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SAN JUAN: Hurricane Maria caused “mind boggling damage”, ripping off roofs across the small island of Dominica before pushing on toward the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the second top-strength storm to lash the Caribbean this month.

Maria regained rare Category 5 strength, the top end of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, as it churned about 240 km southeast of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands, US forecasters said.

It was carrying maximum sustained winds of 260 km per hour, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, describing Maria as “potentially catastrophic”.

The storm plowed through Dominica, a mountainous island nation of 72,000 people in the eastern Caribbean, late on Monday causing devastation that Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit described as “mind boggling”. “The winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Skerrit said in a Facebook post, describing an avalanche of torn-away roofs across the country, including that of his own residence. “My focus now is in rescuing the trapped and securing medical assistance for the injured,” he said.

The storm made landfall on Dominica as a Category 5 hurricane with 250-kph winds, the NHC said.

Just to the south of Dominica, the French island of Martinique escaped Maria largely unscathed. A communications blackout with fellow French territory Guadeloupe meant it would be several more hours before damage there could be assessed, Jacques Witkowski, France’s head of civil protection, told reporters in Paris.

The remains of a restaurant (top right) on the French Caribbean island of Martinique after it was hit by Hurricane Maria on Tuesday. Rocks swept by strong waves onto a road in Martinique following the hurricane.—AFP
The remains of a restaurant (top right) on the French Caribbean island of Martinique after it was hit by Hurricane Maria on Tuesday. Rocks swept by strong waves onto a road in Martinique following the hurricane.—AFP

The region was hit just days ago by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the US Virgin Islands of St Thomas and St John, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the US mainland.

Maria was expected to remain an extremely dangerous category 4 or 5 hurricane until it passed near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, the NHC said.

The governor of the US Virgin Islands, Kenneth Mapp, said Maria would pass within 16 km of the island of St Croix, which escaped the brunt of Irma on Sept 6. The island is home to about 55,000 year-round residents, roughly half of the entire territory’s population.

At a news conference on Monday evening, Mapp warned of drenching rains. He predicted that most islanders would be without electricity for weeks, and “some folks will not get power in months”.

A curfew would be imposed starting at 10am local time on Tuesday, he said.

Published in Dawn, September 20th, 2017