SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — It could be months before Puerto Rico’s electricity is restored after Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory, knocking out power to the entire island.
“The system has been basically destroyed,” Ricardo Ramos, the CEO of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN.
He said the island — home to some 3.4 million people — may not get power back for 4 to 6 months.
Puerto Rico’s electric grid was crumbling amid lack of maintenance and a dwindling staff even before the hurricanes knocked out power.
“Months and months and months and months are going to pass before we can recover from this,” Felix Delgado, mayor of the northern coastal city of Catano, told The Associated Press.
Edwin Rosario, a 79-year-old retired government worker, said an economic crisis that has sparked an exodus of nearly half a million Puerto Ricans to the U.S. mainland will only make the island’s recovery harder.
“Only us old people are left,” he said as he scraped a street gutter in front of his house free of debris. “A lot of young people have already gone…If we don’t unite, we’re not going to bounce back.”
Hurricane Irma sideswiped Puerto Rico on Sept. 6, leaving more than 1 million people without power but causing no deaths or widespread damage like it did on nearby islands.
“I think people didn’t expect the storm to reach the point that it did,” tourism company operator Adrian Pacheco said. “Since Irma never really happened, they thought Maria would be the same.”
Maria, however, blew out windows at some hospitals and police stations, turned some streets into roaring rivers and destroyed hundreds of homes across Puerto Rico, including 80 percent of houses in a small fishing community near the San Juan Bay, which unleashed a storm surge of more than 4 feet.
The extent of the damage is unknown given that dozens of municipalities remained isolated and without communication after Maria hit the island Wednesday morning as a Category 4 storm with 155 mph winds, the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years.
Uprooted trees and widespread flooding blocked many highways and streets across the island, creating a maze that forced drivers to go against traffic and past police cars that used loudspeakers to warn people they must respect a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew imposed by the governor to ensure everyone’s safety.
“This is going to be a historic event for Puerto Rico,” said Abner Gomez, the island’s emergency management director.
President Donald Trump approved a federal disaster declaration for Puerto Rico.
Maria has caused at least 10 deaths across the Caribbean, including seven in the hard-hit island of Dominica and two in the French Caribbean territory of Guadeloupe.
Puerto Rico’s governor told CNN one man died after being hit by flying debris. No further details were available, and officials could not be immediately reached for comment.
Maria weakened to a Category 2 storm later in the day but re-strengthened to Category 3 status early Thursday with maximum sustained winds of 115 mph (185 kph).
According to the National Hurricane Center in Miami, the eye of the storm is expected to approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday and early Friday.
The Associated Press and CNN contributed to this report.