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Hurricane Maria Spins Toward Puerto Rico


Puerto Rico is preparing to take a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. Today it became a dangerous Category 4 storm. Forecasts have it passing straight over Puerto Rico on Wednesday. The U.S. territory was not hit as hard as people feared it might have been by Hurricane Irma, but three people were killed, and it sustained damage that could be above a billion dollars. Now ahead of Maria, evacuation orders have been issued today for parts of the island.

I spoke with Puerto Rico's secretary of state, Luis Rivera Marin. He says this is all happening while the government is providing shelter and medical care to evacuees of Hurricane Irma from neighboring islands.

LUIS RIVERA MARIN: We are talking about thousands of people. It's 3,286 evacuees, mostly U.S. citizens that were either residing or vacationing in the islands which were stranded after Irma hit. And the airports were compromised as well as communications.

SHAPIRO: And so as you are preparing your island for the potential arrival of Hurricane Maria, you also have to consider these people who are in temporary shelters. Are those shelters hurricane-proof?

MARIN: They are hurricane-proof. Currently we have facilitated an area in our convention center which was designed originally to also serve as a shelter with all the facilities, including showers, including kitchens and support services. And we have a infirmary with health services. We received close to 210 patients of - renal patients that were without dialysis for a few days, and we needed to have them stabilized. And we are working with them.

We even had a birth. This morning, one of the evacuees delivered a baby in the middle of the preparations. So it's been a challenge. Nevertheless, we're being - working very closely with federal agencies, which include HHS, FEMA and the Department of Defense, which provided the airplanes.

SHAPIRO: I know you just went through Irma preparations a couple of weeks ago. Now you're dealing with preparations for Maria. What are you as an island doing to prepare?

MARIN: Well, this storm has - is one of unequal proportions. Certainly our infrastructure has been compromised because of Irma. And we have not re-established service. And now we have changed from a recovery mode to a preparation mode in terms of our emergency management. Certainly the storm's swell is truly a challenge for all our coast. As an island, we're talking about a storm swell close to 8 feet. And with the probability of having seas in the amount of 25 feet swells, this is certainly a catastrophic proportion for the island.

So right now we are in the process of evacuating most of our coastal towns. Our citizens are really hesitant to leave their dwellings. And right now I'm with the mayor of Catano, working and trying to convince many of our citizens to evacuate and go to a shelter, which are - we have shelters for 120,000 people around the island. And the way we do this - our public school systems - our public schools are turned over to our emergency service, and they're full of cots and ready to receive evacuees.

SHAPIRO: Luis Rivera Marin is Puerto Rico's secretary of state. Thank you very much for joining us.

MARIN: Thank you. Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.