YABUCOA, Puerto Rico - Hurricane Maria lost intensity slightly as it crossed over the southeast coast of Puerto Rico early Wednesday as a potentially catastrophic Category 4 hurricane.
The eye of the storm made official landfall at 6:15 a.m. near Yabucoa, about 45 miles southeast of the densely populated capital of San Juan. Maria was packing 140 mph (220 km/h) winds and was located 25 miles (40 kms) west of San Juan at 11am (EST) raising fears that a direct hit on the capital might result in massive power outages.
Hotels were packed with residents seeking shelter. Many were told to leave their rooms and gather in interior conference rooms and ballrooms for safety. Residents reported widespread flooding as several rivers that flow into the capital from mountains to the south began to burst their banks.
The island's electricity grid was already hard hit by Hurricane Irma which passed nearby two weeks ago. The island is ill-prepared to deal with a major natural disaster as it is still reeling from a 10-year economic recession that has spurred nearly half a million Puerto Ricans to flee to the U.S. mainland.
Nearly 70,000 people in Puerto Rico were still without power following their earlier brush with Irma and nearly 200 remained in shelters as Maria approached.
All its population of 3.4 million was threatened on Wednesday as Maria enveloped the entire island with hurricane-force winds extending out about 60 miles (95 kilometers) and tropical storm-force winds out as far as 150 miles (240 kilometers).
Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Puerto Rico had 500 shelters capable of taking in up to 133,000 people in a worst-case scenario. "We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history," he said. Puerto Rico has not faced a Category 5 hurricane since 1928.
"We are going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We're going to have to rebuild," he said.
Rossello warned that an island-wide power outage could last a "long time" given the power company's deteriorated and weak infrastructure.
Most models have Maria turning north after leaving Puerto Rico steering clear of the Bahamas and Florida, although forecasters say there is no certainty with tracking hurricanes.
Hurricane Maria smashed into Dominica late Monday ripping the roof off even the prime minister's residence and causing what he called "mind-boggling" devastation Tuesday as it plunged into a Caribbean region already ravaged by Hurricane Irma.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said on his Facebook page that "initial reports are of widespread devastation" and said he feared there would be deaths due to rain-fed landslides.
"So far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with," Skerrit wrote. "The roof to my own official residence was among the first to go," he added before he had to be rescued.
No further word was heard from him on Tuesday.
Forecasters said storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) near the storm's center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 centimeters) of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
To the north, Hurricane Jose was downgraded to a tropical Storm and stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters said it was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.
A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York's Long Island and Connecticut.
Jose's center was about 165 miles (265 kms) south-southwest of Nantucket, Massachusetts, early Wednesday with maximum sustained winds of 65 mph (100 kph).
Busy hurricane season
Maria is the 13th named storm of an already busy 2017 Atlantic hurricane season. Before the start of the season which runs for six months from June 1 to Nov 30, forecasters had predicted an above normal total of up to 17 named storms and nine hurricanes in the Atlantic Basin, this year, with two to four reaching major Category 3 or stronger on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale.
Maria is the seventh hurricane of the season, and the fourth major hurricane to achieve Category 3 status or greater. "There have now been two Atlantic Category 5 storms in 2017: Maria and Irma," according to Jeff Masters, meteorology director at the private forecaster, Weather Underground. "The Atlantic has had only five other years on record with multiple Cat 5s: Dean and Felix in 2007; Emily, Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005; Carla and Hattie in 1961; and two Cat 5s each in 1932 and 1933," he added.
An average season produces 12 named storms of which six become hurricanes, including three major hurricanes.
Warm water temperatures and vanishing El Niño odds are reasons for the increased numbers, scientists said at the start of the season. Strong El Niños typically lead to increased wind shear in parts of the Atlantic Basin, suppressing the development or intensification of tropical cyclones in the Atlantic.
After Harvey and Irma, the U.S. has already met its annual average of one to two hurricane landfalls each season, according to NOAA's Hurricane Research Division statistics.
Irma, a Category 5 storm when it swept into the northern Caribbean early this month, killed at least 11 people in the United States and more than 30 on several islands, causing widespread damage to homes and businesses and upending the local tourism industry on which the islands depend.
Additional reporting by David Adams in Miami