SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — A ferocious Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico just before dawn Wednesday as some 3.5 million people girded for a day of vicious winds and drenching rain expected to devastate the American territory.
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.
Winds were lashing the island, toppling trees and sparking flash-flood warnings in the territory’s capital. Maria weakened slightly as it approached the island but its sustained winds remained at 155 mph, still a monster Category 4 storm, when it struck.
“What I’m seeing is incredible,” said retiree Rosita Galguerra, 66, who is riding out the storm with her husband in the Rio Piedras neighborhood of San Juan. “The rain is horizontal and all the trees are on the ground.
“The house is trembling – and my house is made of concrete with a concrete roof. The winds are like out of a horror movie and it’s gusts, gusts, gusts. The island is going to be completely destroyed.”
By 9 a.m., as the storm raked the island and the core passed west of San Juan, the strongest winds weakened slightly to 145 miles per hour. Authorities and local reporters were swamped with reports of burst windows, flooded buildings and downed communications – including the phone lines at WKAQ, where staffers had to evacuate one studio because of damage.
Local radar stopped functioning, while El Nuevo Dia reported a portion of a police station collapsed. Floodgates were opened at the Plata river, which could endanger nearby communities, according to the news agency Primera Hora.
More than 700 refugees sheltered at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum sports arena had to clear the bottom floor because of a roof leak, while staffers used a chain to keep the doors from blowing open.
Just before landfall, the National Weather Service, via local radio, began warning residents in structures with weak roofs to take cover in interior rooms or bathtubs, with mattresses as covers.
“These hours are going to be very uncomfortable,” Puerto Rico’s governor Ricardo Rossello told WKAQ 580AM on Wednesday morning. “It’s time to hold on and stay safe.”
Maria hit the island’s eastern coast after a trek that left the islands of Dominica and the U.S. Virgin Islands in shambles. As a Category 4 storm, it is the strongest storm to make landfall in Puerto Rico since the San Ciprian hurricane killed more than 200 people in 1932.
After Maria crosses the island, it will approach the Turks and Caicos island early Friday, still expected to be a major hurricane. If the storm continues on the track forecast at 5 a.m. by the National Hurricane Center, it will post no threat to Florida and would stay well offshore of the East Coast of the United States as it moves north through the weekend.
In Puerto Rico, Maria made official landfall on the island’s southeastern tip and its least developed coast line. The region is home to nature preserves, some beach resorts and sugar plantations.