Maria empties Carolina coast; millions suffer in Puerto Rico

People wait in line for gas, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. (AP)
The Associated Press

Thousands of visitors abandoned their beach vacations and evacuated North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Tuesday as a weakening Hurricane Maria moved northward in the Atlantic, churning up surf and possible flooding.

Meanwhile on Puerto Rico, more than 3.4 million U.S. citizens still lack adequate food, water and fuel five days after Maria pounded the island as a Category 4 hurricane, and officials said electrical power may not be fully restored for more than a month.

Maria’s top sustained winds dropped Tuesday to near 75 mph (120 kph), and the National Hurricane Center expected it to weaken into a tropical storm by Tuesday night or Wednesday.

The center remained far offshore, centered about 175 miles (285 kilometers) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and moving north at 7 mph (11 kph). Still, a tropical storm warning was in effect for the North Carolina coast from Bogue Inlet to the Virginia border, and meteorologists said a storm surge could hit from Ocracoke Inlet to Cape Hatteras.

Hurricane Lee, meanwhile, was gradually strengthening far off in the open Atlantic, where it was expected to swing north and east again before tropical storm-force winds reach Bermuda.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said he spoke with President Donald Trump Monday night, and would speak with him again later Tuesday to discuss “a long-term recovery package for Puerto Rico to be presented to Congress,” apparently next week.

“I am confident the president understands the magnitude of the situation,” Rossello said.

Federal agencies announced how they’re helping.

The Federal Highway Administration is assessing the damage to roads so that Puerto Rico transportation officials can get federal emergency relief funds for restoring roads, which were washed out or remain blocked by debris in many places across the island. The TS Kennedy, a former commercial freighter used by the Maritime Administration for training, is moving from Texas to support recovery efforts in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The Federal Transit Administration is working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency to restore ferry service; so far, ferries have been available only during daylight hours to transport emergency supplies to Vieques and Culebra.

Getting off the island was becoming easier: the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport in San Juan handled nearly 100 arrivals and departures on Sunday, including military and relief operations and more than a dozen commercial passenger flights, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The agency was taking reservations to manage demand for ramp space at the airport and to safely separate aircraft in the air.

Because Maria destroyed or disabled critical radars and navigational aids, the FAA said it has been bringing in replacement systems by air and by sea to restore essential radar, navigation and communication services, and technicians are working on many of those systems now.

A long-range radar in the Turks and Caicos returned to service on Monday morning, giving air traffic controllers a much better picture of planes and helicopters in the region, the FAA said. But technicians were still trying to reach a second long-range radar site at Pico del Este, which is located on the top of a mountain inside a national park in Puerto Rico. The last two miles to the site through the rain forest are impassable, so the technicians are using chain saws to clear a path, the FAA said.

The FAA has mobile air traffic control towers for use in disaster areas; One is currently in use in St Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, and another was used in Key West. That wasn’t necessary in Puerto Rico, where air traffic control operations shut down only during the storm.

“The tower has an engine generator and plenty of fuel,” FAA spokeswoman Laura Brown said.

In North Carolina, officials estimated more than 10,000 visitors complied with evacuation orders for Hatteras and Ocracoke, both barrier islands jutting into the Atlantic.

Dare County Emergency Management Director Drew Pearson said it was hard to determine exactly how many people had left Hatteras Island, but officials believe between 10,000 and 12,500 people were headed out. About 500 people who live at Hatteras year-round were not required to leave. Schools also were closed Tuesday in Dare County because of the storm conditions.

Hyde County officials said they had about 700 visitors when the evacuation was ordered at Ocracoke Island, which has about 1,000 permanent residents. By Monday morning, about 225 visitors had left.

Business owners braced for yet another financial hit. A construction accident at the peak of tourist season in late July cut power to Ocracoke and Hatteras for several days, resulting in the evacuation of an estimated 50,000 tourists. Businesses lost millions of dollars.

Some of the tourists who packed up and drove off Monday had enjoyed only one day of what was supposed to be a weeklong vacation.

On Hatteras, Jay Wrenn and his wife packed up for a five-hour drive back home to Burlington, North Carolina. They had arrived at their rented cottage in Rodanthe on Sunday with a week’s worth of groceries. By noon Monday, the macaroni salad they had made was in the trash.