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Hurricane Maria bringing ‘catastrophic winds,’ flash flooding to Puerto Rico

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All of Puerto Rico is expected to experience life-threatening conditions for several hours Wednesday as Hurricane Maria slams the U.S. territory as a Category 4 storm — only two weeks after Hurricane Irma caused major damage to the island.

Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Early Wednesday, the storm was about 15 miles southeast of San Juan and moving northwest at 10 mph.

“Homes, businesses and other structures will be significantly damaged or destroyed,” Joel Myers, president of AccuWeather, said in a statement.  “It is possible that parts of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands may become uninhabitable for weeks or longer due to the destruction that Maria will cause.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Maria “is an event like we have never seen before. This event will damage our infrastructure and will be catastrophic.” Puerto Rico was only brushed by Irma, and yet the storm knocked out electricity to 75 percent of the island. Nearly 70,000 people on the island, with a population of about 3.4 million, still were without power prior to Maria’s landfall.

According to reports, Maria will be Puerto Rico’s most dangerous storm on record. The storm is now stronger than Hurricane Irma when it approached the island.

In a statement, the National Hurricane Center said Maria’s winds “will bring catastrophic damage” and that “severe injury is possible in less than a strong structure.” Locations may be uninhabitable for weeks or months, the center said.

Puerto Rico could receive 12 to 18 inches or rain, with parts of the region getting as much as 25 inches, the National Hurricane Center said. “Rainfall on these islands will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” it said.

Maria is the fourth hurricane to hit a strength of Category 4 or 5 this season, joining Jose, Irma, and Harvey. Half of all Atlantic hurricanes this season have been Category 4 or 5.

Climate scientists have pointed out that weaker storms have been strengthening much more rapidly into stronger storms than they ever did before. “Storms are intensifying at a much more rapid pace than they used to 25 years back,” explained the author of a 2012 study. “They are getting stronger more quickly and also [to a] higher category. The intensity as well as the rate of intensity is increasing.”

Hurricane Maria is expected to put on hold Puerto Rico’s efforts to provide assistance to the U.S. Virgin Islands and other islands in the Caribbean that were harder hit by Hurricane Irma. Prior to the arrival of Maria, Puerto Rico had been facilitating travel and access to Puerto Rican hospitals for Virgin Island residents in need of medical assistance.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had deployed about 70 personnel to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands to inspect damage from the storm and assess environmental recovery efforts.

The American Red Cross said its workers on both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are taking shelter and will begin service delivery after Maria passes over the islands and it is safe to do so. “In Puerto Rico, local officials are opening evacuation shelters, and the Red Cross is mobilizing volunteers and supplies to be ready to help after the storm passes,” the organization said Tuesday.

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