Historic Hurricane Maria devastates housing in Puerto Rico

Nation

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next: Hurricane Maria, it blasted Puerto Rico today with sustained winds of 155 miles an hour. That left more than three million people to ride out the island's strongest storm since 1932.

P.J. Tobia begins our coverage.

P.J. TOBIA: The people of Puerto Rico spent a long day trapped in their homes, snatching cell phone glimpses of Maria carving a slow, destructive path.

The hurricane made landfall about dawn, and quickly ripped roofs off buildings, tore fences from the ground, and unleashed deadly storm surges and 20 inches of rain as it swept across the island and past San Juan.

Raul Pichardo recorded images of a home wrecked in his San Juan neighborhood.

RAUL PICHARDO, Resident of Isla Verde, Puerto Rico (through interpreter): That whole building over there is already completely destroyed. A home's satellite dish just fell right here.

P.J. TOBIA: The storm knocked out 21 of the island's 22 weather stations, and left nearly all of its people without power. Officials imposed an overnight curfew. Local reports said several coastal villages were largely wrecked.

The mayor of Fajardo told one outlet: "I have never seen my city so destroyed."

Maria's power was intensified by extremely low pressure, lower even than Hurricane Irma's two weeks ago. That, coupled with the storm's smaller, more concentrated center, added to the destruction. A day earlier, it had blasted the tiny islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe, plus St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Scattered reports today told of major damage and little or no communications. Puerto Rico had already suffered an estimated $1 billion in damage from Irma, after a decade-long struggle to recover from recession. Now, housing in the territory is a growing concern, with more than 11,000 people in shelters.

But in a statement today, Governor Ricardo Rosselló insisted: "We are stronger than any hurricane. Together, we will rebuild."

Meanwhile, the storm is rolling on. It's expected to skirt the Dominican Republic by tomorrow, continuing northeast and passing near Turks and Caicos Thursday night and the Bahamas by Saturday morning. It may also regain some of the power it lost crossing Puerto Rico.

Fearing the worst, officials on in the Dominican Republic scrambled today to get ready as rain began to fall.

For the PBS NewsHour, I'm P.J. Tobia in Washington.

JUDY WOODRUFF: As of this evening, the hurricane's sustained winds dropped to 110 miles an hour.

And we keep our focus on Puerto Rico now.

We are joined by Carlos Mercader. He's spokesman for the governor of Puerto Rico.

Mr. Mercader, we're seeing reports that power is out across the entire — the extent of the island of Puerto Rico. Is that right?

CARLOS MERCADER, Spokesman, Governor of Puerto Rico: That's right.

The governor, days before the storm, he had basically warned everyone that the infrastructure of the electric system was really vulnerable to what we were really facing. And in the wake of what's probably the most damaging hurricane we have ever seen in our history, that was going to be one of the areas that were going to feel the damage more closely.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you have any sort of assessment yet of how much damage has been done to buildings, to homes?

CARLOS MERCADER: No.

Well, to be honest, we're still facing some of the effects of the hurricane. Right now, in San Juan, there is still like rain. There are still some winds, not necessarily the winds that they were feeling 10 hours ago, but there are still some winds of 40, 50, 60 miles per hour, so they have got to wait until the rain ends and the winds just go down, so that they can deploy all of the brigades that they have.

We have kind of like a task force created with FEMA, DOD, Department of Homeland Security, and the local state agencies that basically, once the storm is out, they are going to deploy to the whole island to assess the damages. And then we will able to talk about a number.

But I would just like to say this. In terms of infrastructure, material damage, it's total devastation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I should have asked you this first. What about casualties, loss of life, injuries?

CARLOS MERCADER: I believe that that's one of the good stories here so far, is that, because of the preparation that the government ensued during the days before the storm, the federal authorities, all of the sectors in Puerto Rico, private sector, all joined the governor in his message of — in his warnings that this was going to be a damaging storm and that people either would seek refuge in one of the shelters, or they would face life danger, right, or they would endanger their life.

And, in that sense, people responded well. People — we had about — right now, we still have about 12,500 evacuees that are in the 500 shelters that we have throughout the island. And we are expecting that the number may keep more or less around that same figure, because you know that a lot of people lost their homes.

We're talking here about major devastation. And when we say major devastation, that means that, in terms of infrastructure, we have full communities that 80 or 90 percent of the homes are a complete disaster. They are totally lost.

So those people probably, once they go back and they see that they don't have a home or that their home, it's inhabitable, they have got to go back to the shelter. So we have those shelters. People are in for some long stay of — some will be weeks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You are facing Puerto Rico needing of a lot of help in the months — in the weeks and months to come, it sounds like.

CARLOS MERCADER: Yes. Yes.

No, I would like to say one thing, is that we — throughout Irma and Maria, we have had a big support from the president of the United States, Donald Trump, his agencies, Brock Long, the administrator of FEMA, Tom Bossert, the adviser to the president on homeland security, the — Secretary Price, Secretary of HHS Price.

All of them have been in constant communication with the governor. They have called him on a daily basis almost, and they have not only show their support in words, but in actions. We have a big team of FEMA working right now on the ground now in Puerto Rico. They have deployed people from DHS.

We have helicopters from the military in Puerto Rico ready to start working with the different crises that we're going to working in once the storm goes.

So, we have had a lot of help, but we need more. And I think, in this sense, I want to talk a little bit about what happened with Irma. You know that while Irma didn't hit Puerto Rico directly, Irma did cause a lot of damage in the neighboring islands, and Puerto Rico became a safe haven for a lot of citizens that were stranded in those islands.

Puerto Rico helped, even though when we needed help. Now, obviously, we're going to need more support. And we're calling on Congress and all political leaders to support your fellow citizens in Puerto Rico.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, we are certainly wishing the very best for all the people of Puerto Rico.

Carlos Mercader, who is a representative of the governor of Puerto Rico, we thank you.

CARLOS MERCADER: Thank you for the opportunity.

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