San Juan — Hurricane Maria barreled towards the Turks and Caicos on Friday after lashing Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands with winds and rain that destroyed homes, flooded streets, devastated economies, and left at least 32 people dead.

Maria is the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the US territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It knocked out the island’s power and several rivers hit record flood levels.

At least 15 people were killed in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Día newspaper reported. Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two others were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one on the US Virgin Islands. The death toll in the Caribbean is likely to rise when searches resume at daybreak.

Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew until Saturday for the island’s 3.4-million people. "If it is not an emergency situation, people should remain in their homes or shelters," he was quoted as saying by El Nuevo Día.

Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 32km west of San Juan, mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper. More than 4,000 people were rescued from flooded areas of Toa Baja.

Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.

In the heart of the island’s capital San Juan, which has a fort and buildings from the Spanish colonial era, the storm left a trail of wreckage, with toppled trees cut power lines and streets turned into rivers.

US President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been "totally obliterated" and he planned to visit.

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in US history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

Storm surges

Maria is a category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with sustained winds of up to 205km/h. It was 55km east-northeast of Grand Turk Island as of 9am GMT, the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) said. It was forecast to bring storm surges of up to 3.7m to the south-eastern Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos, NHC said, adding that a gradual weakening was forecast for the next 48 hours as it heads north in the Atlantic Ocean.

Maria was expected to bring as much as 102cm of rain to Puerto Rico and an island-wide flash flood watch was in effect. Between 20cm and 40cm of rain was expected on Turks and Caicos, which could cause flash floods and mudslides.

Maria looked unlikely to hit the continental US but its storm swells will reach the south-eastern coast from Friday. "These swells are likely to cause dangerous surf and life-threatening rip currents along the coast for the next several days," NHC said.

Utility crews from the US mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid and the US military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue. More than 95% of wireless cell sites on the island were not working on Thursday afternoon, the US Federal Communications Commission said. In the US Virgin Islands, more than three-quarters of cell sites are out of service.

Long road to recovery

In Dominica, Maria damaged about 95% of roofs, the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It struck as a category 5 storm on Monday, ripping foliage off plants and obliterating the island’s vital agricultural sector.

The storm caused flooding in the Dominican Republic when it passed nearby from Wednesday night.

Maria passed close by the US Virgin Island of St Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday as a category 5 storm, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

"The worst is behind us," Virgin Islands governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. The government has imposed a 24-hour curfew until further notice. About 600 people throughout the US Virgin Islands are in emergency shelters and many parts are without power. "It’s going to be a long road to recovery," Mapp said.

Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other US Virgin Islands: St Thomas and St John. Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the US. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to November 30.

Reuters

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