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'We've Never Gone Through This': Hurricane Maria Knocks Out Puerto Rico's Electricity

As Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico Wednesday, people took shelter at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan.
Hector Retamal
AFP/Getty Images
As Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico Wednesday, people took shelter at Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan.

Updated at 11 p.m. ET

Puerto Rico is trying to start the process of recovering from Hurricane Maria — and it's doing so after the powerful storm blew homes apart, filled roads with water and tore at its infrastructure. Flash floods are persisting, and the island has no electricity service.

"We are without power, the whole island is without power," Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico's resident commissioner — its representative in Congress — told Morning Edition on Thursday. González-Colón spoke from Carolina, near San Juan.

Maria is beginning to spread over the Turks and Caicos Islands — by Thursday evening, its eye was 90 miles north-northeast of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, and 65 miles east-southeast of Grand Turk Island. It was moving northwest at 8 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center. Maria's maximum sustained winds of 125 mph make it a Category 3 hurricane.

The shutdown of Puerto Rico's electrical grid has meant big changes for students like Miguel Santiago, who attends the University of Puerto Rico and works at WRTU.

"We've never gone through this, you know?" Santiago tells NPR's Adhiti Bandlamudi. "We've never gone through so much time — at least my generation has never gone through so much time — without electricity. So ... going through my mind, it's a new life."

Other challenges, Santiago says, range from living under a nightly curfew to getting around debris and wreckage from the storm that ran over the island as a Category 4 hurricane.

On the sidewalks, Santiago says, "every three steps you take, there's another tree on the floor. And not just branches, but trees as a whole. You know, their roots are intact. They fell off completely. It's really hard to walk around it."

Ajit Pai, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said in a statement that 95 percent of the cellphone service was down on the island and that the hurricane "has had a catastrophic impact on Puerto Rico's communications networks." To restore service "will be a challenging process, particularly given the power outages throughout the island."

All of Puerto Rico has been under flood warnings — which were extended by the National Weather Service's San Juan office Thursday as rain from Maria continued to fall.

In many places, Maria ruined repairs that had only just been completed after the island was hit with a glancing blow from the massively powerful Hurricane Irma. Puerto Rico is home to 3.4 million people, and Maria is the strongest storm to hit there in decades.

NPR's Greg Allen reported on the storm's effects for our Newscast unit.

"Maria dropped a record 35 inches of rain in some places. Rivers across the island are out of their banks. Authorities opened the floodgates on reservoirs making flooding worse in some downstream communities. In Levittown, west of San Juan, flooding forced residents to their rooftops where they awaited rescue.

"In the city of Las Piedras, officials say they recorded wind gusts over 200 miles per hour. Maria's high winds took roofs, destroyed homes and snapped concrete power poles in two."

As the storm's intense winds and high storm surge wreaked havoc on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz called for help from the mainland U.S., saying, "The Puerto Rico and San Juan we knew yesterday is no longer there."

Speaking to González-Colón on Thursday, NPR's David Greene asked for her impression.

"It is that bad," she said. "I mean, there is devastation. People with wooden houses are no longer there. And all of the forests and palm trees — they're not there. It's bare soil. It is devastating, and I hope we can recover soon."

President Trump declared major disasters Wednesday night in both Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which were hit by Maria on its way west.

Dangerous winds persisted last night, González-Colón says: "It was a long day last night, because the hurricane winds which began at 1 a.m. [continued ] until midnight."

Coordinating relief and recovery efforts will also be a challenge: Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CNN late Wednesday, "Our telecommunications system is partially down."

Hurricane Maria is predicted to make a turn more to the north in the coming days, as seen in this National Hurricane Center forecast from 2 p.m. ET.
/ National Hurricane Center
National Hurricane Center
Hurricane Maria is predicted to make a turn more to the north in the coming days, as seen in this National Hurricane Center forecast from 2 p.m. ET.

Maria's path put most of the Dominican Republic mercifully outside the storm's 60-mile extension of hurricane-force winds, but heavy rains and tropical-storm conditions are hitting the island. Still, parts of the Dominican Republic were expecting a dangerous storm surge and large waves, with water levels 4 to 6 feet above normal tide.

After expending huge amounts of energy to destroy parts of Puerto Rico, the storm picked up more power when it moved back over water.

Maria is expected to intensify further, with the hurricane center predicting winds of 125 mph within 24 hours. The next areas that lie in the storm's path are part of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas — both areas that can expect to see tropical storm conditions later Thursday, and hurricane conditions at night.

Maria is being blamed for at least one death in Puerto Rico — Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said last night that a man was killed by flying debris. The AP reports that the storm caused "at least 19 deaths across the Caribbean, including more than 15 in the hard-hit island of Dominica and two in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to WRTU as an NPR member station. It was a member station in the past but is not currently.
Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.