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[SAN JUAN] Hurricane Maria roared ashore on Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to strike the island in more than 80 years while panicked residents fled to high ground and huddled in shelters hoping to withstand powerhouse winds that have already left death and devastation across the Caribbean.
"On the forecast track, (Maria) would be the most destructive hurricane in Puerto Rico history," tweeted Eric Blake, a forecaster at the Hurricane Center.
Michael Brennan, another Hurricane Center forecaster, tweeted late Tuesday that he was "starting to run out of adjectives for" Maria, the second huge hurricane to plow through the Caribbean this month.
"Horrifying," Mr Brennan wrote.
Already, Maria has roared over islands to the east with winds of more than 160 mph and downpours that triggered flooding and landslides. In the French island of Guadeloupe, officials said at least two deaths were blamed on Maria, and at least two people were missing after a ship went down near the tiny French island of Desirade.
Maria's force was clear from its first brush with land. In a breathless series of Facebook posts late Monday, the prime minister of the island nation of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, described furious winds that tore off the roof of his official residence. "My roof is gone. I am at the complete mercy of the hurricane. House is flooding," he wrote.
Puerto Rico was spared the full force of the Category 5 monster Irma earlier this month. Yet the storm came close enough to knock out power for about 1 million people on Puerto Rico and weaken its hurricane defenses.
"This is going to be an extremely violent phenomenon," Puerto Rican Gov Ricardo Rosselló told the Associated Press as Maria approached. "We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history." Before dawn, Maria was 50 miles southeast of San Juan and churning to the northwest at 10 mph. Its maximum sustained winds of 155 mph were down slightly from late Tuesday. But that meant little for Maria's ability to threaten anything in its path.
"Maria is an extremely dangerous Category 4 hurricane . . . and it should maintain this intensity until landfall," the Hurricane Center said.
The Hurricane Center warned that the rain - possibly exceeding 25 inches in some places - may "prompt numerous evacuations and rescues" and "enter numerous structures within multiple communities," adding that streets and parking lots may "become rivers of raging water" and warns some structures will become "uninhabitable or washed away." Along the coast, the Weather Service describes"extensive impacts" from a "life-threatening" storm surge at the coast, reaching 6 to 9 feet above normally dry land. The highest storm surge is likely to occur just north and northeast of where the center makes landfall, which could target southeast Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico is very vulnerable to hurricanes, but it has been lucky as well. The last hurricane to make landfall was Georges in 1998. Just one Category 5 hurricane has hit Puerto Rico in recorded history, back in 1928. The last time a Category 4 storm struck the island was in 1932.
To the north, the remnants of Hurricane Jose brought pounding surf and 65 mph winds to southern New England. Tropical storm warnings were issued for the coast from Rhode Island to Cape Cod.
Jose was also watched closely for its spillover effect on Maria. It could help in keeping Maria away from the US mainland by drawing it to the northeast. However, if Jose weakens too quickly, Maria could drift closer to the US coast by the middle of next week.