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Hurricane Maria hits Puerto Rico as a Category 4: what we know

It’s the strongest storm to hit the island in 80 years. 

Hurricane Maria as seen on September 18.
Brian Resnick is Vox’s science and health editor, and is the co-creator of Unexplainable, Vox's podcast about unanswered questions in science. Previously, Brian was a reporter at Vox and at National Journal.

It’s been less than two weeks since Hurricane Irma slammed into the Eastern Caribbean as a Category 4 storm, devastating many of the tiny islands in its path before barreling into Florida. Now some of these same islands in the Caribbean — including St. Croix, St. Thomas, and the US territory Puerto Rico — are enduring a new, stomach-churning threat: Hurricane Maria.

Maria rammed directly into Puerto Rico early Wednesday morning as a powerful Category 4 storm with 140 mph winds. It’s the strongest storm to hit the island in 80 years. Some areas in Puerto Rico are expected to see 20 inches of rain and 6 to 9 feet of dangerous storm surge (often the most deadly component of a hurricane).

“Maria's core is moving over Puerto Rico, with life-threatening wind, storm surge, and rainfall impacts continuing over the island,” the National Hurricane Center stated Wednesday. “Everyone in Puerto Rico should follow advice from local officials to avoid life-threatening flooding from storm surge and rainfall.”

Around 8 am Eastern Wednesday, Maria’s eye passed just 15 miles from San Juan, the capital, which has a population of around 400,000. According to the New York Times, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló expects the island to lose power entirely. Widespread flash floods and mudslides are a threat as well.

‘‘We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Rosselló told reporters. Maria is expected to maintain Category 4 strength through Friday, the National Hurricane Center reports.

Already, the destruction in the Caribbean has been immense. Maria made landfall on the island of Dominica (population 72,000) Monday as a Category 5, killing seven. “The [160 mph] winds have swept away the roofs of almost every person I have spoken to or otherwise made contact with,” Roosevelt Skerrit, Dominica’s prime minister, wrote on Facebook. He called the damage “mind boggling.”

Maria is a somewhat smaller storm than Irma. Its hurricane-force winds extend 60 miles from its center (Irma’s extended around 80). But it could be a much more devastating storm for the islands it hits because of the direct track it’s following over them. (Irma veered just north of Puerto Rico.)

After Puerto Rico, the storm may skirt the north coast of the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Then it’s expected to turn north into the Atlantic — away from Florida.

Rosselló declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico and has begun to issue evacuation orders for parts of the island. "We have an extremely weak infrastructure that has already been hit by one storm," he told reporters Monday. "This is going to be a catastrophic event."

As with any hurricane, don’t focus solely on wind speed — the storm surge and rain matter too. But Maria is currently sustaining 140 mph winds, which can destroy homes, uproot trees, and knock out power for months. And as we saw with Hurricane Harvey, even a downgraded hurricane or tropical storm can cause massive destruction and chaos. The deadliest aspect of a hurricane tends to be the coastal flooding that comes from storm surge.

A chart describing storms labeled Category 1 (winds up to 95 miles per hour, isolated injuries) through Category 5 (winds above 155 mph, extreme flooding). Zachary Crockett/Vox

Maria is the seventh hurricane in the Atlantic this season. And while that seems like a lot, it’s happened before. According to meteorologist Philip Klotzbach, there are eight other years on record that have had seven storms by September 17. We’re at the peak of hurricane season, where the Atlantic waters are the hottest they get for the entire year. And more storms can certainly form.

How to follow Hurricane Maria

  • The National Hurricane Center has a page updating every few hours with the latest watches and warnings for Maria. Check it out.
  • Follow the San Juan branch of the National Weather Service on Twitter. They tweet in both Spanish and English. Follow the NWS’s Atlantic Ops account too.
  • Follow the Capital Weather Gang’s Twitter account. These folks tend to live-tweet storm updates.
  • Here’s a Twitter list of weather experts via meteorologist Eric Holthaus. These experts will give you up-to-the second forecasts and warnings.

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