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Puerto Rico faces floods, misery after #Maria 'obliteration'

Thursday, September 21, 2017

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AFP) — Puerto Rico was facing dangerous flooding and an islandwide power outage on Thursday following Hurricane Maria as the death toll from the powerful storm topped 15 in the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica.

President Donald Trump declared Puerto Rico a disaster zone and said Maria had "obliterated" the densely-populated US territory of 3.4 million people.

Governor Ricardo Rossello called Maria "the most devastating storm in a century", and said the island was having to contend with a total breakdown of its electricity and telecommunications infrastructure.

Rossello warned that expected heavy rainfall over the next few days could cause deadly flooding and mudslides.

"The biggest concern is the amount of rain and flooding, particularly in the west," Rossello told WAPA radio. "We expect up to 25 inches (63 centimetres) from the tail of the hurricane."

The hurricane has been blamed for at least 18 deaths, including 15 in Dominica, two in Guadeloupe and one in northern Puerto Rico's Bayamon district, where a man was struck by a board he had used to cover his windows.

"Puerto Rico is absolutely obliterated," Trump told reporters after declaring the island a disaster area in a move that will free up emergency relief funding.

"Puerto Rico is in a very, very, very tough shape," he said.

Though the storm had moved back out to sea, authorities declared a flash flood warning for all of Puerto Rico as the torrential rains continued to lash the island.

"If possible, move to higher ground NOW!" the National Weather Service station in San Juan said in a tweet, calling the flooding "catastrophic."

The rain had turned some roads in the US territory into muddy brown rivers, impassable to all but the largest of vehicles.

Toppled trees, street signs and power cables were strewn across roads that were also littered with debris.

Although Maria has now passed over Puerto Rico and lost some of its power, it is still packing winds of 120 miles per hour (195 kilometres per hour) and moving northwards towards the Turks and Caicos Islands after brushing the Dominican Republic.

Ricardo Ramos, who heads Puerto Rico's electricity board, said it could take months before power is fully restored.

"The system, you know, has been totally destroyed," he said of the electricity grid.

While the island had suffered major blackouts from previous hurricanes, Ramos said the impact would be felt much more keenly this time.

"I guess it's a good time for dads to buy a glove and ball and change the way you entertain your children and the way you are going to go to school and the way you are going to cook for gas stoves other than electric," Ramos told CNN.

In San Juan, where tens of thousands rode out the storm in shelters or else hunkered down in their homes, residents told of their terrifying ordeal.

"This was absolutely the worst experience we've had with a hurricane," Kim Neis, an American who has lived on the island for 30 years, told AFP.

"None of the others were anything like as intense as this."

Governor Rossello imposed a 6:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew until Saturday.

There were reports of looting and authorities said 10 people had been arrested.

Maria has already torn through several Caribbean islands, claiming the highest toll on Dominica, which remains largely cut off from the outside world.

"So far, we would have buried in excess of 15 people," Dominica's Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit told a television network of Antigua and Barbuda, a neighbouring country.

"If there (are) no other fatalities, it is a miracle," Skerrit said.

"It has been brutal. I saw almost complete devastation," said Skerrit, who has made several flights over the territory of some 72,000 people.

"We have no water, no electricity, very limited communications," he said.

"It is worse than a war zone," said Skerrit, who himself had to be rescued during the hurricane, which blew the roof off his residence.