Puerto Rico, which was spared the worst of Hurricane Irma, is bracing for devastation from Hurricane Maria as the territory’s public safety minister warns residents to “evacuate or die.”
With maximum sustained winds near 160 mph and some higher gusts, “Maria is a potentially catastrophic Category 5 hurricane,” warns the National Hurricane Center.
But the storm’s forecast was downgraded, subtly, from the previous forecast three hours earlier when the NHC modifed some of the wording.
While the center had said Maria would remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane while it approaches the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, it now warns Maria will remain an extremely dangerous Category 4 or 5 hurricane until it moves near or over the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.”
That change, however, did not come with any downgrading in the category of storm or wind speeds.
The NHC is forecasting the eye of Maria to make its way to the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 20, with water surges expected to reach 6 to 9 feet above ground and produce 1 to 2 feet of rain.
“Rainfall on all of these islands will cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides,” it warns.
Many on the island live in lightly made wooden structures, some on the coastline, including some stitched together from corrugated tin.
Not only are such structures easily ripped apart by winds, the flying debris they create can become deadly shrapnel in a storm.
Officials in Puerto Rico are urging residents of such structures to evacuate, sometimes painting the threat in stark terms.
”You have to evacuate. Otherwise you’re going to die,” said Hector Pesquera, the island’s public safety commissioner has been widely cited as warning. ”I don’t know how to make this any clearer.”
The government has prepared around 500 shelters for evacuees who cannot stay with friends or relatives.
“No generation has seen a hurricane like this since San Felipe II in 1928. This is an unprecedented atmospheric system,” warned Gov. Ricardo Rosselló Nevares in a statement Tuesday.
“It is time to act and look for a safe place if you live in flood areas or in structures that are made of wood or vulnerable,” he said.
Housing Secretary Fernando Gil, has been worried, read the statement, that few people have so far evacuated to shelters around the island.
Shelters can accommodate 66,826 people with emergency capacity for 133,352 people. So far only around 300 people have evacuated to the shelters, however.
“It was recommended to people that due to the magnitude of this hurricane never before lived by this generation, the people who come to the state shelters should be prepared to stay there several days,” read the statement.
The government is warning residents that it can do nothing to help them once winds reach speeds of 50 mph.
“We must remember that we must also protect the lives of these rescuers,” said Nevares.
As in other recent hurricanes in the United States, the government is also reminding people to take care of their animals.
“They are important too. Do not abandon them to fate during an emergency,” reminds the state’s disaster management agency in a tweet.