Hurricane Fiona is not finished with Puerto Rico
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The STAR
Five years after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, residents had to contend with Hurricane Fiona, which dumped heavy rain on the island overnight Sunday and into Monday after making landfall on Sunday afternoon, when it knocked out electric power across the island.
Fiona’s eight-mile-per-hour track had created uncertainty and distress for days as a tropical storm until it made landfall as Category 1 hurricane in the southwestern municipality of Cabo Rojo.
With sustained winds of 90 miles per hour and gusts exceeding 110 mph, Fiona left destruction and flooding in its path, causing more than 1,200 people to go to shelters and hundreds to be rescued by the National Guard and municipal authorities. In some municipalities, water from overflowing rivers reached the second floors of structures.
As of press time Monday, two deaths had occurred in shelters. One occurred in the island municipality of Culebra, and as of Monday afternoon the body had not yet been removed due to weather conditions.
“We have been told that if the clouds are 1,000 feet or less, you can’t take a helicopter to Culebra,” Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia said at a press conference at the State Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Administration, where he was accompanied by members of his cabinet.
“Hurricane Fiona has struck Puerto Rico, and unfortunately, we are still expecting more rain today,” the governor said. “We are going through a tough time, but our people are strong and generous. I have to thank the municipalities that have been assisting their citizens directly. Also, the federal government has been on the street helping with the situation.”
“The rains continue, and it is the rainfall effects that have caused the greatest havoc,” continued Pierluisi, urging citizens to stay put and obey the governments’ orders to seek shelter and leave the streets.
It was expected that even as Fiona had left the island, tropical storm conditions would persist. More rainfall was expected, as well as landslides and storm surge from the ocean.
“This is not the time to go out and check on the street,” the governor warned. “Except in an emergency, the road must be available for immediate response. The roads have to be clear of traffic.”
Tropical storm effects from the system persisted in some areas of Puerto Rico on Monday, so the dangers of flash floods, landslides, and mudslides continued.
Some municipalities reported heavy damage. In Utuado, a temporary bridge that had been installed after Hurricane Maria was swept away by an overflowing river, while whole areas of Aguas Buenas, San Germán and Cabo Rojo were underwater. Some houses had collapsed or sustained heavy damage.
Ernesto Morales from the National Weather Service said “the rains we have received associated with Fiona have wreaked havoc on the south coast and in the eastern interior of Puerto Rico, where over 23 inches of rain was reported.”
“The rains have fallen in the same places, and this continues to increase flash flooding. If rainfall continues in the same regions, we could be talking about damage at catastrophic levels,” he said. “What worries us now is that the forecast continues in the same sectors. This is not over; more rain continues on the island. This is serious.”
“There are many areas extremely affected, particularly the south and southwest, as well as the mountains and areas on the coast in the north that are being impacted,” Pierluisi added. “We are joining forces with the municipalities, and we will be working with the private sector to reach out to everyone who needs help.”
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul has sent 100 first responders who will be arriving in Puerto Rico. The governors of New Jersey and California have also offered assistance.
Desperate for power
One of the biggest questions being asked over and over on Monday was when the power would be restored. People have not forgotten that, in some towns, they had to wait a year for electricity to come back after Maria. Still, Pierluisi assured reporters that that would not be the case this time.
“The electrical system suffered damage throughout the island, and both LUMA [the beleaguered private operator of the electrical transmission and distribution system] and PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority] are working to assess the damage and work on restoration,” the governor said. “They have already begun to fly over the transmission lines to evaluate their condition and proceed with the repairs.”
Only 100,000 people had electrical service as of Monday morning, LUMA reported, and only 30% of the population had water. Water plants depend on electricity to operate their pumps, and the government was being cautious and restoring power only after thorough inspections of power lines. Three helicopters had already taken off and patrolled main power lines to assess the damage.
PREPA’s power plants were in operation Monday. The one that suffered the most damage was in Costa Sur, where one of the tanks under construction collapsed. The incident did not cause the generator to stop operating since the tank was not yet in operation. Meanwhile, the electrical system is being restored little by little, section by section, officials said.
Gov’t urges people to stay calm
The Department of Transportation and Public Works, in conjunction with the National Guard -- which activated 600 people -- was working with the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] to reopen road access while staying in communication with the Federal Highway Administration.
As of press time, mass transit had been suspended until further notice. The Coast Guard was assessing the island ports on Monday, but there was no transportation to Vieques or Culebra. Airports, meanwhile, were open and operating, except Mercedita Airport in Ponce, which was flooded.
The main message from authorities to the population was to stay in place. As of early Monday afternoon 1,000 people had been rescued in 25 municipalities, and the Fire Department had picked up 83 people roaming the streets.
People lost communication temporarily, as happened during Maria, causing desperation among the population. On Monday 75 percent of telecommunication towers were functional.
Medical facilities were operating with generators since they are required by law to have a generator and two backups with enough fuel for four days. The Medical Center in San Juan’s Río Piedras sector was energized Monday, and hospitals and other medical facilities will be a priority as power is restored throughout the island, authorities said.
Heavy rain & mudslides in eastern Dominican Republic
After battering Puerto Rico, Fiona moved west to the Dominican Republic on Monday, triggering mudslides that damaged highways and shuttered resorts, officials told The New York Times.
As the storm continued on its westward path, it brought heavy rain and 90 mph winds to the eastern portions of the neighboring nation, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti. The eye of the hurricane was expected to exit the Dominican Republic later in the day after passing through the country’s eastern provinces, home to one of the largest tourism industries in the Caribbean.
Dominican emergency authorities said that about 800 people had been evacuated, and that at least two highways had been damaged by mudslides. No deaths had been reported as of press time, though the authorities said they were still evaluating the full extent of the damage, the Times said. Some towns remained unreachable because of power and telecommunication outages.
Fiona was not expected to have a major impact on the rest of the Dominican Republic, with the National Weather Service forecasting just 1-4 inches of rain. But the eastern section of the country could receive as much as 15 inches of rain, forecasters said.