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Maria kills 15 in Dominica, leaves Puerto Rico dark for months


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(CNN) — Hurricane Maria picked up steam Thursday afternoon, turning streets into raging rivers as it continues its deadly tear across the Caribbean.

The storm has now killed at least 15 people on the island of Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit posted on Facebook. Skerrit’s own home was demolished in the storm.

But Maria’s wrath is far from over. The hurricane intensified Thursday afternoon, whipping winds of 120 mph as it headed toward Turks and Caicos, the National Hurricane Center said.

And it’s still pummeling the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In just 24 hours, Maria dumped 30 inches of rain on parts of Puerto Rico, where millions of residents won’t have power for months.

But a glimmer of hope emerged Thursday, when officials announced Puerto Rico’s largest airport would reopen to airlines starting Friday, offering hurricane victims a chance to flee.

Here’s the latest on Maria’s destruction, and what’s next:

Dominican Republic gets thrashed

Although Maria is drifting away from the Dominican Republic, “heavy rainfall and flooding continues in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” the hurricane center said.

“A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet” in parts of the Dominican Republic — where rivers were still swollen from Hurricane Irma.

Maria will likely strengthen as it moves across warm water, endangering low-lying islands with enormous storm surges. The Turks and Caicos will likely feel the brunt of Maria late Thursday and Friday, with as much as 16 inches of rain predicted.

Maria could affect the US East Coast by early next week with high surf, dangerous rip currents and windy conditions. Depending on its path, the system also could bring rain from the Mid-Atlantic to Massachusetts, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.

Puerto Rico: Power system ‘basically … destroyed’

Puerto Ricans, still grappling with intense rain Thursday, might not get power back for four to six months, said Ricardo Ramos, the CEO of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“The system has been basically destroyed,” Ramos told CNN. He said hospitals and water systems will get priority power restoration.

But the island’s largest airport, the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, will be ready to receive military and rescue operations Thursday and will be open to airline traffic Friday, according to Aerostar Puerto Rico, which manages the airport near San Juan.

Emergency generators will power the limited operations, and there will be no air conditioning, the operator said.

For passengers, “We suggest you confirm your flight directly with the airline before heading to the airport.,” Aerostar said.

President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday that he will visit Puerto Rico, but did not detail when.

“Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated,” Trump said. “We’ll work with the governor and the people of Puerto Rico.”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Maria is the “most devastating storm to hit the island this century, if not in modern history.”

The US commonwealth has been through a long recession, is deeply in debt and has a state-owned power grid that is “a little bit old, mishandled and weak,” the governor said.

Retired Army veteran Manuel Torres called Maria’s devastation the worst he’d ever seen. His mother’s house in La Perla, an oceanfront community in old San Juan, was destroyed.

Emerging after the storm had passed, Torres found the three-story home reduced to two stories.

Angela Magaña, a UFC fighter who lives in the area, said neighbors were helping each other.

“We need cleanup, water, food, and generators,” she told CNN. “There are a lot of old people here who are going without necessities. We need to rebuild and restructure, and we need prayers. Any kind of help we can get because it’s a mess right now.”

While the gusts have subsided, downpours continued in mountainous areas Thursday, meaning water would continue gushing downstream and exacerbate flooding.

Dozens of families were rescued from flooding Thursday in Levittown, near the capital city of San Juan, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rican governor tweeted. The Puerto Rican National Guard was still searching for others in need of rescue, she said.

US Virgin Islands: 24-hour curfew in place
Maria also annihilated homes on the US Virgin Islands. On Thursday, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp announced a 24-hour curfew, effective immediately, on the four main US Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island.

“Your presence on the roads during the curfew hours will only hamper clean-up efforts and could delay the distribution of critically needed supplies,” Mapp said.

The curfew for the islands will remain in effect until further notice.

One of the hardest hit islands was St. Croix. Aaliyah Bisamber shot video of what was left of her old house on the island of 50,000 people.

Maria didn’t just obliterate homes, it knocked out vital communication lines, resident Murillo Melo said.

“Here on the island and on the mainland, people are trying to get in contact with friends and relatives,” he said. “People are desperate to get some news from their friends and relatives.”

On St. Thomas, retired New York police Detective Austin Fields said his home was pummeled.

“My home is no longer a home,” he said.

Trump declared the US Virgin Islands a major disaster area and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts.

Dominica: ‘The need is great’

Prime Minister Skerrit said Dominica was almost completely devastated.

“First of all, every village in Dominica, every street in Dominica … is affected by the hurricane,” he told ABS TV/Radio, based in Antigua and Barbuda. “We have no running water, no electricity, no power, we have very limited communication services.”

There is desperate need for food, water and medical supplies on the island of 73,000 residents, officials said.

“The need is great,” said Philmore Mullin, head of Antigua and Barbuda’s National Office of Disaster Services. “We know of casualties, but not in detail. We’ve heard of many missing, but we just don’t know much at the moment.”

Skerrit is “homeless” and “bunking up in an area called St. Aroment,” government spokesman Charles Jong said.

A flight Wednesday over Dominica showed thousands of trees had been snapped and were strewn across the landscape, leaving the island stripped of vegetation.

CNN also saw evidence of dozens of mudslides, although not in population centers. The usually blue-green sea in many places had been replaced by a muddy brown.

Branson: ‘Climate change is real’

Virgin Group founder Richard Branson, who rode out Hurricane Irma in his wine cellar on his private island in the British Virgin Islands, told CNN after Maria that “climate change is real.”

“Look, you can never be 100% sure about links,” Branson said. “But scientists have said the storms are going to get more and more and more intense and more and more often. We’ve had four storms within a month, all far greater than that have ever, ever, ever happened in history.”

“Sadly,” he said, “I think this is the start of things to come.”