HAVANA – Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast on Sunday when it caused landslides, knocked out power grids and ripped asphalt from roads and threw pieces around.
Hundreds of people were evacuated or rescued across the island as floodwaters rose rapidly. Fast-flowing brown-water rivers cover cars, first floors and even airport runways in the southern part of the island.
Forecasters said the storm threatened to bring “historic” rainfall Sunday and Monday, with up to 30 inches (76 cm) of potential in eastern and southern Puerto Rico.
Governor Pedro Pierluisi said: “The damage we are seeing is catastrophic.
The storm washed away a bridge in the mountain town of Utuado that police said was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria made landfall in 2017. Large landslides were also reported, with water overflowing down large slabs of asphalt that broke and flowed into gulls.
Fiona was centered 50 miles (85 km) southeast of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 km/h) Sunday night, according to the US National Hurricane Center . It is moving northwest at 15 km/h.
Fiona struck on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which made landfall in Puerto Rico 33 years ago as a Category 3 hurricane.
The storm’s clouds covered the entire island, and the tropical storm’s winds extended up to 140 miles (220 km) from the center of Fiona.
US President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency over US territory as the eye of the storm approached the southwestern corner of the island.
Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, said bad weather, including 80 mph winds, had disrupted transmissions, leading to “power outages across the entire island.”
“Current weather conditions are extremely hazardous and are hindering our ability to fully assess the situation,” it said, adding that it could take several days to fully restore power.
The medical centers are running on generators – and some of them have failed. Health Minister Carlos Mellado said crews rushed to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, where some patients had to be evacuated.
Fiona hit just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 hurricane that struck on September 20, 2017, which destroyed the island’s power grid and killed nearly 3,000 people.
More than 3,000 homes still have only one blue tarp for their roofs, and infrastructure is still weak, including the electrical grid. Blackouts are still common, and rebuilding has only recently begun.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who have lived through Maria have experienced post-traumatic stress.” What will happen, how long will it last, and what needs we may face what? ”” Danny Hernández, who works in the capital city of San Juan but plans to weather the storm with his parents and family in the western town of Mayaguez.
He said the atmosphere was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others stocked up on goods before the storm made landfall.
“After Maria, we all experienced some degree of scarcity,” he said.
The storm is forecast to hit cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, which have yet to fully recover from a string of powerful earthquakes that began in late 2019.
More than 1,000 people with about 80 pets sought shelter across the island on Sunday evening, the majority of them on the south coast.
In the southwestern town of El Combate, hotel co-owner Tomás Rivera said he was prepared but worried about the “terrible” amount of rain he was expecting. He noted that a nearby wildlife refuge was eerily quiet before the storm made landfall.
“There are thousands of birds here, and they can’t be seen,” he said. “Even the birds realize what’s coming and they’re preparing.”
Rivera said his employees brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he stocked up on diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, due to the government’s slow response after Hurricane Maria.
“What we did was prepare ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government,” he said.
That’s a sentiment shared by Ana Córdova, 70, who arrived at a shelter in the northern coastal town of Loiza on Saturday after buying loads of food and water.
“I don’t trust them,” she said, referring to the government. “I lost faith after what happened after Hurricane Maria.”
The Governor of Puerto Rico, Pedro Pierluisi, activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approached.
“The thing that worries me most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona is predicted to see 30 to 41 centimeters of rain drop from 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) in eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with at most 30 inches (76 centimeters) in isolated spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria in 2017 rolled out 40 inches (102 centimeters).
Pierluisi announced Sunday that public schools and government agencies will remain closed on Monday.
Fiona is forecast to sweep across the Dominican Republic on Monday and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with a risk of heavy rain. It could threaten the southernmost tip of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning has been posted for the east coast of the Dominican Republic from Cabo Caonedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.
Officials said Fiona had previously ravaged the eastern Caribbean, killing a man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods swept away his home. The storm also damaged roads, uprooted trees and destroyed at least one bridge.
St. Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees, but announced their international airport would reopen on Sunday afternoon. According to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency, dozens of customers remain without electricity or water.
In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline is forecast to cause heavy rain and flooding across parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm’s center was about 155 miles (250 km) south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes on Sunday, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 km/h).