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World

Hurricane Maria Batters Puerto Rico With 'White Sheets Of Rain'

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We are following the path of Hurricane Maria, a whopper storm that is now battering Puerto Rico. There are winds blowing at 145 miles per hour, tearing off roofs and smashing windows. We have Los Angeles Times reporter Molly Hennessy-Fiske on the line from San Juan. Hi there, Molly.

MOLLY HENNESSY-FISKE: Hi. How are you?

GREENE: I'm OK, probably better off than you right now. Where are you? And where are you watching this play out?

HENNESSY-FISKE: So I'm in Old San Juan, at a hotel up on the eighth floor. I've been doing some Facebook Lives off of this balcony where you can see the main waterfront street - the water, the buildings, like you were saying, getting battered by these winds. The winds drive the rain. And it's almost like these sheets of - white sheets of rain almost like a snowstorm. It's that intense and can get sort of white-out effects. We're also seeing water rising in the streets, which I know is a concern. Not so much here because it can run off, but in inland areas, the water accumulating in the streets could be more of a problem.

There's also a lot of houses inland in the center of the country that are made of wood with these zinc metal roofs that people here have - who have relatives there have told me they're worried about. And the governor had urged those people to go to some of the 500 shelters that they've opened across the country. But in a country of 3.4 million people, there's - only about 12,000 people are in the shelters that have been opened nationwide. There's about 500 shelters open nationwide. So there's concern about the people who are out in houses. A lot of them are wood-frame houses with metal roofs.

GREENE: So, Molly, I just want to be clear here, this could be catastrophic. I mean, you had the public safety commission of Puerto Rico saying, if you're in some of these wooden houses, you either get to a shelter or you will die. So, I mean, this sounds pretty dire.

HENNESSY-FISKE: Definitely. And people here in San Juan are concerned about relatives in those other areas. Cellphone service has gone out. Power has gone out. So we will have to assess the damage. It could be days before they can get out to some of these areas and see how people are.

GREENE: And I understand that there's a big shelter in a coliseum in San Juan, where there were thousands of people, and they had to leave because the roof blew off there. What happened?

HENNESSY-FISKE: Well, there's a couple of massive shelters here in San Juan. And I'm not totally sure of the status because we haven't been able to get out there. But there were 500 people at the Roberto Clemente Coliseum. And then there was another shelter that had been opened across from that. And there there's also another shelter at the convention center for people with medical needs. They did seem to be staging in a way that they could move people among the shelters if they needed to. But a lot of these people had evacuated from islands already, so they were already kind of, you know, traumatized from that. And a bunch of them have (unintelligible). It's not just people, but it's people moving with pets, with children, with elderly relatives.

GREENE: And, Molly, one of the unbelievable realities here is there are people who had evacuated some of these previous hurricanes and come to Puerto Rico thinking that it was going to be safer there and are now facing this. Is that right?

HENNESSY-FISKE: That's right. We had people who came from the U.S. Virgin Islands, who lost their homes, who are sheltering here with their pets. They're not sure when they're going to be able to get out, if they'll be able to go back or will have to go to the States. Also, people who came from Dominica, which has already been devastated by Maria, who don't know if they're going to have homes to go back to.

GREENE: All right. And you can hear that line going in and out. Speaking to Molly Hennessy-Fiske. She is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times on the eighth floor of a hotel in Old San Juan, where Hurricane Maria has arrived. And we'll have much more on this throughout the day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.