When Hurricane Irma was advancing toward Florida in early September, weather officials were looking at a very scary scenario: an extremely powerful Category 4 or 5 storm hitting with 150 mph winds, flooding rains, and up to 15 feet of storm surge for coastal cities like Miami and Tampa.
But there's always some unpredictability about a hurricane's path, and Florida got lucky: The worst-case scenario didn't happen, due to small changes in Irma's path.
Puerto Rico had no such luck with Hurricane Maria. On Thursday, it seemed that forecasters' dire scenario played out with the storm's direct hit of the island, home to 3.4 million US citizens. When it made landfall, Maria took a course that bisected the island from the Southeast to the Northwest. "It was as if a 50- to 60-mile-wide tornado raged across Puerto Rico, like a buzz saw," Jeff Weber, a meteorologist with the National Center for Atmospheric Research, says. "It's almost as strong as a hurricane can get in a direct hit." By the record books, it was the fifth-strongest storm ever to hit the US. At least 10 people died in the storm, the New York Times reports.
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Communications to and from Puerto Rico are strained, but the situation on the ground sounds very grim. There is no electricity on the entire island — and it could remain that way for months. Whole communities are likely destroyed. It's probable the island saw
"We're talking here about major devastation," Carlos Mercader, a spokesperson for the Puerto Rican government, told PBS NewsHour Wednesday. "And when we say major devastation, that means that in terms of infrastructure, we have full communities that 80 or 90 percent of the homes are a complete disaster. They are totally lost."
Maria is a catastrophe that will scar Puerto Rico for months and years. Here, Weber and Stacy Stewart, a senior hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, explain why it got so bad.