WASHINGTON, Sept. 20 (Xinhua) -- Maria started pummeling Puerto Rico as the near Category-5 hurricane made landfall southeast of the island Wednesday morning.
The storm hit the city Yabucoa with winds of 250 km per hour, about 2 km per hour short of a Category-5 strength as per the Saffir-Simpson hurricane wind scale, according to the U.S. Hurricane Center.
Maria's eye was located about 40 km west of San Juan, capital of Puerto Rico, carrying winds of 220 km per hour as it was moving northwest at a speed of 19 km per hour, the agency said in its latest advisory on Wednesday.
It was expected to dump up to 66 centimeters of rain on parts of U.S. territory, the agency said. While dangerous storm surges could be as high as 2.7 meters, heavy rainfall could cause life-threatening flash floods and mudslides, it added.
On the forecast track, the center of the hurricane will continue to move across Puerto Rico and emerge off the northern coast later Wednesday before passing just north of the northeast coast of the Dominican Republic during the night and Thursday.
Hurricane warnings were in effect for the United States and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques, the Dominican Republic, Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern Bahamas.
Maria was the first hurricane of its strength or higher to hit Puerto Rico in about 90 years. As of early Wednesday morning, the island, home to 3.3 million people, has counted over 10,000 refugees and roughly 190 pets in shelters.
Packed with catastrophic winds and dangerous storm surges, Maria churned through France's Guadeloupe, leaving one person dead, and wreaked havoc on Dominica.
It also came on the heels of Hurricane Irma, one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic.
The powerful hurricane left a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands and the southern United States, including Florida, killing at least 84 people.