Maria churns towards Turks and Caicos, 32 dead

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico: Hurricane Maria churned towards the Turks and Caicos on Friday after lashing Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands with winds and rain that destroyed homes, flooded streets, crippled economies and left at least 32 people dead.
Maria is the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the US territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It knocked out the island’s power and several rivers hit record flood levels.
At least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día — newspaper reported. Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told cable TV news channel CNN he had reports of at least 13 people on the island being killed.
“We have a lot of flooding,” he said in the interview, adding there “was a major disaster here in Puerto Rico.”
Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the US Virgin Islands.
The death toll in the Caribbean is likely to rise when searches resume at daybreak.
Rossello imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday for the island’s 3.4 million people. He said about 700 people have been rescued from floodwaters and communication was difficult with the southeastern part of the island.
Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 32 km west of San Juan, Mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper.
Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.
In the heart of the island’s capital San Juan, which has a fort and buildings from the Spanish colonial era, the storm left a trail of wreckage. Toppled trees cut power lines and streets were turned into rivers.
US President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been “totally obliterated” and he planned to visit.
Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in US history.
A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.
STORM SURGES: Maria is a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of up to 125 mph. It was 55 km east-northeast of Grand Turk Island as of 5 am EDT (0900 GMT), the US National Hurricane Center said.
It was forecast to bring storm surges of up to 12 feet to the southeastern Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos, it said, adding that a gradual weakening was forecast for the next 48 hours as it heads north in the Atlantic Ocean.
Maria was expected to bring as much as 40 inches of rain to Puerto Rico and an island-wide flash flood watch was in effect. Between eight and 16 inches of rain was expected on Turks and Caicos, which could cause flash floods and mudslides, the National Hurricane Center said.
Maria looked unlikely to hit the continental United States but its storm swells will reach the southeastern coast from Friday, the NHC said.
“These swells are likely to cause dangerous surf and life-threatening rip currents along the coast for the next several days,” it said.
Utility crews from the US mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid and the US military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.
More than 95 per cent of wireless cell sites were not working on Thursday afternoon on the island, the US Federal Communications Commission said. In the US Virgin Islands, more than three-quarters of cell sites are out of service. —Reuters