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Puerto Rico deluged

The strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years destroyed hundreds of homes, knocked out power across the entire island and triggered heavy flooding Wednesday in an onslaught that could plunge the U.S. territory deeper into financial crisis.

Leaving at least nine people dead in its wake across the Caribbean, Hurricane Maria blew ashore in the morning in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (250 kph).

It was expected to punish the island of 3.4 million people with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours.

"Once we're able to go outside, we're going to find our island destroyed," said Abner Gomez, Puerto Rico's emergency management director. "The information we have received is not encouraging. It's a system that has destroyed everything in its path."

It was the second time in two weeks that Puerto Rico felt the wrath of a hurricane.

There was no immediate word of any deaths or serious injuries.

As people waited it out in shelters or took cover inside stairwells, bathrooms and closets, Maria brought down cell towers and power lines, snapped trees, tore off roofs and unloaded at least 20 inches (50 centimetres) of rain.

Widespread flooding was reported, with dozens of cars half-submerged in some neighbourhoods 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.

Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Catano, told The Associated Press that 80 per cent of the 454 homes in a neighbourhood known as Juana Matos were destroyed. The fishing community on San Juan Bay was hit with a storm surge of more than 4 feet, he said.

"Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this," he said.

As of 2 p.m. EDT, Maria had weakened to a Category 3, with winds of 115 mph (185 kph). Its centre was just off Puerto Rico's northwestern coast, moving at about 15 mph (20 kph). It was expected to pass off the coast of the Dominican Republic late Wednesday and Thursday.

Even before the storm, Puerto Rico's electrical grid was crumbling and the island was in dire condition financially.

Puerto Rico is struggling to restructure a portion of its $73 billion debt, and the government has warned it is running out of money as it fights back against 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."

More than 11,000 people — and more than 580 pets — were in shelters, authorities said.

As the storm closed in on the Dominican Republic, about 4,000 tourists in the Bavara-Punta Cana area on the eastern tip of the island were moved to hotels in Santo Domingo, the capital.

Maria posed no immediate threat to the U.S. mainland. The long-range forecast showed the storm out in the Atlantic Ocean hundreds of miles off the Georgia-South Carolina coast by Monday morning.



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