Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico, death toll rises to nine in Caribbean

Hurricane Maria makes landfall in Puerto Rico, death toll rises to nine in Caribbean

One of the strongest hurricanes to ever hit Puerto Rico has pummelled the island, tearing off roofs and sending doors flying from hinges, as officials warned Hurricane Maria would decimate infrastructure and communities.

Key points:

  • Hurricane Maria is expected to bring life-threatening winds for up to 24 hours
  • The last category four storm to hit Puerto Rico was in 1932
  • Authorities try to assess the damage in Dominica after communications went down

Maria, which has killed at least nine in the Caribbean, made landfall early on Wednesday (local time) in the south-east coastal town of Yabucoa as a category four storm with winds of 250 kilometre per hour winds, and it was expected to punish the island with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours, forecasters said.

People calling local radio stations reported that doors were flying off hinges and a water tank flew away in the island's southern region. Meanwhile, widespread flooding was reported in the capital of San Juan, with water running down one apartment's interior staircase.

"This is going to be an extremely violent phenomenon," Governor Ricardo Rossello said.

"We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history."

Metal roofs were already flying and windows were breaking as the storm approached before dawn, with nearly 900,000 people without power and one tree falling on an ambulance.

Those who sought shelter at a coliseum in San Juan were moved to the building's second and third floors, local media reported.

The storm was moving across Puerto Rico on Wednesday morning at 17 kilometres per hour, with a gust of 182 kilometre per hour reported in the capital of San Juan, according to the US National Hurricane Centre (NHC) in Miami.

Maria ties for the eighth strongest storm in Atlantic history, when measured by wind speed.

Coming in second is this year's Irma, which had 300 kilometre-per-hour winds and killed 38 people in the Caribbean and another 36 in the US earlier this month.

Puerto Rico hit with force not seen since 1932

Puerto Rico had long been spared from a direct hit by hurricanes that tend to veer north or south of the island.

The last category four hurricane landfall in Puerto Rico occurred in 1932, and the strongest storm to ever hit the island was San Felipe in 1928 with winds of 257 kilometres per hour.

As Maria approached, US President Donald Trump offered his support via Twitter.

"Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you — will be there to help!" he wrote.

More than 4,400 people were in shelters by late Tuesday, along with 105 pets, Mr Rossello said.

The storm's centre passed near or over St Croix overnight on Tuesday, prompting US Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp to insist that people remain alert.

St Croix would experience five hours of hurricane force winds, Mr Mapp said.

About 40 per cent of the French Caribbean Island of Guadeloupe, 80,000 homes, were without power and flooding was reported in several communities.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit, said seven deaths were confirmed in the Caribbean country from Hurricane Maria, but did not give details.

They raise the overall death toll to nine from the storm, including one on the French island of Guadeloupe.

Storm pummels Dominica, blowing away roofs

The storm also blew over the tiny eastern Caribbean island of Dominica late on Monday, where Mr Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page, including that his own roof had blown away.

"The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God," Mr Skerrit wrote before communications went down.

Officials said in a statement there had been a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings" in the mountainous island, but the full extent of the damage was not known.

Flooding was a big concern, given the island's steep mountains, cut through with rivers that rage even after a heavy rain.

Dominica was still recovering from Tropical Storm Erika, which killed 30 people and destroyed more than 370 homes in August 2015.

Forecasters said the storm surge from Maria could raise water levels by 1.8 to 2.7 meters near the storm's centre.

To the north, Hurricane Jose weakened to a tropical storm on Tuesday night.

Big waves caused by Jose swept five people off a coastal jetty in Rhode Island and they were hospitalised after being rescued.

A tropical storm warning was posted for coastal areas in Rhode Island and Massachusetts, and tropical storm watches were up for parts of New York's Long Island and Connecticut.