Hurricane Irma pounded Puerto Rico earlier this month, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, but narrowly avoiding a worse-case scenario.
Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria slammed directly into Puerto Rico at Category 4 strength on Wednesday, lashing the island with 155 mile per hour (250 kilometer per hour) winds and double-digit storm surge. The storm immediately knocked out the region’s entire power grid, much of its communications networks and large stretches of road, making it impossible for the territory’s central government to assess the damage.
But the scale of the second hurricane’s devastation across Puerto Rico is rapidly becoming clear, the Washington Post reports, with many towns across the territory totally destroyed. On Saturday, leaders and representatives from more than 50 municipalities gathered in the capital of San Juan to relay tales of the damage, which was so severe that government officials had still not heard from an additional 20 mayors.
At least 10 people are dead, a number likely to rise as reports roll in.
In addition to the flooded roads, deprivation of basic services and island-wide collapse of the economy, the mayors reported, residents cannot even acquire food or water and looting has begun in some areas.
“Hysteria is starting to spread. The hospital is about to collapse. It’s at capacity,” Mayor Jose Sanchez Gonzalez of the northern town of Manati
said while crying, per the Associated Press. “We need someone to help us immediately.”
Gov. Ricardo Rossello tweeted photos of the electrical grid and neighborhoods laying in ruins taken during an aerial survey on Saturday, writing “We finished the flight over the southeast of Puerto Rico. Some pictures of #Maria’s impact on the infrastructure.”
“It was devastating to see all that kind of debris in all areas, in all towns of the island,” Puerto Rico’s non-voting congressional representative Jenniffer González told CNN. “We never expected to have a lot of debris in so many areas. A lot of roads are closed, older ones are just gone.”
Latin-American journalist Julio Ricardo Varela tweeted a message from a friend on Puerto Rico which compared the damage to an “atomic blast,” writing that locals were reporting they had seen “total devastation, not one electric pole standing, no traffic lights, cars upside down, flooding, landslides, houses and apartment buildings without roofs, windows; large debris everywhere, people walking like zombies, not a single tree with leaves on them, just sticks.”
Supplies are running out and may last only days, although some aid has begun to arrive, the Weather Channel reported.
In the northwest of the island, authorities issued evacuation orders to some 70,000 people amid fears the Guajataca Dam, which cracked during the storm, was about to burst. The dam did not burst, though authorities warned it was still a possibility and that hundreds of families were in the path of the potential flood that could ensue.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to hold,” Rossello told the Guardian. “The integrity of the structure has been compromised in a significant way.”
One Spanish colonial town, Utuado, had to be evacuated on Friday after days of rain threatened to sweep the ground out from under it in a disastrous landslide.
According to Reuters, disaster modeler Enki Research estimates the damage will reach at least $30 billion. Because Puerto Rico was already struggling under a staggering amount of debt, high unemployment and a plummeting GDP, the recovery will be even more difficult; as Reuters wrote, Puerto Rican GDP has shrank by over one percent in seven of the 10 years preceding 2016, while “the poverty rate is over 40 percent and unemployment stands at 10 percent.”
It could take weeks or even months to restore power throughout the entire island, in part because as Reuters noted, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority has been bankrupt since July.
Coupled with two other devastating hurricanes, Harvey and Irma, 2017's hurricane season is the worst in modern records, the Washington Post reported. Some high-ranking officials like Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt have been doing their best to deflect question about whether the storms are related to climate change, but scientists say they likely are, even if the phenomenon is not yet intricately understood.
While bad hurricane seasons would happen whether or not the climate is changing, mountains of evidence suggest warming ocean temperatures make intense storms more common, and rising sea levels contribute to devastating storm surges during hurricanes.
“We are seeing some of the hottest ocean temperatures in the planet in the western Caribbean Sea,” Weather Company meteorologist Michael Ventrice told the Post. “This is like rocket fuel for developing tropical cyclones. A major concern for late-season development.”
Update 9/24/2017: For those interested in contributing to relief and recovery funds dedicated to helping those impacted by Maria, GoFundMe has rounded up a number of charitable funds on their website .
Per the New York Times, local charities include ConPRmetidos, Dominica Hurricane Relief Fund and Unidos por Puerto Rico, while national and global ones include All Hands Volunteers, AmeriCares, Catholic Relief Services, Convoy of Hope, Direct Relief, GlobalGiving and the International Medical Corps.