Hurricane Fiona smashed through Puerto Rico early Monday with pounding rain and winds that triggered mudslides, “catastrophic” flooding and a power outage that swept across the entire island.
More than 1,000 water rescues were performed and more were underway, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said. Even as the storm made landfall Monday in the Dominican Republic, it continued to slam Puerto Rico with unrelenting rains.
The National Weather Service in San Juan urged residents to move to higher ground “immediately.”
“Heavy rainfall and catastrophic flooding continues across much of Puerto Rico,” said Richard Pasch, a specialist with the National Hurricane Center.
The Aqueduct and Sewer Authority said almost 800,000 customers were without drinking water service. The entire power grid across the U.S. territory of 3.2 million people went down on Sunday, putting everyone in the dark. Only a small fraction had regained power Monday, and power distribution company LUMA Energy warned that it could take several days to fully restore power because of the magnitude of the outage.
“We have the equipment, tools and resources to respond to this event,” the company said.
National Guard and Municipal Emergency Management personnel were helping with evacuations and water rescues in several communities of severely damaged Salinas, Mayor Karilyn Bonilla Colón said. She urged residents to stay in their homes or shelters.
“Lands are saturated, rivers are overgrown, areas are flooded areas, and streets are still impassable streets,” she said. “Please stay safe and consider the first responders and rescue personnel who have done a titanic job to save lives.”
Up to 30 inches of rain could fall
Parts of the island are still healing from the battering wrought by Hurricane Maria five years ago, and more than 3,000 homes still have blue tarps for a roof. Now residents could see up to 30 inches of rain before the storm rolls out of the area late Monday, AccuWeather reported.
“These rains will continue to produce life-threatening and catastrophic flooding along with mudslides and landslides across Puerto Rico,” said Brad Reinhart, a hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center in Miami, adding that “life-threatening flash and urban flooding is likely for eastern portions of the Dominican Republic.”
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Winds ripped the top off of houses and businesses. Water rushed through streets and into homes. Roads were torn apart, and in the central town of Utuado, a bridge installed by the National Guard after Maria washed away. Hours of rain were still to come.
Ernesto Morales, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Juan, said flooding reached “historic” levels.
“It’s important people understand that this is not over,” Morales said.
Locals have been feeling brunt of storm for days
Darlene Nieves, is an assistant program officer for the aid organization Mercy Corps, says the situation in Puerto Rico has been deteriorating rapidly. Water and power interruptions began Thursday night, and her in hometown Naranjito, entire communities are isolated.
“I have been trying to reach my family, but I can’t because the access to roads is blocked by fallen trees, landslides, and severe flooding,” she said. “We see the same scenario almost everywhere, and we still received flash flood warnings today.”
Nelson Cirino was sleeping in the northern coastal town of Loiza on Sunday when the roof blew off his home.
“I was sleeping and saw when the corrugated metal flew off,” he said.
Ada Vivian Román said the storm knocked down trees and fences in her hometown of Toa Alta. She worried about how long the public transportation she relies on to get to her job at a public relations agency will be unable to operate.
“But I know that I’m privileged compared with other families who are practically losing their homes because they are under water,” she said.
Pierluisi canceled school across the island for Tuesday and said only essential, immediate response personnel should report to public agencies. More than 2,000 residents had moved into 128 shelters, he said.
Puerto Rico in ‘constant state of emergency’
Mercy Corps says it has been helping people on the island better prepare for disasters by transforming local community centers into “resilience hubs” with different combinations of solar energy, potable water storage, communication systems, emergency kits and disaster preparedness training. Tens of thousands of families are still living under blue tarps covering their roofs, the group says.
“Puerto Ricans have faced a constant state of emergency over the five last years,” said Allison Dworschak, leader of the agency’s Caribbean Resilience Initiative. “Those who don’t have the financial means to repair the damage properly are especially vulnerable to the impacts of storms like Fiona.”
President Joe Biden has declared a state of emergency and ordered federal assistance to supplement local responses.
Advocacy group says ‘corporate greed’ contributed to disaster
Jesus Gonzalez, with the Center for Popular Democracy, says “corporate greed” and predatory hedge funds have made the damage worse. Gonzalez says the federal government knew Puerto Rico would once again confront a natural disaster but did nothing to prepare. The privatization of Puerto Rico’s power system caused less investment in infrastructure and green energy in favor of profits, Gonzalez said in an email to USA TODAY.
“Austerity-driven policies have crippled Puerto Rico’s infrastructure in order to pay (debts), limiting the island’s ability to recover from the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria in 2017,” Gonzalez said.
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Where is Fiona now?
Fiona was centered 10 miles southeast of Samana, Dominican Republic, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph by midday Monday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was moving to the northwest at 8 mph. Rain totals of up to 15 inches were projected for the eastern Dominican Republic, where authorities closed ports and beaches and told most people to stay home from work.
Fiona became the third hurricane of the 2022 Atlantic season on Sunday, hours before its first landfall on the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico near Punta Tocon. At landfall in Puerto Rico Sunday, Fiona was a Category 1 hurricane on the Saffir-Simpson Scale with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph.
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Fiona made a second landfall in the Dominican Republic early Monday about 20 miles south of Punta Cana with sustained winds of 90 mph.
Where will Fiona go next? Will it impact the U.S.?
Impacts from Hurricane Fiona will continue over the next few days after the storm leaves the Caribbean, forecasters said. “Even though the threat of direct impacts to the United States has lessened, beaches up and down the Eastern Seaboard will still feel Fiona’s effects,” said AccuWeather meteorologist Renee Duff.
Beaches along the U.S. East Coast will experience high waves, strong rip currents, minor beach erosion and minor coastal flooding around times of high tide much of this week as Fiona passes by offshore, AccuWeather said.
Meteorologists expect Fiona to become the season’s first Category 3 major hurricane by midweek with maximum sustained winds of at least 111 mph. It could spin near Bermuda as a major hurricane late Thursday or on Friday, forecasters said.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, USA TODAY; The Associated Press