were blocked by downed foliage as teams of firefighters and rescue officials wielded chain saws to cut through the debris.
San Juan airport reopened for military and relief flights on Thursday, with plans for a limited resumption of commercial flights on Friday.
With electricity and communications knocked out across the island, workdays evaporated and people busied themselves with securing food, checking on their battered homes and collecting rain water.
South of the capital in the municipality of Cataño, some 10 residents whose homes were flooded sat around a pickup truck on the edge of the waters and mixed a cocktail of grapefruit juice, cranberry, ice and vodka that they called “matatiempo” or “killing time.”
‘WORST IS BEHIND US’
Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday as a rare and ferocious Category 5 storm, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.
“The worst is behind us,” Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. “Now is (the) time to march forward and build a better community, a better territory.”
About 600 people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands are in emergency shelters and many parts are without power, Mapp said.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Mapp said. “It ain’t going to happen in a week or two and it definitely ain’t going to happen in a few months.”
Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John.
Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused historic flooding in Houston. More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30.
Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar in New York and Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and James Dalgleish