Hurricane Maria strengthened Thursday as it approached the Turks and Caicos islands, while continuing to dump more heavy rain on Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Maria, currently a Category 3 storm, was a more powerful Category 4 disturbance when it knocked out power throughout Puerto Rico Wednesday and flooded many areas while inflicting a less severe but still significant punch to the Dominican Republic.

The storm was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, in almost 90 years. The full extent of the damage has yet to be determined given that communities remain isolated and unable to communicate, but there are reports of towns being overwhelmed with flash floods and mudslides.

"The information we have received is not encouraging," said Abner Gomez, who heads Puerto Rico's emergency management agency. "It's a system that has destroyed everything it has had in its path."



More than 11,000 people took cover in the hundreds of shelters set up across Puerto Rico, while others rode out the storm in their homes. Hurricane Maria has dropped up to nearly 89 centimeters of rain in some places, while its strong winds took down power lines and cell phone towers and blew off roofs.

While flooding continued Thursday in Puerto Rico, the National Weather Service office in San Juan said water levels and high wind would gradually subside as the storm moved away.

People walk next to a gas station flooded and dama
People walk next to a gas station flooded and damaged by the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Sept. 20, 2017.

The center of Maria is passing offshore north of the Dominican Republic Thursday and will approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and southeastern Bahamas by early Friday. The latest advisories said Maria had maximum sustained winds of about 195 kilometers per hour, and forecasters said the system could strengthen some.

President Donald Trump told reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York Thursday Maria "totally obliterated" Puerto Rico and said U.S. emergency crews were beginning to help with the recovery. Trump declared Puerto Rico a disaster area Thursday and said he would visit the island, although he did not say when.

Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long said the federal government will attempt to restore power to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as soon as possible and in a way that will make the power grid less susceptible to future disruptions.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily until Saturday to allow rescue crews and officials to respond to the hurricane's aftermath.

He also thanked President Trump for his support.


Rossello has asked Trump to declare Puerto Rico a disaster area, which would allow the federal government to provide funding for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans for property damages not covered by insurance.

The White House announced late Wednesday that Trump has approved a disaster declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Hurricane Maria battered on its way to Puerto Rico.  The island of St. Croix was the hardest-hit there, after sustaining damage from another powerful storm, Hurricane Irma, earlier this month.

"After touring damaged neighborhoods across St. Croix, my prayer is for renewed strength and resolve to rebuild all of our islands in the wake of these two terrible storms," said U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp.

Mapp ordered a 24-hour curfew until further notice on all four islands that comprise the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The territory's tourism department also issued a statement encouraging those who planned to visit to postpone their trips for now as officials evaluate the damage and coordinate relief efforts.

Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agen
Rescue vehicles from the Emergency Management Agency stand trapped under an awning during the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Sept. 20, 2017.

In addition to the one reported death in Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria has left at least 10 people dead across the Caribbean.

The hurricane traveled directly over the island of Dominica, while also nearly making landfall in Guadeloupe.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister of Dominica, said Wednesday the country was "in a daze" and had no electricity and little communications. He described the damage as including a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings."

The United States has also extended help to other island nation in the Maria's path. About 4,300 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the Caribbean to help with hurricane relief efforts.
Admiral Kurt Tidd, the head of U.S. Southern Command, said about 300 of his forces have deployed to the region in support of the islands of St. Martin and Dominica.

They are helping distribute water and evacuate U.S. citizens, with orders to continue disaster relief assistance through October 13. The forces have thus far delivered more than 28,000 liters of water to St. Martin, where water production has been suspended due to damage from Hurricane Maria.

They have also evacuated more than 2,000 U.S. citizens from St. Martin and Anguilla. Tidd said there up to 3,000 U.S. citizens in Dominica that may need to be evacuated in the coming days.

In Photos: Hurricane Maria Hits Puerto Rico

View full gallery

VOA's Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.