SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AFP) — Hurricane Maria made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday, pummelling the US territory after already killing at least two people on its passage through the Caribbean.
The US National Hurricane Center warned of “large and destructive waves” as Maria came ashore near Yabucoa on the southeast coast.
Puerto Rico’s Governor Ricardo Rossello has told residents to brace for “the worst storm of the last century”, opening 500 shelters that can accommodate 67,000 people.
“The wind sounds like a woman screaming at the top of her lungs!” photographer and storm chaser Mike Theiss posted on Twitter as the hurricane hit.
“We are getting absolutely hammered right now.”
Puerto Ricans had scrambled to board up windows and buy last minute supplies as the storm approached the densely populated island of 3.5 million.
“Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane,” tweeted US President Donald Trump.
“Be careful, our hearts are with you — will be there to help!”
Maria made landfall as a Category Four storm on the five-point Saffir-Simpson scale, packing winds of 155 miles (250 kilometres) per hour.
The US and British Virgin Islands — still struggling to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Irma — are also on alert, along with the Turks and Caicos Islands and parts of the Dominican Republic.
Maria has already torn through several Caribbean islands, leaving two people dead in the French territory of Guadeloupe and causing major damage on the independent island of Dominica.
“I’m not denying I’m scared,” said Noemi Aviles Rivera, a 47-year-old schoolteacher in Puerto Rico who experienced Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998.
“I feel worried because it’s the first time I’ll see a hurricane of this magnitude.”
Governor Rossello tweeted that more than 11,000 people had sought shelter already, with nearly 600 pets in tow.
In the US Virgin Islands, locals reported horizontal rain and trees swirling in the wind.
“Very violent and intense right now as we have just begun to experience hurricane force winds,” said 31-year-old Coral Megahy, hunkered down on the St Croix island.
“We can hear debris banging on the aluminium windows as well.”
In Guadeloupe, one person was killed by a falling tree as Maria hit, while another died on the seafront.
At least two more are missing after their boat sank off the French territory, while some 40 per cent of households in the archipelago of 400,000 were without power.
On neighbouring Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit posted on Facebook on Tuesday that there were initial reports of “widespread devastation”.
Communications to the tropical island of 73,000 people have been cut, and its airports and ports have been closed.
There had been fears that Maria could wreak fresh havoc on islands that were already flattened by Category 5 hurricane Irma earlier in the month.
Reports suggested St Martin, a French-Dutch island that was among the most severely hit by Irma with 14 dead, had escaped the worst this time around.
“Compared to Irma this was a breeze,” Gordon Snow, editor of the Daily Herald newspaper, told the radio station Paradise FM.
Britain, France and the Netherlands had boosted resources in their Caribbean territories ahead of Maria, after heavy criticism of poor preparations for Irma.
UK Commonwealth minister Alan Duncan told BBC radio the region had suffered “a fortnight of relentless catastrophe”, with nine killed in the British Virgin Islands.
But he added: “Although the fear is that these islands are going to get another hit, it looks at the moment that the British Virgin Islands will not get hit as hard as they did before.”
All three European countries have increased their troop deployments to the region after complaints of looting and lawlessness after Irma.
Building supplies were hurriedly flown in to help islanders repair roofs torn off by Irma, which left 40 dead across the Caribbean and 58 more in Florida.
Irma broke records this month by whipping up winds of 295 kilometres per hour for more than 33 hours straight.
French President Emmanuel Macron told the UN General Assembly in New York that the lethal sequence of hurricanes — Irma and Maria came after Harvey blasted through Texas — was “one of the direct consequences of global warming”.
The French leader is pushing US President Trump to reverse his decision to pull out of the 2015 Paris climate accord, which triggered an international outcry.