SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – Hurricane Maria barreled toward Puerto Rico on Tuesday night after wreaking widespread devastation on Dominica and leaving the small Caribbean island virtually incommunicado.
As rains began to lash Puerto Rico, Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that Maria could hit “with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations.”
“We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico,” Rossello said, adding that a likely islandwide power outage and communication blackout could last for days. “We’re going to have to rebuild.”
Authorities warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm’s expected arrival Wednesday.
“You have to evacuate. 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.”
The warnings came after Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page as the storm blew over that tiny country late Monday – but then stopped suddenly as phone and internet connections with the country were cut.
“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote before communications went down.
A few minutes later, he messaged he could hear the sound of galvanized steel roofing tearing off houses on the small rugged island. He said that even his own roof had blown away.
In the last message before falling silent, he appealed for international aid: “We will need help, my friends, we will need help of all kinds.”
The storm knocked out communications for the entire country, leaving anyone outside Dominica struggling to determine the extent of damage, though it was clearly widespread. “The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in a telephone interview from New York.
She said she lost contact with the island about 4 a.m. At that point, officials had learned that 70 percent of homes had lost their roofs, including her own.
“I lost everything,” she said, adding there had been no word on casualties. “As a Category 5 it would be naive not to expect any (injuries) but I don’t know how many,” she said.
The island’s broadcast service was also down Tuesday and Akamai Technologies, a company that tracks the status of the internet around the world, said most of Dominica’s internet service appeared to have been lost by midday. The Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica reported a widespread loss of communication on the island, and relatives of students posted messages on its Facebook page saying they had been unable to talk to their loved ones since late Monday evening as the storm approached.
Dominica is particularly vulnerable to flooding because of its steep mountains, cut through with rivers that rage even after a heavy rain. It was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika, which killed 30 people and destroyed more than 370 homes in August 2015.
Officials on the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe reported at least one death: a person hit by a falling tree. They said two other people were reported missing after their boat sank off La Desirade island, just east of Guadeloupe.
About 40 percent of the island – 80,000 homes – were without power and flooding was reported in several communities.
Next in the storm’s path was St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the storm was expected to hit late Tuesday. The island was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago.
In the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, normally crowded streets and beaches were empty by Tuesday afternoon as families heading to safe shelter packed up their cars and pets or secured windows and doors around their home to prepare for severe winds expected to lash the island for 12 to 24 hours. Nearly 2,800 people were in shelters across Puerto Rico, along with 105 pets, officials said.
“We’re definitely afraid,” said Erica Huber, a 33-year-old teacher from Venice, Florida, who moved to Puerto Rico a month ago with her 12-year-old daughter.
“I’m more worried about the aftermath: Is there going to be enough food and water?” she said.
In shops across the island, shelves were bare after people filled shopping carts with the limited amount of water, batteries, baby formula, milk and other items they could find.
Iris Tosado, a 64-year-old widowed housewife, scanned the nearly empty shelves before heading back home. She and her disabled son planned to spend the storm with relatives because their home is made of wood, and she prayed that it would not be destroyed.
“God, it’s the only thing I have,’” she said. “This is not looking good.”
By Tuesday evening, the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami said Maria’s winds had intensified to 175 mph and additional strengthening was possible. At 7 p.m., Maria was centered about 165 miles southeast of San Juan and was moving west-northwest at 10 mph.
Maria ties for the eighth strongest storm in Atlantic history, when measured by wind speed. This year’s Irma, which had 185 mph winds, ranks second.
Hurricane center forecasters said it “now appears likely” that Maria will still be at Category 5 intensity when it moves over the U.S. Virgin Islands on Tuesday night and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, bringing with it “life-threatening” flooding from rain and storm surge.
Forecasters said the storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet near the storm’s center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.
To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters said the storm 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.
Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.