Hurricane Maria slammed into southeastern Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm with the potential to inflict $30 billion in damages just two weeks after Irma ravaged the cash-strapped island.
Top winds reached 155 miles (249 kilometers) per hour as Maria made landfall near Yabucoa at around 6:15 a.m. New York time, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory. Hurricane-force winds extend as far as 60 miles from its center, the storm surge may reach 9 feet (2.7 meters) and as much as 25 inches of rain may fall in some areas.
Maria is the fourth major hurricane and 13th storm in an active Atlantic season that’s wreaked havoc from Texas to the Caribbean and left dozens dead. It could cause $30 billion in damage to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler for Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. That’s on top of an estimated $143 billion in damage in the U.S. alone from Hurricanes Harvey and Irma.
“The wind is going to be the main damaging issue,” said Jeff Masters, co-founder of Weather Underground in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “When you sum up the billions of dollars in damage this storm is going to do, wind is going to be about half of that.”
While Irma came close to Puerto Rico about two weeks ago, the only Category 5 storm to make landfall on the island was the San Felipe Segundo hurricane in 1928, Masters said. The last major hurricane to strike was Georges in September 1998. About 3.4 million people live on Puerto Rico, with some 380,000 in San Juan, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“If you are in a flood zone or wood house, your life is in danger,” Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello told residents as Maria approached. “There has never been an event like this in our history in the last 100 years.”
Relief and recovery efforts may be slowed by the island’s weak finances. Puerto Rico filed for bankruptcy in May after years of economic decline while a series of defaults has effectively left it unable to raise money in the capital markets. Its aging government-owned electric utility operates under court protection from creditors.
Puerto Rico’s emergency fund stood at about $32 million before Irma passed through and tens of thousands remain without power after that storm.
‘Pit of Despair’
Maria could plunge “their not-all-that-robust electric grid into a pit of despair,” Watson said.
Before striking Puerto Rico, Maria’s eye swept Dominica in the Leeward Islands overnight Monday into Tuesday, tearing homes apart and washing out roads on the island.
“It is devastating, indeed, mind boggling,” Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica’s prime minister, said in a statement. The eastern Caribbean nation with a population of 75,000 has “lost all what money can buy and replace,” he said. Skerrit said he was rescued after the roof of his house was torn off by the storm.
According to an A.M. Best report, Maria could test the financial strength of Caribbean and Puerto Rico insurers. The report states, “The effects if this Category 5 hurricane could be devastating to insurers and reinsurers, as the track that Hurricane Maria takes could hit areas with higher insured values, and that areas that already have sustained damages due to Hurricane Irma may suffer further damage, which would lead to concerns about which event was responsible for which damage. In addition, reinsurance limits after Hurricane Irma need to be reinstated, and although most companies have automatic reinstatement coverage to protect against a second event, not all companies are prepared to cover a third.”
After it crosses Puerto Rico, Maria will likely graze the northern coast of the Dominican Republic before drifting into the Bahamas Saturday. Officials in the Dominican Republic placed the entire country on alert and said they will evacuate citizens in low-lying communities along the eastern and northern coasts, which are expected to receive the brunt of Maria’s impact.
A hurricane warning is in place for Puerto Rico, Culebra, Vieques, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata in the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos Islands and the Southeastern Bahamas. A tropical storm warning is posted for Saba and St. Maarten.
Most long-range models keep Maria away from the U.S. coastline after it passes through the Caribbean and the Bahamas this week, said Shane Mill, a meteorologist with MDA Weather Services in Gaithersburg, Maryland. “But I am not comfortable saying the entire East Coast is out of the woods yet.”
Hurricane forecast models don’t deal well with multiple storms, Masters said. Even National Hurricane Center five-day tracks can have an error rate of 225 miles, about the same as the distance between New York and Boston.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see the long-term tracks change more than we are used to seeing,” Masters said. “At this point we really don’t know if it will affect the East Coast.”