SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria was churning towards Puerto Rico Tuesday after devastating the Caribbean island of Dominica overnight, on track to hit several islands in between still reeling from Hurricane Irma’s damage earlier this month.
Maria made landfall in Dominica with 160 mph winds that stripped roofs, including the prime minister’s.
Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit stayed home during the storm, and his Facebook posts chronicled its toll.
“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote. He said he could hear the sound of the storm tearing off steel roofs, and realized his home was damaged: “Rough! Rough! Rough!”
Skerrit eventually had to be rescued, and his roof was swept away.
“So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” he wrote afterward.
He appealed for international aid. “We will need help of all kinds,” he wrote.
On nearby Martinique, officials said about 25,000 homes were without power and two towns without water after the storm passed.
Prefect Eric Maire, the highest ranking French official on the island of Guadeloupe, posted a video on Twitter advising residents to stay inside, noting that the storm had flooded roads and homes there and heavy rain was expected to continue.
Hurricane Maria weakened to a Category 4 early Tuesday, but then returned to Category 5 strength.
Puerto Rico faced the possibility of a direct hit, the worst storm in decades, officials said. Officials warned those in wooden homes to evacuate before the hurricane arrived today.
“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.”
Old San Juan’s streets were largely empty, storefronts along the water boarded up with sandbags stacked at some entrances. Police patrolled and prepared a shelter in city hall.
Nearly 70,000 people were still without power following Hurricane Irma and several hundred remained in shelters as Maria approached. But Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the island’s 500 shelters could house up to 133,000 people and that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was prepared to supply drinking water and restore power after the storm.
“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.”
Artist Cresenciano Sotomayor, 41, took his family to get last minute supplies — paper towels and candles — Tuesday morning in Old San Juan. Officials had announced that they would cut electricity at 6 p.m., running water by 9 p.m.
“We just do our preparations as best we can,” he said as he grabbed a coffee by the ocean front on the way home with his partner and 3 year old son.
Sotomayor said the country had done all it could to prepare, but he still worried about poor neighborhoods outside of the capital, some of which had been evacuated. He hoped people would help each other after Hurricane Maria as they helped the other Caribbean islands after Hurricane Irma, sending emergency supplies and other aid.
The hurricane’s eye was located about 170 miles southeast of St. Croix, and the storm was moving west-northwest over the Caribbean at 9 mph. The storm’s hurricane-force winds extended about 35 miles, with tropical storm-force winds as far as 125 miles.
Storm surge could raise water levels by six to 9 feet near the storm’s center, with at least 10 to 15 inches of rain across the islands.
Forecasters warned Maria could intensify further, with an intense “pinhole eye” just 10 miles wide that could magnify the storm’s impact.
Hurricane warnings were posted for the U.S. 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.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Kenneth Mapp said Tuesday would be “a very, very long night.”
St. Thomas and St. John are still recovering from a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, which caused four deaths, destroyed scores of homes and left the hills stripped of vegetation.
Chris Wachta’s home was among those damaged. He had been on vacation in Europe celebrating his 25th anniversary when the storm struck. Unable to return, he struggled to help his pet sitter escape with his dog and three cats in tow. She finally joined him and his wife in San Juan Monday, and they were hoping to catch a flight they had booked out of the Caribbean before the storm hits Tuesday afternoon.
She finally joined him and his wife in San Juan on Monday, and they were hoping to catch a flight out of the Caribbean before the storm hits Wednesday.
“We can’t get back to see what’s going on,” he said.
Wachta, 59, is a regional project director for Marriott Vacation Club, and worried about colleagues still on St. Thomas, some living with their children in homes without roofs. His company was trying to place them in vacant rental properties before Hurricane Maria strikes.
“We’ve been moving them to safe havens,” he said.