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Hurricane Maria weakens to Category 2; could regain major hurricane status Thursday

Hurricane Maria’s eye has left Puerto Rico, but the mammoth storm is still lashing the island with devastating winds.

Maria weakened to a Category 2 hurricane Wednesday afternoon, hurling winds of 110 mph.

Some strengthening is forecast during the next day or two, and Maria could regain major hurricane status by Thursday, according to the National Weather Service.

Maria’s brute force wiped out electricity to the entire island of Puerto Rico. “We are 100% without power,” a spokesman for the Puerto Rico governor’s office said Wednesday.

The storm also ripped trees out of the ground and caused widespread flooding.

“This is total devastation,” said Carlos Mercader, a spokesman for Puerto Rico’s governor. “Puerto Rico, in terms of the infrastructure, will not be the same. … This is something of historic proportions.”

Maria has already killed seven people on the Caribbean island nation of Dominica, said Gaston Browne, the Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda. Browne said he had been communicating with the Prime Minister of Dominica, Roosevelt Skerrit, who reported “widespread devastation” and whose own house was shredded by the storm.

Maria is expected to dump a total of 12 to 18 inches of rain on Puerto Rico before barreling toward the Dominican Republic starting Wednesday night.

Puerto Rican Olympic gymnast Tommy Ramos, who’s riding out the storm in the northern city of Vega Baja, posted video of gusts blowing debris in front of him.

“The house is steady,” Ramos told CNN. “What scares us is the flooding.”

Holed up in the Puerto Rican capital of San Juan, Geffrard Dejoie said his hotel already was deluged by midmorning Wednesday.

“We are all sheltered in the hallways, as a few windows in some rooms have broken,” said Dejoie, a traveling tennis coach. “We also are located very close to the lagoon, and the water is coming up on the lobby, so we had to move to higher floors.”

Virgin Islands and Dominican Republic under the gun

Beyond Puerto Rico, a hurricane warning was in effect for the British and US Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos Islands, the southeastern Bahamas and the Dominican Republic from Cabo Engano to Puerto Plata, the hurricane center said.

Dangerous storm surges “accompanied by large and destructive waves” will raise water levels 10 to 15 feet above normal tide levels in the hurricane warning areas of the southeastern Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos, the hurricane center said.

And the British and US Virgin Islands could get pummeled with at least 5 to 10 inches of rain.

‘First responders cannot go out there’

The hurricane slammed Puerto Rico with such intensity, it broke two National Weather Service radars on the island.

Calls for rescue immediately started pouring in — but to no avail.

“First responders cannot go out there,” Mercader said, echoing the governor’s earlier warning that emergency crews wouldn’t go outside in winds stronger than 50 mph.

Maria was expected to cause widespread power outages across Puerto Rico. Shortly after landfall, the storm had wiped out power in the east coast city of Fajardo.

Maria became the first hurricane of Category 4 strength or higher in 85 years to hit the US territory, home to 3.3 million people.

Escaping the storm

Thousands of Puerto Ricans heeded calls to go to emergency shelters. “As of 2:30 a.m. we count 10,059 refugees and 189 pets (in shelters),” the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, tweeted.

After the storm made landfall, Rosselló asked US President Donald Trump to declare Puerto Rico a disaster zone, the governor tweeted.

Tourists stranded

Some tourists found themselves stranded on the island as flights, already overbooked and increasingly expensive, became unavailable.

Heather Farrell was on her honeymoon with her husband, Luke, after their September 9 wedding. The couple had tried to cut the trip short but couldn’t.

“We did try to get off, as early as Saturday, but all flights were either booked or canceled,” she said. “We actually are on the ocean — our room faces the ocean. It’s pretty windy, but there is no rain. We’ll stay inside for now.”

Hotel staff had asked all guests to head downstairs early Wednesday morning to take shelter in a safe room, Farrell said.

Nick Bailey, Brandon Edwards and John Michael Berndt — three friends from northern California — chose this week to vacation on the island. They were aware of Maria, which was only a tropical depression when they left California.

“Our hostel is taking good care of us,” Berndt said, adding that staff there had boarded all the windows and created a concrete hurricane barrier.

“This is a good area, apparently,” Bailey said. “It’s close to hospitals and emergency centers.”

The men also were moved to rooms deeper inside the hostel — without any windows.

Prime Minister’s house destroyed

As Maria pushed through the Caribbean toward Puerto Rico, two people were missing after a boat sank off the coast of La Désirade, a small island near the mainland of Guadeloupe. About 80,000 people, or 40% of households on the island, were left without power, the government said.

The storm also caused “widespread devastation” in Dominica, the country’s Prime Minister said Tuesday. Maria ripped off the roof of his own house and left much of the island — population 73,000 — in ruins.