Maria regains strength as it pulls away from Puerto Rico, approaches Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos

Hurricane Maria made landfall early Sept. 20 in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm. It’s one the strongest hurricanes to ever hit Puerto Rico. (The Washington Post)

(This article, originally published at 12:50 p.m. Wednesday, was updated at 3:30 a.m. Thursday with the latest information from the National Hurricane Center.)

Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico Wednesday unleashing destructive winds, which knocked out power to the entire island, and “catastrophic” flooding.

The storm, which continued to batter the island with torrential rain well into Wednesday night, regained some strength and is next set to scrape across the northern coast of the Dominican Republic as a Category 3 hurricane Thursday before arriving in the Turks and Caicos and Southeast Bahamas on Friday.

This weekend, it is expected to turn north parallel to the East Coast. But just how close it tracks to the coast next week, while enormously consequential, is not yet clear (scroll down for additional information)

The latest: Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico

Maria continued moving away from Puerto Rico Thursday morning, centered 55 miles north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic at 11 p.m. Even though the storm was further separating itself from Puerto Rico, heavy rain and strong winds were belting the island on its back side.

In the hours leading up to and following landfall, the storm’s peak winds had decreased substantially, from 175 to 110 mph. After leaving Puerto Rico, the hurricane regained strength as a Category 3 storm and the Hurricane Center predicted it could hold that intensity for at least 48 hours.

Even though the winds had diminished somewhat Wednesday evening, torrential inland rain over Puerto Rico had emerged as the most severe danger. The Hurricane Center described ongoing flash flooding as “catastrophic”. Rivers on the island had rapidly risen, some reaching record levels in a matter of hours.

At 2 a.m., 10 of 27 river gauges on Puerto Rico were reporting “major flooding” and flash flood warnings covered all but the southwest portion of the island.

The National Weather Service in San Juan reported incredible rainfall rates up to 5 to 7 inches per hour Wednesday morning.

El río d nuestro barrio Borinquén d Guayama parece un animal

Posted by Cruz Rodriguez Keila on Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Estimated rainfall totals in Puerto Rico exceeded 20 inches in most areas. Some gauges recorded amounts to around 30 inches, including 33.58 inches in La Plaza, and 28.70 inches in Cidra.

As the storm made landfall early Wednesday morning along the southeast coast of Puerto Rico, a National Ocean Service tide gauge at Yabucoa Harbor, Puerto Rico, reported a rise in water 5.3 feet above the normal high tide.

Wind reports became scarce by 8 a.m. as wind sensors and/or their transmission signals failed, but numerous locations clocked gusts over 110 mph, including San Juan. And structural damage was reportedly widespread.

Effects in St. Croix and U.S. Virgin Islands

Early Wednesday morning, sustained winds reached 106 mph and gusts were reported up to 137 mph in St. Croix. Between 10 and 11 p.m. Tuesday, St. Croix’s airport on the southwest part of the island reported gusts up to 92 mph before the wind sensor stopped reporting.

While St. Croix was hit hard and damage was extensive, the storm’s inner eyewall containing its most violent winds just missed to the south — sparing the island the worst of its fury.

The storm passed even farther to the south of St. Thomas, but social media photos showed significant flooding on the island:

The forecast

Strong gusty winds are occurring over portions of Puerto Rico, but they should subside as the storm departs.

Link: National Weather Service Local Hurricane Statement for Puerto Rico

Effects on the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos and Southeast Bahamas

Through Thursday, the storm should be exiting Puerto Rico and is forecast to parallel the north shore of the Dominican Republic — which was hit hard by Irma. Early Friday, the hurricane is expected to come close to the Turks and Caicos and southeast Bahamas, also ravaged by Irma.

All of these areas are under a hurricane warning and can expect hurricane-force wind gusts and torrential rains of 8 to 16 inches (and locally up to 20 inches).

The storm surge is forecast to reach 4 to 6 feet above normally dry land in the northeast Dominican Republic and up to a devastating 10 to 15 feet in the Southeast Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, near and just north of where the center passes.

U.S. effects

After the storm passes the Southeast Bahamas, some models suggest it could find an escape route out to sea, remaining offshore from the East Coast, but it is way too early to sound the all-clear.

Hurricane Jose may help in keeping Maria away from the U.S. mainland by drawing it to the northeast. However, if Jose weakens too quickly, Maria could drift closer to the U.S. coast by the middle of next week.

Even if Maria remains just offshore along the East Coast, dangerous surf and rip currents are likely.

Maria’s place in history and this hurricane season in perspective

When Maria slammed ashore near Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, at 6:15 a.m. Wednesday with 155 mph winds, it became the first Category 4 storm to directly strike the island since 1932. It was the first hurricane of any intensity to make landfall there since Georges in 1998.

Maria’s landfall pressure of 914 millibars in Puerto Rico was the third lowest on a record for a hurricane striking the U.S. The lower the pressure, the stronger the storm.

On Tuesday evening, Maria’s pressure dropped to 909 millibars, ranking among the 10 lowest in recorded history in the Atlantic.

Its maximum sustained winds, which reached 175 mph, also ranked among the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record.

At 9:35 p.m. Monday, Maria became the first Category 5 storm to strike Dominica in recorded history, leaving behind widespread destruction.

In just 18 hours Monday, the storm strengthened from a minimal Category 1 storm to a Category 5 monster. Its pressure dropped 52 millibars in 18 hours, “one of the fastest deepening rates on record behind Ike, Rita, Gilbert, & Wilma,” tweeted Tomer Burg, at atmospheric science graduate student at SUNY-Albany.

Maria is the latest powerhouse storm in what has become a hyperactive hurricane season.

“2017 joins 1932, 1933, 1961, 2005, and 2007 as only years with multiple Cat 5s,” tweeted MDA Federal, a meteorological consulting firm.

With Maria, the 2017 hurricane season has already featured four Category 4 or stronger storms; this has only happened four previous times by Sept. 18. Three of these storms made landfall in the U.S. at Category 4 intensity (Harvey, Irma, and Maria), which is unprecedented in the modern record.

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