Hurricane Irma pounded Puerto Rico earlier this month, leaving hundreds of thousands without power, but narrowly avoiding a worse-case scenario.
Storm damage in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Photo: AP
Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria slammed directly into Puerto Rico at Category 4 strength on Wednesday local time, lashing the island with 250km/h 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. Yesterday, 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.
Storm damage in the Buena Vista neighbourhood of San Juan. Photo: AP
A dead horse by the side of the road in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. Photo: AP
US Coast Guard personnel survey storm damage in San Juan. Photo: Getty Images
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 neighbourhoods laying in ruins taken during an aerial survey yesterday, writing, "We finished the flight over the southeast of Puerto Rico. Some pictures of #Maria's impact on the infrastructure."
— Ricardo Rossello (@ricardorossello) September 24, 2017
"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.
Twenty-nine-year-old Gabriel Ortega surveys storm damage to his property in San Juan. Photo: Getty Images
A damaged petrol station in Humacao, Puerto Rico. Photo: AP
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 Friday local time 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 $US30 billion ($38 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 per cent in seven of the 10 years preceding 2016, while "the poverty rate is over 40 per cent and unemployment stands at 10 per cent".
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 such as US Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt have been doing their best to deflect questions 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."