Puerto Rico Braces for ‘Potentially Catastrophic’ Hit by Hurricane Maria

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Empty businesses along Avenida Munoz Rivera in San Juan, P.R., as residents prepared on Tuesday for a direct hit from Hurricane Maria.

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Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

SAN JUAN, P.R. — Almost two weeks after being grazed as Hurricane Irma battered other islands in the Caribbean, the residents of Puerto Rico were bracing for a potentially devastating sequel: a direct hit from Hurricane Maria, which could be the first Category 5 hurricane to strike the island in close to a century.

After slicing through the islands of Dominica and Guadeloupe, Maria, described as “potentially catastrophic” by the National Hurricane Center, was moving west-northwest at 10 miles per hour over the northeastern Caribbean Sea, with maximum sustained winds of 175 m.p.h., at about 1 a.m. on Wednesday. Maria is expected to produce more than 12 inches of rainfall, which will cause “life-threatening flash floods and mudslides” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the hurricane center said.

Maria’s outer eyewall was lashing St. Croix in the Virgin Islands, and the storm was forecast to cut diagonally, southeast to northwest, through Puerto Rico later in the day. If it hits at high tide Wednesday morning, the surge and waves could raise water levels by up to nine feet, the hurricane center said. It may weaken slightly but is still expected to be an “extremely dangerous category 4 or 5” when it hits Puerto Rico, the center said.

“This is an unprecedented atmospheric system,” Ricardo A. Rosselló, the governor of Puerto Rico, said Tuesday. “It is time to act and look for a safe place if you live in flood-prone areas or in wooden or vulnerable structures.”

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Women bought ice in advance of the storm in Loíza on Tuesday.

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Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Puerto Rico was still healing the scars left behind by Hurricane Irma, which left three dead and battered the island’s troubled electrical system.

Even though Hurricane Irma passed just north of Puerto Rico, gusts took out its fragile power grid, leaving over 70 percent of households without electricity and 34 percent without water. Many residents were left in the dark hours before Irma hit. An estimated 4 percent remain without power.

Officials said it was likely the electrical system would be knocked out again if Maria hits as expected.

On Tuesday, residents scrambled to buy generators and many stores were already out. Cars lined up outside gas stations and many stations were already rationing the amount of gas they were selling per customer. Residents flocked to supermarkets and waited in line for hours, expecting to be without power for weeks, maybe even months.

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A storm shelter at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum in San Juan.

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Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Roberto Rivera, 61, raced to buy canned foods and two 24-packs of water bottles.

“I came immediately because I couldn’t buy anything for Irma,” Mr. Rivera said inside a packed supermarket in San Juan. “I see everyone is on the same boat here.”

Mr. Rivera is a construction worker for the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, known as Prepa. Even he expects that the power grid will collapse.

“It’s going to come down again,” he said. “No doubt.”

Burdened by the island’s debt crisis, the utility effectively declared bankruptcy in July and cannot tap into capital markets after defaulting on $9 billion in bond debt.

Over the years, the agency has been unable to make the appropriate upgrades and improvements to its system.

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