Coronavirus crisis in Latin America made worse by poverty, inequality, U.N. agency says

By Fabian Cambero

SANTIAGO (Reuters) – Latin America and the Caribbean countries in the throes of the coronavirus crisis will only see their problems made worse by festering inequality, poverty and an ailing social safety net, a United Nations agency said on Thursday.

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) said social unrest was on the rise across the region, a sign that immediate action was necessary to aid hard-hit countries struggling long before the pandemic hit.

“The effects of the coronavirus pandemic have spread to all areas of human life, altering the way we interact, paralyzing economies and generating profound changes in societies,” the report said.

Persistently high levels of inequality, the agency said, combined with a sprawling informal labor market that leaves workers without protection and a lack of effective health care coverage have made those problems worse.

Urban slums on the fringes of many of the region’s cities often lack access to basic services, mean many citizens found themselves unable to access food, water and healthcare necessary to confront the crisis.

Poverty meanwhile, has crept upward, while advances in reducing inequality have stagnated, exacerbating trends seen in the five years prior to the crisis.

During that period, Latin America and Caribbean economies grew an average of just 0.3% per year overall, while extreme poverty increased from 7.8% to 11.3% of the population and poverty, from 27.8% to 30.5%.

The report also said the prolonged closure of schools in the region could constitute a “generational catastrophe” that will only deepen inequality.

The pandemic has also brought a rise in mortality that could push down life expectancy in the region depending how long the crisis endures, the agency said.

There have been at least 21,699,000 reported infections and 687,000 reported deaths caused by the novel coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean so far.

​ Of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 24 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

(Reporting by Fabian Cambero; Writing by Dave Sherwood; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Caribbean resorts get starring role in U.S airlines’ COVID-19 holiday playbook

By Tracy Rucinski

CHICAGO (Reuters) – U.S. airlines are adding flights, and in some cases COVID-19 testing programs, for travel to Mexico and the Caribbean, a region central to carriers’ strategies to tap into pockets of holiday demand before a vaccine makes its way around the world.

Beachside resort destinations in areas like Cancun are the only spots that now have more flights from U.S. cities scheduled for November and December than last year, numbers from aviation data firm Cirium show.

Overall, U.S. airlines are flying about 50% less than 2019, with flights to traditional European vacation hotspots like Paris down by as much as 82% due to travel bans and quarantines.

While new revenue streams from destinations like the Caribbean will help, they won’t be enough to put airlines in the black for the year, analysts have said.

The holiday period is traditionally when airlines thrive ahead of slow months in January and February. But this year they have said they will continue to burn millions of dollars daily through the fourth quarter as they wrestle with slashed demand.

Ahead of Thanksgiving, U.S. airports saw their busiest weekend since mid-March, even after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) urged Americans not to travel amid a spike in COVID-19 cases. Still, demand is down by around 60% and airlines say it’s too soon to know how Christmas travel will play out.

Still, airlines are hoping to build up a base of customers who feel comfortable about flying before a COVID-19 vaccine becomes widely available, eyeing the typically lucrative summer travel season.

More studies, including from the Harvard School of Public Health and the U.S. Department of Defense, have said the risk of COVID-19 transmission in flight is low if people wear masks.

Recent positive vaccine developments have helped reassure investors that U.S. airlines can make it through the crisis. Sector shares rose 4% on Monday and are up 23% for the month.

But the speed and depth of their recovery, particularly from higher-margin business and international travel, will determine how they cut piles of debt they took on to weather the crisis.

Airlines are trying to reboot overseas travel through bilateral bubbles – deals between countries on COVID-19 testing protocols that would replace or reduce quarantines – though programs have been slow to take off.

United Airlines last week launched a free rapid COVID-19 testing program between Newark Liberty International and London Heathrow airports, and on Monday said it was rolling out a test program for flights from U.S. energy capital Houston, Texas to 10 places in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Starting Dec. 7, passengers can take the self-collected, mail-in test 72 hours before departure for $119 to meet entry requirements at their destination.

(Reporting by Tracy Rucinski; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

Major quake shakes Miami and the Caribbean, tsunami threat passes

(Reuters) – A powerful magnitude 7.7 earthquake struck the western Caribbean on Tuesday, triggering evacuations as buildings shook across the Cayman Islands, in Jamaica, and in downtown Miami, but with no initial reports of significant damage.

The epicenter of the quake was in the sea between Jamaica, the Cayman Islands and Cuba, at a shallow depth of 6.2 miles (10 km).

The International Tsunami Information Center said an earlier threat of a tsunami wave had largely passed. Minor sea level fluctuations up to 1 feet (30 cm) were still possible, it said.

In Miami, Florida, several buildings downtown had groups of people standing outside who said they had been evacuated.

The Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue department said it responded to multiple calls about high rise buildings swaying.

“As of now, there are no injuries or structural damages. Residents/visitors are advised to stay calm,” the department said on Twitter.

Officials across the region had no initial reports of major damage, despite the size of the quake.

Angie Watler, a spokeswoman for police on Cayman Brac, the island nearest the epicenter of the quake, said members of the public had reported some damage to buildings and to a swimming pool at the Carib Sands resort on the south of the island.

Videos on social media, apparently from Jamaica and the Cayman Islands, showed water sloshing out of pools during the quake.

Watler said there were no reports so far of injuries but that authorities were still making checks on the area.

A Cayman Islands official said there had been some reports of sinkholes following the quake.

The quake was also felt in several provinces across Cuba, the government said. It was not strongly felt in the capital of Havana, according to a Reuters witness.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting by Sandra Maler in Washington and Sarah Marsh in Havana; Writing by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Rosalba O’Brien)

Barbados, Caribbean neighbors brace for heavy rains as Dorian churns west

Tropical Storm Dorian is pictured off the coast of Venezuela in this August 26, 2019 NASA satellite photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

BRIDGETOWN (Reuters) – Residents of Barbados and other Caribbean islands braced for heavy rains as tropical storm Dorian churned west-northwest, with officials cautioning that it could approach hurricane strength on Tuesday.

Puerto Rico Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency for the U.S. territory late on Monday in anticipation of the storm, the government said on Twitter.

There will be about 360 shelters open across the island, the governor announced.

Dorian is expected to pass on the southwest side of Puerto Rico as a hurricane on Wednesday night, the National Hurricane Center said in an advisory.

Barbados, which is closest to the storm’s path, was hit by strong winds and intermittent showers, with periodic jolts of thunder and lightning, on Monday evening.

The Barbados Meteorological Services warned residents to exercise caution, saying wind speeds have climbed over the past six hours and will strengthen further overnight and into Tuesday morning.

A tropical storm watch is in effect for Puerto Rico, and the island of Santa Lucia is on hurricane watch.

Dorian tracked near the Windward Islands on Monday evening and is expected to reach the eastern Caribbean later on Tuesday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said in a report.

By Tuesday morning, the storm was located about 30 miles (48 km) southeast of St. Lucia, blowing maximum sustained winds of 50 miles per hour, according to the NHC.

(Reporting by Robert Edison Sandiford; additional reporting by Rich McKay; Editing by Michael Perry and Ed Osmond)

Four Florida nursing home workers face charges in post-hurricane deaths

By Zachary Fagenson

MIAMI (Reuters) – Police in Florida have issued arrest warrants for four nursing home workers accused of criminal conduct in the death of a dozen elderly patients exposed to sweltering heat with little or no air-conditioning after Hurricane Irma struck in 2017, defense lawyers said on Sunday.

The employees of the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills were expected to surrender to police on Monday morning and make their initial court appearance before a Broward County judge in nearby Fort Lauderdale, the defense attorneys said.

Two of the defendants, the nursing home’s administrator, Jorge Carballo, and the charge nurse on duty at the time, Sergo Collin, are expected to be booked on 12 counts of manslaughter, according to their lead attorney, David Frankel.

The other defendants, both nurses, are expected to face less serious charges, he said. Defense lawyers said their clients are innocent of criminal wrongdoing.

The loss of life at the Hollywood Hills center stirred outrage at the time at what many saw as a preventable tragedy and heightened concerns about the vulnerability of Florida’s large elderly population amid widespread, lingering power outages across the state.

“We believe that when the evidence comes out it will show that the staff at Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills was dedicated to their roles as caretakers and did everything they could under the emergency-disaster circumstances after the hurricane,” Frankel said.

He told Reuters that prosecutors have yet to decide how or whether to formally charge the four employees.

Lawrence Hashish, an attorney for one of the nurses, said his client and her colleagues were caring for residents under natural disaster conditions.

“No one could have anticipated the tragedy to come,” Hashish said.

That nurse was working for the facility as a contract employee at the time, her co-counsel, Hilham Soffan, told Reuters.

“The real crime is that the state is looking to blame selfless care givers,” Soffan said.

The Hollywood Police Department declined through a spokesman to comment, saying only that a statement on the case would be issued on Monday.

TWO-YEAR PROBE

The deaths have been the subject of a criminal investigation since they were first reported in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which was blamed for killing more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland in September of 2017.

City officials said the nursing home continued to operate with little or no air conditioning after the storm knocked out its electricity, and daytime temperatures in the Miami area rose to 90 degrees Fahrenheit (32 degrees Celsius).

State authorities said nursing home managers placed eight portable air coolers throughout the building and fans in hallways.

The facility was finally evacuated, under conditions described by workers at the time as chaotic, when four residents were found dead three days after the storm made landfall. Four more died at or en route to a nearby hospital during the evacuation, and four others ultimately succumbed to the effects of heat exposure, bringing the death toll to 12.

The medical examiner ruled the deaths homicides. Frankel said the majority of those who died had been under hospice care or otherwise gravely ill.

Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration suspended the facility’s license after determining that medical personnel at the home had delayed in calling for emergency assistance when temperatures inside reached excessive levels.

The case is reminiscent of the prosecution of the owners of a New Orleans-area nursing home who were charged with negligent homicide in the deaths of 35 patients who drowned in flooding caused by Hurricane Katrina in August 2005.

The couple, Salvador and Mabel Mangano, were acquitted by a jury in September 2007.

(Reporting by Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Additional reporting and writing by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Puerto Rico power grid braces for hurricane season

Jose Alvarez, 60, uses a head lamp while walking in the dark as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Jayuya, Puerto Rico May 10, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Jessica Resnick-Ault and Nick Brown

NEW YORK (Reuters) – The U.S. federal agency tasked with restoring electricity to Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean last year, is leaving the island though thousands still have no power heading into the next hurricane season starting next month.

Only a last-minute request from the governor of the island, bemoaning the “fragile state” of the power grid, managed to keep most of the generators brought by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) on Puerto Rican soil for another six months.

The remaining generators might help keep the lights on for hospitals or police stations if the island gets hit again during the coming hurricane season, which begins June 1.

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Contractors of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers install an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 17, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September, leaving 1.5 million homes and businesses in the dark. Both the island’s power utility and the Trump Administration’s Federal Emergency Management Agency were criticized for a slow response.

Most power has been restored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers but the electricity grid remains unreliable, and suffered an island-wide blackout last month.

“The whole world is very nervous about hurricane time,” said Rosalina Abreu Gonzalez, who lives near Mariana, on the eastern side of the island, where power has still not been restored. “There is a real concern – the government hasn’t provided an energy system that is more secure.”

The Army Corps, a unit of the U.S. armed forces, has said its task is largely complete now that most people have power. About 22,000 customers are still without electricity, most in remote areas, according to the new head of the island’s power utility, the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

“Our mission wasn’t to build a modern resilient system,” Charles Alexander, Director of Contingency Operations and Homeland Security Headquarters at the Army Corps, said at a Senate hearing last week.

On April 29, Governor Ricardo Rossello asked U.S. officials to leave behind 850 generators at critical facilities, along with three larger generators used to keep the grid stable. FEMA agreed to leave the mega-generators and generators for 700 critical facilities. Mega-generators supply 75 megawatts of power, enough to power 75,000 homes.

New PREPA Chief Executive Walter Higgins, who has only been on the job for two months, said he is focusing on emergency procedures in the event of another disaster in coming months.

He said there is a plan for building a more resilient grid in the future. Higgins took over from Ricardo Ramos, who resigned as CEO in November after coming under fire for signing unvetted, little-known contractors to restore power, rather than immediately ask for assistance from other utilities.

“Unfortunately, pain causes learning, and what we’ve learned is how to get mutual assistance called for and on the island immediately,” Higgins told Reuters.

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island's fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Bae

Residents of La Chorrera neighbourhood carry an electricity pole as the island’s fragile power system is still reeling from the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria eight months ago, in Utuado, Puerto Rico May 11, 2018. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Still, PREPA’s grid lacks buried power lines or reinforced poles, common in other hurricane prone areas. The power utility ran up an $8 billion debt over many years, largely due to poor bill collection, causing the system to fall into disrepair.

“It is very hard to see these messages where the government is saying we’re ready for next season. We’re not,” said Sheylda Diaz, a biology professor who lives near Utuado, in the island’s center, where some lines and poles have yet to be fixed.

The Army Corps will not provide further line restoration after Friday, FEMA said.

“People here have no idea that they are leaving,” said Abreu Gonzalez, who runs a center where people without power can go for meals.

Higgins said he sympathizes with those who want the Corps to remain. “I can understand why somebody would want them to stay longer, as long as there’s a single customer out.”

Maria hit shortly after Hurricanes Harvey and Irma slammed the U.S. mainland in 2017, but in both cases, power was largely restored within a week.

“I cannot imagine a scenario where 20,000-plus Texans or 20,000 Floridians were without power and FEMA would make that decision,” said Sen. Martin Heinrich, a Democrat from New Mexico. “I think that’s reprehensible.”

(Reporting By Jessica Resnick-Ault; Editing by Diane Craft)

Dudley sees Fed rate hikes; inflation weakness ‘fading’

William Dudley, President of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, answers a question, after addressing the Indian businessmen at the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE) in Mumbai, India May 11, 2017.

By Jonathan Spicer

SYRACUSE, N.Y. (Reuters) – The Federal Reserve is on track to gradually raise interest rates given the recent inflation weakness is fading and the U.S. economy’s fundamentals are sound, an influential Fed policymaker said on Monday, reinforcing the central bank’s confident tone.

New York Fed President William Dudley, among the first U.S. central bankers to speak publicly since a decision last week to hold rates steady for now, cited the soft dollar and strong overseas growth among the reasons he expects slightly above-average U.S. economic activity and a long-sought rise in wages.

“With a firmer import price trend and the fading of effects from a number of temporary, idiosyncratic factors, I expect inflation will rise and stabilize around the (Fed’s) 2 percent objective over the medium term,” he told students and professors at Onondaga Community College.

“In response, the Federal Reserve will likely continue to remove monetary policy accommodation gradually,” added Dudley, a close ally of Fed Chair Janet Yellen and a permanent voter on monetary policy.

Dudley’s comments were similar to his speech earlier this month, and reinforced the growing expectation that the Fed is set to raise rates for a third time this year in December. That notion was driven home by Fed forecasts published last week, when the central bank held rates but announced the beginning of a long process of shedding bonds it accumulated to boost the economy.

Still, others at the Fed are less anxious to tighten policy in the face of price readings that have sagged since February, despite strong jobs growth. Futures traders give a December rate hike about a 55-percent probability, according to Reuters data.

Dudley nodded to the three devastating hurricanes that have struck parts of the U.S. south and the Caribbean, noting their effects will likely make it more difficult to interpret economic data in coming months. He said, though, that the effects would likely be short-lived and noted that such events tend to boost economic activity as rebuilding gets underway.

In a speech focused on workforce development, he said the Fed, which is tasked with achieving maximum sustainable employment, “cannot declare success if we have people who want to work but lack the skills to fill available jobs.” Yet he noted that the Fed’s tool kit is limited and best works to provide incentives for firms to invest and grow.

“There are greater incentives for businesses to invest in labor-saving technologies” and the labor market improves, he said. “Investment spending should also benefit from a better international outlook and improvement in U.S. trade competitiveness caused by the dollar’s recent weakness.”

 

(Reporting by Jonathan Spicer; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

 

Travelers swamp Puerto Rico’s main airport; dam on verge of collapse

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hundreds of stranded travelers filled the sweltering halls of San Juan International Airport on Monday anxious to know when they could leave and reconnect with families after Hurricane Maria devastated power and communications across the island.

Fearful of checking out of hotels in case they could not get on the few flights available, worried passengers waited in long lines at Puerto Rico’s main airport, struggling to get through to loved ones and airlines alike.

“Everything is hearsay at the moment because there is no communication,” said 31-year-old Rene Kessler, a medical student from Baltimore, Maryland, preparing to spend the night in the airport ahead of what he hoped would be a flight back to the United States.

Puerto Rican officials have confirmed at least 10 storm-related fatalities on the island, and the hurricane was blamed for at least 19 other deaths across the Caribbean, the bulk of them on the devastated island nation of Dominica.

A microcosm of the battered island, the San Juan airport is a top priority in efforts by Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped government to repair the vast damage caused by Maria. Experts say the work will take months and likely run into tens of billions of dollars.

Closed for days following the storm, the airport is a major test of Puerto Rico’s ability to transport people and supplies and overcome the communications vacuum that has plagued the island since the storm.

María has also turned Puerto Rico, a haven for Caribbean islanders left homeless by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, into a disaster zone with virtually no power that many are now desperate to escape.

A dam on the island has weakened by heavy rains from Hurricane Maria was in danger of failing, posing a flood threat to thousands of homes downstream.

Some 70,000 people who inhabit a river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern corner of the island have been under evacuation since Friday after authorities warned the structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the extreme difficulties facing disaster relief authorities in the aftermath of Maria, which has claimed at least 29 lives across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged residents of the area to evacuate after surveying damage to the dam over the weekend, telling reporters that a fissure in the structure “has become a significant rupture.”

The National Weather Service in San Juan, the island’s capital, on Monday continued a flood warning for western Puerto Rico.

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction through the island after plowing ashore early on Wednesday.

 

‘WE LOST EVERYTHING’

“We lost our house, it was completely flooded,” said resident Carmen Gloria Lamb, a resident near the rain-swollen Guajataca. “We lost everything. Cars, clothes, everything.”

Severe flooding, structural damage to homes and the loss of all electricity, except from backup generators, were three of the most pressing problems facing Puerto Ricans, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a tour of the island. New York is home to many of Puerto Rican descent.

“It’s a terrible immediate situation that requires assistance from the federal government, not just financial assistance,” he said on CNN on Saturday.

Even the island’s medical facilities have been left in precarious shape, with many hospitals flooded, strewn with rubble and running critically low on diesel fuel needed to keep generators operating. Evacuation to the U.S. mainland is the only option for some patients.

The storm has caused an estimated $45 billion of damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

 

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jeffrey Benkoe)

 

Hurricane Maria lashes Turks and Caicos after killing 30 people

People walk among debris on the seashore in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday after destroying homes, causing widespread flooding, crippling economies and killing at least 30 people on Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands.

Maria was the second major hurricane to hit the Caribbean this month and the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico in nearly 90 years. It completely knocked out the island’s power and several rivers hit record flood levels.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello told CNN he had reports of at least 13 people being killed. El Nuevo Día‏ newspaper reported at least 15 people were killed.

“We have reports of complete devastation,” Rossello said, adding that the storm’s dangers were not over, as “mudslides and surges, as well as flooding continues.”

Fourteen deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Communications outages throughout the region were making it difficult for officials to get a clear picture of damage.

Rossello imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew through Saturday for the island’s 3.4 million people. He said about 700 people had been rescued from floodwaters and communication was difficult with the southeastern part of the island.

Among those killed in Puerto Rico were eight people who drowned in Toa Baja, about 20 miles (32 km) west of San Juan, Mayor Bernardo Márquez told the newspaper.

Three elderly sisters were killed by a mudslide on Wednesday in the mountainous central municipality of Utuado, El Nuevo Día said, citing relatives and the mayor of Utuado.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters the island had been “totally obliterated” and he planned to visit.

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

Maria’s tail end was still bringing drenching rain to Puerto Rico and some parts of the island could have accumulated totals of up to 40 inches (101 cm) from the storm, the NHC said.

Utility crews from the U.S. mainland headed to Puerto Rico to help restore the power grid. The U.S. military sent ground forces and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.

STORM SURGE DANGER

By 8 a.m. (1200 GMT) Friday, Maria was 30 miles (50 km) north-northeast of Grand Turk Island, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said. It was carrying sustained winds of up to 125 miles per hour (205 km per hour), making it a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

It was expected to bring a storm surge – ocean water pushed inland – of as much as 12 feet (3.7 m) above normal tide levels to parts of the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Maria currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was expected to lose strength gradually in the next couple of days, and to start curving north-northwestward, the NHC said. Storm swells from Maria would reach parts of the southeastern U.S. coast from Friday, it said.

The storm caused flooding in the Dominican Republic when it passed nearby.

In Dominica, Maria damaged about 95 percent of roofs, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said. It struck as a rare Category 5 storm on Monday, obliterating the island’s vital agricultural sector.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

“The worst is behind us,” Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp told reporters on Thursday. The government has imposed a 24-hour curfew until further notice.

About 600 people throughout the U.S. Virgin Islands were in emergency shelters and many parts were without power, Mapp said.

Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas and St. John.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which killed more than 80 people when it hit Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30, although the busiest period of storms is generally from mid-August to mid-October.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis in New York and Steve Gorman and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Frances Kerry)

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

Powerful Hurricane Maria makes landfall on Puerto Rico

By Alvin Baez and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria roared ashore in Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in about 90 years after lashing the U.S. Virgin Islands and devastating a string of tiny Caribbean islands, killing at least one person.

Packing 155 mile per hour (250 kph) winds and driving high storm surges, Maria made landfall near Yabouca, the National Hurricane Center said. It was heading northwest, on a track directly over the island of 3.4 million people.

It struck just days after the region was punched by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, which left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and Florida.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” Ricardo Rossello, governor of Puerto Rico, said in a televised message on Tuesday.

“Although it looks like a direct hit with major damage to Puerto Rico is inevitable, I ask for America’s prayers,” he said, adding the government has set up 500 shelters.

In Puerto Rico, Maria is expected to dump as much as 25 inches (63.5 cm) of rain on parts of the island, the NHC said. Storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, could be up to 9 feet (2.74 meters).

The heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.

A few hours earlier, Maria passed west of St. Croix, home to about half of the U.S. Virgin Islands’ 103,000 residents, as a rare Category 5 storm the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale.

The center has hurricane warnings and watches out for the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra, and Vieques, the Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata.

Many U.S. Virgin Islands residents fled to shelters around midday Tuesday. U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp warned residents that their lives were at risk.

“The only thing that matters is the safety of your family, and your children, and yourself. The rest of the stuff, forget it,” Mapp said.

Authorities expect to start assessing storm damage on St. Croix from daybreak.

After crossing Puerto Rico, Maria will pass just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic on Wednesday night and Thursday, the NHC said.

It was too early to know if Maria will threaten the continental United States as it moves northward in the Atlantic.

Earlier this month, Irma devastated several small islands, including Barbuda and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and caused heavy damage in Cuba and Florida, killing at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S. mainland.

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

A man looks at a fallen tree as he walks along a street after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe island, France, September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

DIRECT HIT

Maria is set to be the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, when the San Felipe Segundo hurricane made a direct hit on the island and killed about 300 people, the National Weather Service said.

A slow weakening is expected after the hurricane emerges over the Atlantic north of Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, the NHC added.

Puerto Rico avoided a direct hit from Irma, but the storm knocked out power for 70 percent of the island, and killed at least three people.

“This is going to be catastrophic for our island,” said Grisele Cruz, who was staying at a shelter in the southeastern city of Guayama. “We’re going to be without services for a long time.”

Puerto Rico is grappling with the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history, with both its government and the public utility having filed for bankruptcy protection amid fights with creditors.

The storm plowed into Dominica, a mountainous country of 72,000 people, late on Monday causing what Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit called “mind-boggling” destruction.

North of Dominica, the French island territory of Guadeloupe appeared to have been hit hard. The Guadeloupe prefecture said one person was killed by a falling tree and at least two people were missing in a shipwreck.

Some roofs had been ripped off, roads were blocked by fallen trees, 80,000 households were without power and there was flooding in some southern coastal areas, the prefecture said in Twitter posts.

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

Members of the Emergency Operations Committee (COE) photograph the trajectory of Hurricane Maria in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic September 19, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

(Additional reporting by Dave Graham in San Juan, Daina Beth Solomon in Mexico City, Richard Lough in Paris, Anthony Deutsch in Amsterdam; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and W Simon)