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Trump: Hurricane Maria 'obliterated' Puerto Rico, but recovery to start soon with 'great gusto'

Thu, 21 Sep 2017 17:07:28 +0000

ABC News (SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) -- President Donald Trump said Thursday that Hurricane Maria "absolutely obliterated" Puerto Rico and "totally destroyed" the U.S. territory's power grid, but that the recovery process will begin soon with "great gusto."

The president spoke at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City on Thursday morning, saying the island “got hit with winds. They say they’ve never seen winds like this anywhere."

After pummeling Puerto Rico and leaving the island in the dark, Hurricane Maria re-strengthened to a major hurricane early Thursday.

The storm had maximum sustained winds of 115 mph as of 11 a.m. ET, making it a Category 3 storm, according to the National Hurricane Center. It had regained major hurricane status earlier Thursday morning after moving back over warm, open waters in the Atlantic Ocean.

At least 10 people have died in the storm, including seven in Dominica, two in Guadeloupe and one in Puerto Rico.

Even as Hurricane Maria moved away from Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory was still being hit with strong winds and heavy rain overnight. Storm surge was receding Thursday morning, but Puerto Rico was hit with 20 to 30 inches of rain in 24 hours, with some areas seeing 35 inches locally. The hurricane came ashore there as a powerful Category 4 with 155 mph winds -- the first Category 4 storm to hit the island since 1932.

As of 11 a.m., Hurricane Maria was traveling northwest at 9 mph, with Turks and Caicos in its path. The storm's massive eye was located about 150 miles southeast of Grand Turk Island at that time.

Hurricane Maria is forecast to strengthen even more as it moves north of the Dominican Republic and passes just east of Turks and Caicos by Friday morning. Hurricane Maria could be a high-end Category 3 or low-end Category 4 storm when it impacts Turks and Caicos, unleashing gusty winds, heavy rain and a potentially dangerous storm surge, but Hurricane Maria is still not expected to directly hit the archipelago.

From there, Hurricane Maria will likely weaken as it moves between Bermuda and the eastern coast of the United States. The storm should move further east of the U.S. and out to sea sometime next week.

So far, the storm's path is expected to steer clear of the U.S. mainland.

Hurricane Maria leaves Puerto Rico in the dark

A spokesperson with the Puerto Rico governor's office confirmed that one person has died in the storm. The person was killed in Bayamon, just southwest of San Juan, after being hit in the head by a wooden panel.

Puerto Rico's emergency management agency confirmed on Wednesday afternoon that 100 percent of the island had lost power, noting that anyone with electricity was using a generator.

Telecommunications throughout the island have "collapsed," Abner Gomez Cortes, executive director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency, told ABC News.

More than 12,000 people are currently in shelters, and hospitals are now running on generators, Cortes said. Two hospitals -- one in Caguas and one in Bayamon -- have been damaged.

Cortes described Hurricane Maria as an unprecedented storm, adding that Puerto Rico had not seen a hurricane of that strength since 1928.

Multiple transmission lines sustained damage from the storm, according Ricardo Ramos, director of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority. Ramos said he hopes to begin launching helicopters by this weekend to begin inspecting the transmission lines.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello imposed a curfew on the island Wednesday from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. ET through Saturday.

A spokesperson for Rossello said early Thursday he was with a National Guard unit in Levittown, a coastal suburb of San Juan, where as many as 80 percent of homes suffered damage and residents there had retreated to rooftops due to flooding.

Felix Delgado Montalvo, the mayor of Catano, some 7 miles southwest of San Juan, told ABC News on Wednesday that there are hundreds of people in shelters and more than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed in the communities of Juana Matos, La Puntilla and Puente Blanco. Most of the homes there are flooded and are missing roofs or have collapsed walls, he said.

About 80 percent of residences in the Juana Matos community were destroyed from storm surge and flooding. Homes there are filled with at least 3 to 4 feet of water, according to Montalvo.

ABC News correspondents observed widespread destruction in the town of Guaynabo, about 10 miles south of San Juan.

Trees and power lines were downed, and storefronts and building facades had crumbled. Neighborhoods in Guaynabo were filled with waist-deep floodwaters and destroyed homes that were clearly not built to any kind of code.

A Guaynabo resident who huddled in a bathroom with her family of six said told ABC News, "The winds took my home."

Puerto Rico narrowly missed landfall by Hurricane Irma two weeks ago, with the Category 5 storm traveling just north of the U.S. territory. The island suffered heavy rain and wind, but nothing near the widespread damage incurred by Hurricane Maria.

In addition to his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday, Trump tweeted a message of support for Puerto Rico late Wednesday, which was reciprocated by the island's governor. Rossello also spoke to Vice President Mike Pence by phone Wednesday.

Hurricane Maria also did severe damage to multiple Caribbean islands, including Dominica, Guadeloupe and the Virgin Islands.

The U.S. Department of State sent a message of solidarity Wednesday to the people of Dominica and all across the Caribbean who were affected by Hurricane Maria.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to Dominica's prime minister, told reporters via WhatsApp on Wednesday that several people have died and the death toll "will rise" as officials continue to assess the widespread damage on the tiny island. Dominica has suffered a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings" since the storm hit, ripping off roofs and tearing doors from hinges. The island's main general hospital "took a beating" and "patient care has been compromised," he said.

"The country is in a daze -- no electricity, no running water," Henry said via a WhatsApp message. "In summary, the island has been devastated."

The Ross University School of Medicine, based in Portsmouth, Dominica, announced Wednesday on Facebook that it is attempting to make contact with all of its students. More than 1,400 students and faculty have signed the registration sheet so far, and the school has reached out to the family members of more than 700 others, who informed them that they are safe.

Officials in Guadeloupe announced Wednesday that two people were killed and two others were missing due to the storm.

France's Interior Minister Gerard Collomb said some 80,000 people in Guadeloupe -- around 40 percent of the population -- were without electricity on Wednesday. Many roads there are impassible due to flooding, and French Navy planes have not been able to assess the damage on the island due to bad weather conditions.

In Martinique, about 70,000 homes were without electricity, and 50,000 homes did not have access to safe drinking water on Wednesday. Fallen trees and downed power poles have blocked many roads there, Collomb said.

Police and soldiers have been deployed in both Martinique and Guadeloupe to ensure security. More than 3,000 first responders are on the French Caribbean islands, according to Collomb.

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