Slow-moving Fiona carries deadly flood risk
By Alejandra M. Jover Tovar
Special to The Star
Nearly five years to the day after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and ultimately claimed an estimated 2,975 lives, Category 1 Hurricane Fiona was making its slow passage through the southwest of the island on Sunday afternoon, causing an islandwide blackout and sending close to 800 refugees into over 100 shelters.
At 11 a.m., the hurricane was located 50 miles south of Ponce, at latitude 17.3 degrees north, longitude 66.5 degrees west, moving at eight miles per hour.
The main concern for the government was and is the amount of rainfall on already saturated terrain. Landslides reported Sunday were being addressed promptly by the Department of Transportation and Public Works. Still, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia was urging all personnel to return home before the worst of the hurricane hit the island later on Sunday afternoon.
“We expect between 10 and 16 inches of rainfall with areas with even more. We already have areas [experiencing] landslides,” Pierluisi said. “Certainly, no one should be outdoors. We ask our people to stay indoors and seek shelter if needed.”
The New York Times on Sunday reported those expected rainfall totals, “with local maximum totals of 25 inches, particularly across eastern and southern Puerto Rico.”
“These rainfall amounts will produce life-threatening flash floods and urban flooding across Puerto Rico and portions of the eastern Dominican Republic, along with mudslides and landslides in areas of higher terrain,” the Hurricane Center said, according to the Times.
The National Weather Service (NWS) office in San Juan said Sunday morning “that the streamflow of Río Blanco had increased and warned that residents along that river and other flood-prone areas should consider moving to higher ground,” the Times reported.
In the face of the emergency, nonessential public employees won’t have to work today, the governor confirmed. Likewise, public schools and the University of Puerto Rico announced they wouldn’t be opening until a damage report has been issued and everyone can return safely to classes. All emergency personnel and first responders had to report to their work areas.
“We remain active and are responding to the emergency. I have communicated with the mayors’ offices to ensure everything is in order,” the governor said. “We have brigades from PREPA [the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority], PRASA [the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority], and LUMA Energy [the private consortium that manages the transmission and distribution of electric power on the island] ready to respond.”
Ernesto Morales, director of the NWS in Puerto Rico, stated that “the system began to affect us directly starting on Saturday; bands of rain were affecting us in the east.”
“[Hurricane Fiona] is skirting the southern coast of Puerto Rico,” Morales said. “The problem with this is that the eye wall will be skirting along the southern coast, and this same region has generated winds of 70 miles per hour; there have been gusts of 91 miles per hour in Yabucoa. This cloudy area has the potential to generate hurricane wind gusts, and we can have sustained winds of 80 miles per hour.”
Orlando Rivera of the Federal Emergency Management Agency said the federal emergency declaration approved for Puerto Rico by President Joe Biden on Sunday “supports the government to protect life and critical property on the island.”
“We continue to monitor hand in hand with the Emergency Operations Center; once the system passes and it is safe for the teams to go out, we’ll make inspections,” he said.
Regarding the power outages, LUMA Energy spokesperson Abner Gómez said one of the main concerns for island residents was that “[t]here are brigades in some parts of the island, but in the southern zone, because of the danger, the brigades were told to seek shelter.”
“We need the personnel to be healthy and available once the [storm] passes,” he said. “Once that happens, together and as a team, we will start to notify the time it will take for the restoration. We can say that we will continue to work hand in hand with PREPA so that Puerto Ricans will have service as soon as possible.”
Puerto Rico is still struggling to rebuild and reinforce its electrical grid after it was flattened by Hurricane Maria in 2017.
PREPA Executive Director Josué Colón Ortiz said “we have the emergency systems activated.” “Generation is being produced, the demand is at 993 megawatts, and we have 40 units available if the system requires them to come online,” he said.
As for PRASA, executive president Doriel Pagán Crespo stated that “we have been in communication with the mayors; our personnel are operating in safe areas.”
“We have identified some customers without service, but we anticipate that these same floods have a runoff due to the weather conditions, which causes obstruction,” she said. “Our staff is ready to put the plants into production as soon as the levels are safe.”