By Scott Malone
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) - The streets of San Juan were littered with downed trees, power lines and signs from buildings on Thursday but residents of Puerto Rico's capital were relieved that they had spared the devastation Hurricane Irma wrought elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The storm's eye did not come ashore in Puerto Rico but roared past with 185-mile-per-hour (300 kph) winds and hammered the coast with 30-foot (9 m) waves. It knocked out power to about 70 percent of the island and killed at least three people but the island escaped the large-scale devastation seen on nearby Barbuda and St. Martin.
Omar Alvarez, 53, a real state appraiser, chatted in the street with neighbors near the San Juan shore, eyeing a roughly 60-foot (18-m) tall tree that had toppled over in the storm, taking out power lines.
"It was really not as bad as we had feared," he said. "We had very high winds but we got lucky."
"It was mostly wind, not water. In Hugo, the water came up to here," he said, referring to the 1989 hurricane that had flooded his street just three blocks from the Atlantic Ocean.
Governor Ricardo Rossello warned the storm was expected to continue to drop rain on the island's western side, raising the risk of landslides, even as it barreled toward Turks and Caicos, with forecasters saying it would eventually hit Florida.
Early official estimates on Thursday put the death toll at three in the U.S territory: a 79-year-old woman who died of a fall while being transported to a shelter, a woman electrocuted in her home and a man killed in a traffic accident.
Rescuers still were working in the island's northeast, raising the possibility that more bodies could be discovered.
Some 6,300 people and 500 pets remained in shelters in the storm's wake early Thursday.
LESSON LEARNED FROM HARVEY
Irma ranked a category 5, the top of the Saffir-Simpson hurricane scale, and the severe warnings about its power, as well as reports of the deadly flooding that Hurricane Harvey brought to Texas last week, had made preparations all the more urgent in Puerto Rico, several residents said.
"The Harvey experience had an effect of people," lawyer Nereida Melendez, 59, said as she walked along a beach-side road covered in sand and palm leaves. "It just showed them what can happen. It made them take it more seriously."
Others appeared to have left the storm's memory behind them, including a person who could be seen swimming along the coast and a group of boogie boarders.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said that 70 percent of homes and businesses remained without power on the island of 3.4 million people.
"Mostly what has happened here is that there is no electricity and a lot of trees are down," said Rafael Ojeda, a 49-year-old lawyer. "Let's see how fast the electricity comes back up."
Rossello told a morning news conference that it was too soon to say when power would be restored.
Because of the electrical outages, 17.6 percent of homes and businesses serviced by the Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewers Authority were without water.
The storm came at a bad time for Puerto Rico, which is in the midst of trying to restructure some $70 billion in debts. Ojeda worried that and the demand for quick repairs to the power grid could lead to longer-term problems.
"The infrastructure is old and if you're going to just patch it up and not fix it, the next time it is going to go," he said.
After riding out the storm in his 11th-floor apartment, Juan Pablo Aleman spent the morning inspecting his Argentinian restaurant, Che's, which was surrounded by downed tree limbs. The damage was less severe than he had seen in past hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989 and Georges in 1998, both of which had torn off the roof.
"We're OK," Aleman said. "If it had gone a little more to the south, it would have been catastrophic."
(Reporting by Scott Malone; Editing by Bill Trott)