Still a lethal Category 5 storm, Hurricane Maria pummeling Puerto Rico

A ferocious Hurricane Maria bore down on Puerto Rico early Wednesday as the island girded for an entire day of vicious winds that are expected to devastate the nation.

As of 4 a.m, the center of the storm was 60 miles southeast of the island – but winds overnight had already pummeled Puerto Rico, toppling trees and sparking flash-flood warnings in the nation’s capital.

Maria’s sustained winds were 160 miles per hours, still a monster Category 5 storm.

The storm was tracking toward the nation’s eastern coast and the eyewall was over the Puerto Rican island of Vieques; maximum sustained winds there were clocked at 110 miles per hour. Local press noted reports of flooding in homes and downed communications in Humacao, just south of the famed El Yunque national park.

“Keep in a safe place!” San Juan’s National Weather Service tweeted just before 4 a.m.

Maria was expected to make landfall on the island’s eastern coast, after a violent path that left the islands of Dominicana and the U.S. Virgin Islands in shambles. As a Category 5 storm, it will be the first storm of such ferocity to make landfall in Puerto Rico since a deadly storm killed thousands in 1928.

The storm will hit the U.S. territory more than a week after another major hurricane, Irma, churned through the Caribbean, cross the Florida Keys and slammed into the state’s west coast. Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the winds nevertheless knocked out power to thousands – 70,000 still had no electricity as Maria approached.

San Juan’s National Weather Service office was predicting sustained winds of 90 to 125 mph across much of the island, with gusts up to 175 mph that could easily destroy older buildings. Storm surge of up to 9 feet could also unleash flooding, with rainfall of between 12 and 18 inches, and spots of up to 25 inches.

Across the island, before the storm, Puerto Ricans secured their shutters, gathered water and bought last-minute supplies, including at a Walmart where some clamored to buy battery-powered fans, though no batteries were too be found.

“Everything’s warm,” said Barbara Toner, 35, one of those who still has no power, as she hauled away final supplies from a Walmart in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce.

She was upbeat, even in the face of a dangerous storm. Her and her husband, who moved from Vermont, have gotten to know their neighbors and even attended a block party thrown with no power.

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Walmart shoppers stand in line to purchase the D battery operated fans, but unfortunately there were not any available for sale due to shortage as many shoppers scrambled to purchase Hurricane supplies in the advance of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan on Tues., Sept. 19, 2017.

CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

“People are starting to really freak out,” she said. “I’m kind of excited. This is something new for me. I know it’s scary. I feel really bad for the people on the coast.”

More than 10,000 people huddled into over 500 government shelters across Puerto Rico, and authorities were warning of widespread damage and misery for an island already battered by fiscal crisis and crushing poverty.

“Now we’re looking down the barrel of Maria, a historic category 5 hurricane,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in an address to the nation on Tuesday night. “Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers.”

Puerto Rico: People scramble for last minute supplies before Maria makes landfall

Hurricane Maria lashes Guadeloupe’s airport

Compared to Irma, Maria is a much smaller storm, with hurricane-force winds extending about 35 miles from the eye. But its trek across the Caribbean nevertheless inflicted major damage on the islands.

On the mountainous island of Dominica, Maria made landfall on Monday night as a Category 5 storm. The winds ripped off the roof of the home of prime minister Roosevelt Skerrit, who had to be rescued.

“So, far the winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” he wrote in a Facebook post Monday morning.

In Guadeloupe, a French-run island chain known for waterfalls and idyllic beaches, the hurricane killed at least one person late Tuesday but the full extend of the damage was unknown.