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5 Year Anniversary of Category 5 Hurricane Maria

21 Sep 2022, 3:00 am

It has been 5 years since Hurricane Maria produced widespread devastation for several islands in the northeastern Caribbean. The storm was the worst natural disaster ever recorded in some of those islands, like Puerto Rico and Dominica.  More than 3,000 people died with damage amounts higher than $90 billion dollars.

Maria formed from an African easterly wave that moved across the tropical Atlantic Ocean during the week of September 10th to September 17th, 2017.   It was not until September 16th that the storm was organized to be classified as a tropical depression about 700 miles east-southeast of the Lesser Antilles, becoming Tropical Storm Maria later that day. Thereafter, Maria intensified quickly and became the 8th hurricane of the 2017 Atlantic hurricane season with 75 mph maximum sustained winds the following day on September 17th.

Within the next 24 to 30 hours and during an 18 hour period, Maria underwent through rapid intensification, strengthening from a category 1 to an extremely dangerous category 5 hurricane. At the time, environmental conditions were favorable for intensification to occur due to sea surface temperatures greater than 82 degrees, light vertical wind shear aloft, and moist air.

Maria’s first landfall was in Dominica in the Windward Islands, as a category 5 hurricane in the evening of September 18th. Maria maintained Category 5 strength as it continued its path towards the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico. Hurricane force winds were first reported in St. Croix as Maria’s eyewall moved over that island. Based on observations from the Hurricane Hunters, the intensity of Maria was lowered from Category 5 hurricane with 175 mph just southeast of St. Croix to Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph south of Vieques.

Maria made landfall early in the morning on September 19th in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico as a strong category 4 hurricane with maximum sustained winds of 155 mph. As the center of the storm moved west-northwestward over southeastern Puerto Rico into the interior and northwestern side of the island, widespread hurricane force winds spread all over mainland along with extremely heavy rainfall that produced major to catastrophic flooding and flash flooding, especially across the northern half of Puerto Rico.

Maria’s center moved over the coastal waters off northwestern Puerto Rico early that afternoon. Even though hurricane force winds started to diminish once the system moved offshore, tropical storm force winds continued well into the evening and overnight hours across mainland Puerto Rico.

In the wake of Maria in Dominca, more than 85% of the island’s houses were damage and 25% were completely destroyed, leaving more than 50,000 of the island’s 73,000 residents displaced. In Puerto Rico, the power grid was destroyed, leaving the island without electricity, in some areas into 2018. Devastation was extensive and widespread. Both islands had little to no access to fresh water, in several cities for weeks.

The World Meteorological Organization retired the name Maria in 2018 due to the extensive damage and loss of life.

Information from the National Hurricane Center, National Weather Service San Juan, and Wikimedia.

About the author
Mace was born and raised in Minnesota, where his intrigue for weather and broadcasting grew at a young age. His 30 years in broadcasting have taken him all across the Midwest and in the South.