(This article, originally published at 12:50 p.m. Wednesday, was updated at 5:00 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 by 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.
The latest: Maria’s destructive path
Maria continued moving away from Puerto Rico Thursday morning, centered 70 miles north of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, at 5 a.m. The storm was lashing the northeastern part of the Dominican Republic with wind and rain.
In the hours leading up to and following landfall in Puerto Rico, 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 5 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.
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:
Maria’s eye will pass offshore of the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic and then move near the Turks and Caicos and the southeastern Bahamas Thursday night or Friday.
Effects on the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos and southeast Bahamas
Hurricane warnings are in effect for the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata, the Turks and Caicos, and the southeastern portion of the Bahamas. Maria’s maximum sustained winds are near 115 mph and some strengthening is possible within the next 24 hours.
The Dominican Republic and the islands in her path 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.
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.