San Juan, Sept 19 — Hurricane Fiona knocked out power across Puerto Rico Sunday before making landfall, dumping torrential rain and wreaking “catastrophic” damage in several areas of the US island territory before spinning off towards the Dominican Republic.
Landslides, blocked roads, fallen trees and power lines, as well as a collapsed bridge in the town of Utuado in the central mountainous region were among the destruction already levied by Fiona, Governor Pedro Pierluisi told an evening press conference.
In addition, the entire territory of more than three million people lost power as the hurricane neared, with Pierluisi reporting the electrical system out of service.
Although the hurricane’s eye is now off the territory’s coast, destructive rain and devastating flash floods are expected to buffet the islands overnight before dealing a blow to the Dominican Republic on Monday.
Fiona will go down as a “catastrophic event due to the impacts of flooding” in Puerto Rico’s central mountainous region, east and south, Pierluisi tweeted, adding that 9-13 inches (23-33 centimeters) of rain had fallen in just five hours.
“Rainfall amounts will produce catastrophic 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 US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said.
The hurricane has also left some 196,000 people without drinking water as a result of power outages and flooded rivers, officials said.
Ahead of Fiona’s arrival in the Dominican Republic, President Luis Abinader suspended work in the public and private sectors for Monday.
It had made landfall in Puerto Rico Sunday afternoon as a Category One hurricane packing sustained winds of 85 miles (140 kilometers) per hour, at the lowest end of the five-tier Saffier-Simpson scale.
Fiona is expected to grow stronger, turning into a “major hurricane” before it heads north into the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, according to the NHC.
In the town of Utuado, a family saw the zinc roof of its house — ripped off in 2017 by Hurricane Maria, then replaced — torn off yet again, according to local media.
“This is an extremely delicate and sad situation. The damage we are seeing is catastrophic in several areas,” Pierluisi told reporters at the Sunday press conference.
“The entire island is experiencing a large accumulation of rain. Multiple cases of severe damage have been reported in many towns.”
The storm has already caused a fatality, with a man left dead when his house was swept away by flooding in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, when Fiona was still classified as a tropical storm.
US President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for Puerto Rico on Sunday, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance.
The NHC also said tropical storm conditions are expected in the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas by late Monday or early Tuesday.
‘Stay in their homes’
Pierluisi told reporters that officials were reiterating “the request to our people, which the majority have heeded, to stay in their homes or seek refuge if they need it.”
The island — which has suffered from major infrastructure problems for years — was hit by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, devastating its electrical grid.
The grid was privatized in June 2021 in an effort to resolve the problem of blackouts, but the issue has persisted, and the entire island lost power earlier this year.
The former Spanish colony became a US territory in the late 19th century before gaining the status of associated free state in 1950.
After years of financial woes and recession, in 2017 the island declared the largest bankruptcy ever by a local US administration. Later that year, hurricanes Irma and Maria added to the island’s misery, and sparked a feud between San Juan and Washington.
Then-president Donald Trump’s administration was widely accused of failing to provide sufficient federal aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria struck.
Footage of him tossing paper towels to survivors during a visit to the island drew criticism, and Trump later claimed the storm’s death toll had been inflated by Democrats to “make me look as bad as possible.” — AFP