Hurricane Maria is on a catastrophic collision course with Puerto Rico. When it makes landfall early Wednesday morning, it will in all likelihood be a Category 5 storm, the strongest on the hurricane scale, with sustained winds well over 150 mph. And, in all likelihood, it will be the island’s worst hurricane disaster on record.
Despite its location in the heart of hurricane territory, Puerto Rico has endured surprisingly few hurricanes. On average, the island experiences a tropical storm every five years, and hurricanes even less frequently than that.
But the storms that do hit, though they may not be intense hurricanes, tend to cause catastrophic damage on the U.S. territory, whose population is about 3.5 million.
Remarkably, just one Category 5 hurricane has made landfall in Puerto Rico since 1851 — the San Felipe Segundo hurricane in 1928.
Before that storm, the Puerto Rico Weather Bureau sent radio warnings to dozens of police districts that a deadly cyclone was on track to hit the island — a move that probably saved hundreds if not thousands of lives. More than 300 people died during the San Felipe hurricane, a significantly lower toll than after a weaker 1899 hurricane, which killed about 3,000 people.
Still, the loss caused by the San Felipe hurricane was incredible. Hundreds of thousands of homes were destroyed. Towns that were near the eye of the storm were leveled. Coffee growers lost almost all of their boom crop; it was supposed to be one of their best years.
At the time, property and crop losses were estimated to be $50 million, according to the American Meteorological Society’s Monthly Weather Review — a significant figure given the island’s sparse development in the early 20th century.
As the island’s population grew, hurricane strikes became even less frequent. But in the recent past, two storms are etched into memory: Hurricanes Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998.
Hugo caught everyone by surprise — from hurricane hunters to the tiny islands that were left devastated in its wake. The storm had stayed weak for nearly its entire track across the Atlantic Ocean but rapidly intensified before reaching the Caribbean.
After thrashing Guadeloupe, Montserrat and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the storm’s eye barely swiped the eastern side of Puerto Rico, but that was more than enough to cause terrible damage. The death toll was relatively low at 12, but property losses were around $1 billion. Banana and coffee crops were obliterated, and tens of thousands of homes were destroyed.
Hurricane Georges in 1998 was only a Category 1 storm, but its path across the entirety of the island and its torrential rainfall make it one of the worst natural disasters in Puerto Rico’s history.
Georges struck the island Sept. 21, 1998. Two days later, “all 78 civil divisions in Puerto Rico reported damage to homes, and 416 government-run shelters were housing approximately 28,000 persons,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported. “Approximately 700,000 persons were without water, and 1 million had no electricity.”
The hurricane caused no direct fatalities, but the damage to infrastructure was almost total.
The storm dumped more than 30 inches of rain over the course of two days, causing catastrophic flooding.
“At one time during the height of the storm all the rivers in Puerto Rico were reported out of their banks to some degree or another,” the Weather Service wrote in a report. “Many rivers carved out new channels as the record discharge swept downstream with tremendous force eroding entirely new parts of the flood plain and leaving many areas covered by standing water.”
Three-quarters of the island lost potable water and sewer service. Nearly the entire electric grid failed — 96 percent, according to a report by the National Weather Service — which affected about 1.3 million people.
Almost all of the banana crops were destroyed, and 75 percent of the coffee crops were lost. More than half of the island’s live poultry was killed.
In all, Hurricane Georges did about $2 billion in damage in Puerto Rico alone.