A Look Back at Hurricane Maria's Destruction in the Caribbean

A Look Back at Hurricane Maria's Destruction in the Caribbean

Five years ago, Hurricane Maria knocked out power and upended lives Puerto Rico, Dominica, and St. Croix.

We may earn a commission from links on this page.
People look on at a section of a road that collapsed and continues to erode days after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 7, 2017 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico.
People look on at a section of a road that collapsed and continues to erode days after Hurricane Maria swept through the island on October 7, 2017 in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Joe Raedle (Getty Images)

Five years ago this month, Hurricane Maria formed in the Atlantic Ocean, creating one of the U.S.’s most devastating humanitarian disasters of the 21st century.

The storm started off as a tropical depression around September 16, 2017; within just a few days, it grew to become the eighth hurricane for that year’s season. On September 20, it made landfall over Puerto Rico. The category 4 winds knocked out the already fragile electrical grid in Puerto Rico and several U.S. Virgin Islands, creating the longest blackout in U.S. history and one of the longest blackouts in the world. Though most of Puerto Rico had power again six months after the hurricane, some areas of the island did not have power restored until August 2018, according to Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority—nearly a full year after the storm hit.

Hurricane Maria was the first category 4 hurricane to make landfall over Puerto Rico since the 1930s, and it occurred during what is now known as one of the most expensive hurricane seasons in U.S. history. The storm created more than $107 billion worth of damage, according to NOAA. At its strongest, Hurricane Maria was a category 5 storm. It slammed into Puerto Rico over the municipality of Yabucoa with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph.

The heavy rainfall and winds caused widespread infrastructural and ecological damage, with trees uprooted and landslides and erosion in mountainous areas. Some communities lost access to running water. Roads were flooded, roofs were torn off houses, and bridges collapsed across several Caribbean islands. Most wooden homes across all of the heavily affected islands were severely damaged by the flooding and winds, a report from NOAA found.

“I lived in a nine-story building by the beach...everything was crazy when we came [back],” Melisa Martinez, a rheumatologist from Puerto Rico, told Earther. “My apartment and another apartment survived, but the whole building was a disaster. There were sofas everywhere and everything was on the street. The windows exploded.”

The human toll of the storm was staggering. The Puerto Rican government’s initial official death toll was 65 people, according to the NOAA report, while 31 people in Dominica died another 34 on the island were considered missing. The island of Guadeloupe had two deaths directly attributed to the hurricane. But the true toll is far higher. A report published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2018 found that up to 4,600 people ultimately died as a result of the storm and subsequent power outages. This was largely due to delayed medical care and disrupted access to water and other necessities. Another 2018, by George Washington University researchers, found that the death toll was about 2,975 people in the six months after the storm.

Advertisement

2 / 13

Collapsed bridges and sunken roads

Collapsed bridges and sunken roads

A school bus crosses a makeshift bridge for vehicles, near where the original bridge was washed away by Hurricane Maria flooding, on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico.
A school bus crosses a makeshift bridge for vehicles, near where the original bridge was washed away by Hurricane Maria flooding, on December 20, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico.
Advertisement

3 / 13

Isolated homes

Isolated homes

Community members walk on the street in a devastated section nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 10, 2017 in Pellejas, Puerto Rico. They said they have received virtually no governmental assistance and their houses have no electricity or running water.
Community members walk on the street in a devastated section nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 10, 2017 in Pellejas, Puerto Rico. They said they have received virtually no governmental assistance and their houses have no electricity or running water.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
Advertisement

4 / 13

Seeking cellphone signal

Seeking cellphone signal

 Family members gather while attempting to speak by phone with another family member along a roadside near the top of a mountain, more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island, on October 6, 2017 in Orocovis, Puerto Rico.
Family members gather while attempting to speak by phone with another family member along a roadside near the top of a mountain, more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through the island, on October 6, 2017 in Orocovis, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
Advertisement

5 / 13

Damaged homes

Damaged homes

Men gather at a partially destroyed bar three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 11, 2017 in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.
Men gather at a partially destroyed bar three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 11, 2017 in Aibonito, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
Advertisement

6 / 13

Empty shelves

Empty shelves

Beverage shelves stand mostly empty in a Walgreens store over three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 13, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Beverage shelves stand mostly empty in a Walgreens store over three weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the island, on October 13, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Photo: Mario Tama (Getty Images)
Advertisement

7 / 13

Outdoor showers

Outdoor showers

People affected by Hurricane Maria collect water while others bathe using an improvised water system for water pipes from a mountain creek in Utuado, Puerto Rico on October 17, 2017.
People affected by Hurricane Maria collect water while others bathe using an improvised water system for water pipes from a mountain creek in Utuado, Puerto Rico on October 17, 2017.
Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

8 / 13

Water collection

Water collection

A man carries water on his head on September 23, 2017 in Newtown on the Caribbean island of Dominica following Hurricane Maria.
A man carries water on his head on September 23, 2017 in Newtown on the Caribbean island of Dominica following Hurricane Maria.
Photo: CEDRICK ISHAM CALVADOS/AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

9 / 13

Widespread street flooding

Widespread street flooding

View of the flooded streets of Arenoso, northeastern Dominican Republic, on September 24, 2017 after Hurricane Maria.
View of the flooded streets of Arenoso, northeastern Dominican Republic, on September 24, 2017 after Hurricane Maria.
Photo: ERIKA SANTELICES/AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

10 / 13

Damaged hospital

Damaged hospital

A hospital room stands deserted in Roseau on the Caribbean island of Dominica after Hurricane Maria, September 23, 2017.
A hospital room stands deserted in Roseau on the Caribbean island of Dominica after Hurricane Maria, September 23, 2017.
Photo: CEDRICK ISHAM CALVADOS/AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

11 / 13

The iconic paper towel toss

The iconic paper towel toss

A billboard reads “Never Forget” (in Spanish) and shows U.S. President Donald Trump throwing a roll of paper towels when he visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
A billboard reads “Never Forget” (in Spanish) and shows U.S. President Donald Trump throwing a roll of paper towels when he visited Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017.
Photo: Gregg Newton / AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

12 / 13

Aftermath

Aftermath

View of displayed shoes in memory of the more than 4,000 estimated deaths caused by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in June 2018. U.S. researchers found that deaths were higher than officials had previously reported.
View of displayed shoes in memory of the more than 4,000 estimated deaths caused by Hurricane Maria in front of the Puerto Rican Capitol, in June 2018. U.S. researchers found that deaths were higher than officials had previously reported.
Photo: RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP (Getty Images)
Advertisement

13 / 13