SAN JUAN – Hurricane Maria picked up steam Thursday afternoon, turning streets into raging rivers as it continues its deadly tear across the Caribbean.
The storm has now killed at least 15 people on the island of Dominica, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit posted on Facebook. Skerrit’s own home was demolished in the storm.
But Maria’s wrath is far from over. The hurricane intensified Thursday afternoon, whipping winds of 120 mph as it headed toward Turks and Caicos, the National Hurricane Center said.
And it’s still pummeling the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. In just 24 hours, Maria dumped 30 inches of rain on parts of Puerto Rico, where millions of residents won’t have power for months.
But a glimmer of hope emerged Thursday, when officials announced Puerto Rico’s largest airport would reopen to airlines starting Friday, offering hurricane victims a chance to flee.
Although Maria is drifting away from the Dominican Republic, “heavy rainfall and flooding continues in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” the hurricane center said.
“A dangerous storm surge accompanied by large and destructive waves will raise water levels by as much as 4 to 6 feet” in parts of the Dominican Republic — where rivers were still swollen from Hurricane Irma.
Maria will likely strengthen as it moves across warm water, endangering low-lying islands with enormous storm surges. The Turks and Caicos will likely feel the brunt of Maria late Thursday and Friday, with as much as 16 inches of rain predicted.
Maria could affect the US East Coast by early next week with high surf, dangerous rip currents and windy conditions. Depending on its path, the system also could bring rain from the Mid-Atlantic to Massachusetts, CNN meteorologist Michael Guy said.
Puerto Ricans, still grappling with intense rain Thursday, might not get power back for four to six months, said Ricardo Ramos, the CEO of Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.
“The system has been basically destroyed,” Ramos told CNN. He said hospitals and water systems will get priority power restoration.
But the island’s largest airport, the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, will be ready to receive military and rescue operations Thursday and will be open to airline traffic Friday, according to Aerostar Puerto Rico, which manages the airport near San Juan.
Emergency generators will power the limited operations, and there will be no air conditioning, the operator said.
For passengers, “We suggest you confirm your flight directly with the airline before heading to the airport.,” Aerostar said.
President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday that he will visit Puerto Rico, but did not detail when.
“Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated,” Trump said. “We’ll work with the governor and the people of Puerto Rico.”
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Maria is the “most devastating storm to hit the island this century, if not in modern history.”
The US commonwealth has been through a long recession, is deeply in debt and has a state-owned power grid that is “a little bit old, mishandled and weak,” the governor said.
While the gusts have subsided, downpours continued in mountainous areas Thursday, meaning water would continue gushing downstream and exacerbate flooding.
Dozens of families were rescued from flooding Thursday in Levittown, near the capital city of San Juan, a spokeswoman for the Puerto Rican governor tweeted. The Puerto Rican National Guard was still searching for others in need of rescue, she said.
Maria also annihilated homes on the US Virgin Islands. On Thursday, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp announced a 24-hour curfew, effective immediately, on the four main US Virgin Islands — St. Croix, St. Thomas, St. John and Water Island.
“Your presence on the roads during the curfew hours will only hamper clean-up efforts and could delay the distribution of critically needed supplies,” Mapp said.
The curfew for the islands will remain in effect until further notice.
One of the hardest hit islands was St. Croix. Aaliyah Bisamber shot video of what was left of her old house on the island of 50,000 people.On St. Thomas, retired New York police Detective Austin Fields said his home was pummeled.
“My home is no longer a home,” he said.
Trump declared the US Virgin Islands a major disaster area and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts.