Hurricane Maria slams Dominica, now takes aim at Puerto Rico

Men remove boats from the water ahead of Hurricane Maria in the Galbas area of Sainte-Anne on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, early Monday, Sept. 18, 2017. Hurricane Maria grew into a Category 3 storm on Monday as it barreled toward a potentially devastating collision with islands in the eastern Caribbean. (AP Photo/Dominique Chomereau-Lamotte)

ROSEAU, Dominica (AP) — Dominica’s leader sent out an emotional plea for help as Hurricane Maria smashed into the Caribbean island causing “mind-boggling” devastation, but an ominous silence followed as the country lost all communications on Tuesday and the Category 5 hurricane took aim at Puerto Rico.

As rain began lashing the U.S. territory Tuesday afternoon, Puerto Rico’s governor warned that Maria could hit “with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations.”

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page as the storm blew over the tiny country late Monday — but then stopped suddenly as phone and internet connections with the country were cut.

“The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God,” Skerrit wrote before communications went down.

A few minutes later, he messaged he could hear the sound of galvanized steel roofing tearing off houses on the small rugged island. He said that even his own roof had blown away.

In the last message before falling silent, he appealed for international aid: “We will need help, my friends, we will need help of all kinds.”

The storm knocked out communications for the entire country, leaving anyone outside Dominica struggling to determine the extent of damage, though it was clearly widespread. “The situation is really grave,” Consul General Barbara Dailey said in a telephone interview from New York.

She said she lost contact with the island around 4 a.m. At that point, officials had learned that 70 percent of homes had lost their roofs, including her own.

“I lost everything,” she said, adding there had been no word on casualties. “As a Category 5 it would be naive not to expect any (injuries) but I don’t know how many,” she said.

The island’s broadcast service was also down on Tuesday and Akamai Technologies, a company that tracks the status of the internet around the world, said most of Dominica’s internet service appeared to have been lost by midday. The Ross University School of Medicine in Dominica reported a widespread loss of communication on the island, and relatives of students posted messages on its Facebook page saying they had been unable to talk to their loved ones since late Monday evening as the storm approached.

Dominica is particularly vulnerable to flooding because of its steep mountains, cut through with rivers that rage even after a heavy rain. It was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika, which killed 30 people and destroyed more than 370 homes in August 2015.

Officials on the neighboring French island of Guadeloupe reported at least one death: a person hit by a falling tree. They said two other people were reported missing after their boat sank off La Desirade island, just east of Guadeloupe.

About 40 percent of the island — 80,000 homes — were without power and flooding was reported in several communities.

Next in the storm’s path was St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands, which was largely spared the widespread damage caused by Hurricane Irma on the chain’s St. Thomas and St. John islands just two weeks ago.

Authorities in Puerto Rico, which looked likely to take a direct hit, warned that people in wooden or flimsy homes should find safe shelter before the storm’s expected arrival on Wednesday.

“You have to evacuate. Otherwise, you’re going to die,” said Hector Pesquera, the island’s public safety commissioner. “I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”

Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned that the storm could knock out power for days across the island.

“This is going to impact all of Puerto Rico with a force and violence that we haven’t seen for several generations,” he said. “We’re going to lose a lot of infrastructure in Puerto Rico. We’re going to have to rebuild.”

In the capital of San Juan, streets and beaches that were normally bustling with people were empty Tuesday, with only the occasional sound of a hammer pounding nails into plywood sheets interrupting the silence. Shelves were bare after Puerto Ricans filled shopping carts with the limited amount of water, batteries, baby formula, milk and other items they could find.

Iris Tosado, a 64-year-old widowed housewife, scanned the nearly empty shelves before heading back home. She and her disabled son planned to spend the storm with relatives because their home is made of wood, and she prayed that it would not be destroyed.

“God, it’s the only thing I have,'” she said. “This is not looking good.”

Maria had maximum sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph) late Monday when it slammed into Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane.

The U.S. National Hurricane Center said Maria weakened briefly before recovering sustained winds of 160 mph (260 kph). Its eye was located about 110 miles (175 kilometers) southeast of St. Croix on Monday afternoon and was moving west-northwest over the Caribbean at 10 mph (17 kph). At 3 p.m. EDT, rain bands from the storm were reported moving over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

The storm’s hurricane-force winds extended out about 35 miles (45 kilometers) and tropical storm-force winds out as far as 125 miles (205 kilometers).

Forecasters said the storm surge could raise water levels by 6 to 9 feet (1.8 to 2.7 meters) near the storm’s center. The storm was predicted to bring 10 to 15 inches (25 to 38 centimeters) of rain across the islands, with more in isolated areas.

To the north, Hurricane Jose stirred up dangerous surf and rip currents along the U.S. East Coast, though forecasters said the storm was unlikely to make landfall. Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalized after being rescued.

A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York’s Long Island and Connecticut.

Jose’s center was about 255 miles (415 kilometers) east-northeast of Cape Hattaras, North Carolina, on Tuesday afternoon and moving north at 7 mph (11 kph). The storm had maximum sustained winds of 75 mph (120 kph).

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico. Associated Press writers Ben Fox in Miami and Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.