SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — One of the strongest hurricanes ever to hit Puerto Rico pummeled the island Wednesday, tearing off roofs and doors, toppling cell towers and unleashing heavy flooding in an onslaught that could deepen the U.S. territory’s financial crisis.
Maria, which left at least nine people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, blew ashore in the morning in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 hurricane with winds of 155 mph (250 kph).
It was expected to punish the island with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours.
As people took cover inside stairwells, bathrooms and closets, Maria slowly crossed the island, knocking down communication towers, snapping trees and unloading at least 20 inches (50 centimeters) of rain. Widespread flooding was reported across the island, with dozens of cars half-submerged in some neighborhoods and many streets turned into rivers.
People calling local radio stations reported that doors were being torn off their hinges and a water tank flew away.
The storm threatened to ravage the island’s already crumbling power grid and worsen its economic woes.
Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion public debt, and the government has warned it is running out of money as it deals with furloughs and other austerity measures imposed by a federal board overseeing the island’s finances.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello urged people to have faith: “We are stronger than any hurricane. Together, we will rebuild.”
He later asked President Donald Trump to declare the island a disaster zone, a step that would open the way to federal aid.
El Nuevo Dia newspaper reported that 80 percent of homes in a small fishing community near San Juan were damaged, and that an emergency medical station in the coastal town of Arecibo lost its roof, while communication was severed with several emergency management posts. A hospital and a police station reported broken windows, and a tree fell on an ambulance.
About 90 percent of customers were without power. Those who sought shelter at a coliseum in San Juan were moved to the building’s second and third floors, radio station WKAQ-AM reported.
Many feared that extended power outages would further sink businesses already struggling amid a recession that has lasted more than a decade.
“This is going to be a disaster,” said Jean Robert Auguste, who owns two French restaurants and sought shelter at a San Juan hotel. “We haven’t made any money this month.”
The heavy winds and rain and the noise of things crashing outside woke many across Puerto Rico before dawn. At one recently built hotel in San Juan, water dripped through the ceiling of a sixth-floor room and seeped through the window.
“I didn’t sleep at all,” said Merike Mai, a 35-year-old flight attendant from Estonia who was vacationing in Puerto Rico and tried to leave ahead of the storm.
As of late morning, the storm was centered about 25 miles (40 kilometers) west of San Juan with Category 4 winds of 140 mph (220 kph). It was moving to the northwest at 12 mph (19 kph).
Previously a Category 5 with 175 mph (281 kph) winds, Maria hit Puerto Rico as the third strongest storm to make landfall in the United States based on a key measurement that meteorologists use: air pressure. The lower the central pressure, the stronger a storm is. Maria’s pressure was 917 millibars, lower than Irma’s 929 millibars when it roared into the Florida Keys earlier this month.
Maria struck less than two weeks after Puerto Rico got sideswiped by Hurricane Irma, which caused no deaths or widespread damage on the island but left more than 1 million people without electricity. More than 70,000 people were still without power as Maria approached.
Hurricanes tend to veer north or south of the island. The last Category 4 hurricane to blow ashore in Puerto Rico was in 1932, and the strongest ever to hit the island was San Felipe in 1928 with winds of 160 mph (250 kph).
As Maria approached, Trump offered his support via Twitter: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you - will be there to help!”
More than 4,400 people were in shelters by late Tuesday, the governor said.
The storm’s center passed near or over St. Croix overnight Tuesday, prompting U.S. Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp to warn people to remain alert. St. Croix was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands.
“For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear,” Mapp said. “Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around.” He added: “I don’t really recommend you be sleeping from 11 o’clock to 4.”
Maria killed two people in the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, and two people aboard a boat were reported missing off La Desirade island, officials said.
The storm also slammed the island of Dominica late Monday. Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister, reported at least seven deaths and a “tremendous loss of housing and public buildings.” He said the country was “in a daze,” with no electricity and little to no communications.
“The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in New York.
Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.