The biggest concern: Convincing the thousands of Puerto Ricans who fared well through Irma that Maria will be stronger, wetter, slower — and far more dangerous.
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The ever-growing hurricane trudging toward his island is bigger and potentially more destructive than any recent storms and could lay waste to huge swaths of the island, Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Monday.
Hurricane Maria, expected to pound Puerto Rico by Wednesday with 150-mph winds, will flood some parts of the island, thoroughly destroy others and leave most of the nation of 3.4 million people without power, Rosselló said in an interview with USA TODAY.
“It will essentially devastate most of the island,” he said.
Puerto Rico is under the unique and challenging position of still recovering from Hurricane Irma — which skated near the country earlier this month but mostly spared the island from widespread damage — while simultaneously prepping for Maria.
The 450 shelters opened for Irma will remain in place and except thousands of residents fleeing flood-prone areas, such as Ponce to the south and Bayamón to the north. U. S. assets, such as on-the-ground FEMA officials and U. S. search-and-rescue teams, will stay in Puerto Rico to facilitate response and recovery efforts through Maria, he said.
Rosselló’s biggest concern and challenge is convincing the thousands of Puerto Ricans who fared well through Irma that Maria will be stronger, wetter, slower — and far more dangerous.
“These couple of hours prior to the storm are going to be critical so that we make sure that people are out of harm’s way and we can save lives,” he said.
On Monday, Hurricane Maria grew to a powerful Category 4 storm, forging a path where it could re-smash many of the Caribbean islands that were devastated by Hurricane Irma, including the U. S. and British Virgin Islands and Dominica. It’s expected to continue intensifying over the next two days and sweep across southern Puerto Rico around noon Wednesday.
Across the Caribbean, people continued stockpiling supplies and preparing for Maria’s arrival. In the French Caribbean territory of Martinique, French authorities have ordered residents to stay home as the storm approaches.
In the U. S. Virgin Islands of St. Thomas and St. John, people lined up at docks to try to catch last-minute boat rides off the battered islands. The islands were wrecked by Irma, losing power for months and making hospitals inhabitable. Maria is now expected to cross very near to St. Croix, the only U. S. Virgin Island left largely unscathed by Irma.
“It’s like when you’re in the fourth quarter of a basketball game and you’re down by 50 points and then the team that’s winning hits six three-pointers in a row,” said Chris Currerri, 42, a St. Thomas resident who’s electronic manufacturing business was badly damaged by Irma. “You’re like, ‘Ugh, we’ll never catch them now.’”
He added: “Nobody’s thrilled.”
Federal aid from Washington, both logistically and in actual resources, to Puerto Rico has been “phenomenal,” Rosselló said
He’s been in close contact with officials at Homeland Security, FEMA and the White House, he said. On Monday, when Rosselló asked the Trump administration for a pre-landfall disaster declaration, which frees up federal dollars and assets, he said verbal approval was swift from Washington.
“There can be many other areas where we differ on public policy,” he said, “but I have to say the response from FEMA and the federal response has been phenomenal.”
U. S. disaster officials have promised Rossello “brigades” of energy workers to help Puerto Rico reinstate power on the island after Maria, a crucial concern of leaders here. Irma knocked out power to about 1 million homes here earlier this month. Many still don’t have power.
“We can expect the energy infrastructure is going to take a big hit after this storm,” Rosselló said. “We’re going to need a lot of generators.”
Rosselló said he hopes Americans in the mainland remember how Puerto Rico helped others during Irma, including taking in more than 3,500 U. S. citizens stranded on the islands during that storm.
“After Irma, the people of Puerto Rico stood up and helped others,” he said. “We’ve done our part. But it’s likely we’re going to need a lot of help, a lot of collaboration, after this storm.”
Contributing: Associated Press