A darkened Puerto Rico is struggling to rebound from Hurricane Maria Thursday amid scenes of widespread devastation and fears that it could take up to six months to restore power.
The Caribbean island awoke in total darkness to homes ripped from their foundations, streets turned into roaring rivers and towns ravaged by landslides.
San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz estimated that the island’s 3.5 million residents could go four to six months before electricity is restored.
Frantic residents paddling through flooded streets in rafts and kayaks saw rows of crushed concrete balconies and hundreds of toppled eucalyptus trees.
“The San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there,” Cruz told MSNBC on Thursday.
The Category 4 storm packing 155 mph winds struck Wednesday morning as the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years.
Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico was already evident Wednesday night.
(HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
Maria unleashed a storm surge of more than 4 feet into the coastal city of Cataño, swamping 80% of the homes.
“Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this,” Cataño mayor Felix Delgado said.
A full accounting of the damage in other parts of the island was impossible Thursday. Roads were impassable and communication was cut off entirely.
Initially a Category 5 storm, Maria was blamed for at least 19 deaths across the Caribbean, including more than 15 in Dominica, two in Guadeloupe and two in Puerto Rico.
Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit wept as he lamented the country’s death toll.
Hurricane Maria strikes Puerto Rico after pummeling Caribbean
“We have buried in excess of 15 people,” he told a reporter while on the nearby island of Antigua. “It’s a miracle there were not hundreds of deaths.”
The dead in Puerto Rico included a man in a boat that capsized off the coast when the storm hit. A British Royal Navy helicopter plucked three survivors from the vessel — a woman and two children. Separately, a man was killed in Puerto Rico when he was hit by flying debris.
By late Thursday, Maria was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic after lashing parts of the island with 115 mph winds and drenching rain.
Unlike Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic suffered only a glancing blow, saving it from large-scale damage, according to early reports.
The storm was expected to strengthen as it bore down on the Turks and Caicos islands and the Bahamas late Thursday and early Friday.
Parts of San Juan were heavily flooded after the Category 4 storm hit.
(HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
From there, forecasters expect it to spin out into the Atlantic, posing no threat to the U.S. mainland.
Supreme Court Justice Sonya Sotomayor was among countless Americans desperately trying to reach relatives in Puerto Rico.
The island “is suffering a great tragedy right now,” the 63-year-old Bronx native said at an event at the Newseum in Washington D.C., according to CNN.
“I have not heard from half my family… We ask for your prayers.”
Maria decimated the U.S. territory exactly two weeks after Puerto Rico dodged a direct strike from Hurricane Irma. Irma knocked out power to more than 1 million people but caused no deaths and relatively little destruction compared to nearby islands.
Caribbean islands like St. Martin have been battered this hurricane season.
(HELENE VALENZUELA/AFP/Getty Images)
Some Puerto Ricans staggered outside Thursday with harrowing stories of survival.
Tour company operator Adrian Pacheco said he spent eight hours huddled in a stairwell with 100 other residents when the hurricane ripped the storm shutters off his building and tore off three balconies.
“I think people didn’t expect the storm to reach the point that it did,” he said. “Since Irma never really happened, they thought Maria would be the same.”
Shawn Zimmerman, a 27-year-old Pennsylvania native who moved there two years ago, said the aftermath was more horrifying than the hurricane itself.
“The storm didn’t bother me,” he told the Associated Press. “It’s the devastation. I get goosebumps. It’s going to take us a long time.”
With News Wire Services.