Maria hits Puerto Rico and heads to Dominican

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Hurricane Maria is pummelling Puerto Rico and destroying trees and infrastructure, as it moves away and heads towards the Dominican Republic.

It is the strongest storm to hit the Caribbean island since 1932.

And it is the second monster storm to smash into the Caribbean in a fortnight, packing highly dangerous sustained winds of 155mph.

The National Hurricane Centre downgraded Maria to a category three storm on Wednesday evening, after ripped off roofs and knocked over cell towers.

It is expected to pass off the coast of the Dominican Republic late on Wednesday and Thursday.

Residents in Puerto Rico were urged to take shelter.

“The wind sounds like a woman screaming at the top of her lungs!” photographer and storm chaser Mike Theiss posted on Twitter.

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Image:Toppled trees and damaged cars in a parking lot in San Juan, Puerto Rico

“This is going to be an extremely violent phenomenon,” governor Ricardo Rossello said. “We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history.”

English tourist Mary Pires told Puerto Rican media: “I do not even want to imagine what’s coming in. They all tell me it’s the worst.”

Roofs are flying through the streets and windows are smashing. Nearly 900,000 people have already lost power in their homes.

The storm is moving northwest and its path will take it over the already devastated Virgin Islands and up through the Turks and Caicos Islands. The British government is warning people to stay away from the region.

Sky’s Mark Austin is in Puerto Rico. As the storm made landfall he said: “There is debris flying through the air, there are bins… we’ve seen trees broken off, and balconies broken off and these are substantial buildings.”

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Image:Roads have been flooded in San Juan, Puerto Rico

Asked if the island had been evacuated, Austin said: “There are still many people here. There are about 500 shelters – I pray that people are in them. The population here is some three-and-a-half million. I’ve got to tell you that many of the homes in Puerto Rico just will not stand this.

“The other problem here is that they’ve just been through Hurricane Irma so there is already serious damage. Puerto Rico is also going through the most terrible of economic times… a decade of recession. It is too cruel and I can’t imagine what we will find when this thing is done.”

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Video:Hurricane Maria: Puerto Rico latest

American Jerry Farrs, 69, told WKAQ-AM: “When it comes to these moments, you have to put yourself in the hands of one who believes, there’s no other… it seems like the end of the world.”

As Maria approached, US President Donald Trump tweeted: “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you – will be there to help!”

On the US Virgin Islands, governor Kenneth Mapp told people to stay alert. He said: “For folks in their homes, I really recommend that you not be in any kind of sleepwear. Make sure you have your shoes on. Make sure you have a jacket around. Something for your head in case your roof should breach.”

On the island of Guadeloupe, two people were killed, floodwaters have inundated towns and almost half the population is without power.

The storm also blew over the tiny island of Dominica on Monday, killing at least seven people.

Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit sent out a series of dramatic posts on his Facebook page before communications were lost, saying: “The winds are merciless! We shall survive by the grace of God.”

A dangerous storm surge and the tide will bring destructive waves to Caribbean islands and the threat of flooding to areas that are normally dry.

Florida is unlikely to be hit by the full force of Maria. The storm is predicted to roll northwards up the US east coast but not make landfall there. It will, however, cause dangerous swells along the Carolinas and Virginia by the weekend.