HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Fiona struck the southwest coast of Puerto Rico on Sunday, triggering landslides, destroying the power grid and tearing asphalt from roads, sending pieces flying.
Forecasters said the storm would cause massive flooding and was threatening to tip over “historical” Rainfall of up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) is possible in eastern and southern Puerto Rico.
“The damage we are seeing is catastrophic” said Governor Pedro Pierluisi.
“I urge people to stay in their homes” said William Miranda Torres, mayor of the northern city of Caguas, where at least one large landslide has been reported, with water tumbling over a large slab of asphalt and into a ravine.
The storm also washed away a bridge in the central mountain town of Utuado, which police say was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017.
According to the US National Hurricane Center, Fiona was 15 kilometers west of Mayaguez with maximum sustained winds of 140 km/h. It was moving northwest at 15 km/h.
Fiona struck on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which hit Puerto Rico 33 years ago as a Category 3 storm.
Storm clouds covered the entire island, and tropical gale force winds spread up to 140 miles from Fiona’s center.
US President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency for US territory as the eye of the storm neared the southwest corner of the island.
Luma, the company that runs power transmission and distribution, said inclement weather, including 80-mph winds, disrupted transmission lines, which led to it “A power outage across the island.”
“Current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hampering our ability to assess the overall situation,” it said, adding that it could take several days for power to be fully restored.
Health centers were running on generators – and some of them had failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews are working to fix the generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center as soon as possible.
Fiona met just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that struck on September 20, 2017, destroying the island’s power grid and killing nearly 3,000 people.
More than 3,000 houses still have only a blue tarpaulin roof and infrastructure remains weak.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who have experienced Maria have this post-traumatic stress: ‘What’s going to happen, how long is it going to take, and what needs might we come up with?'” said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital San Juan but planned to weather the storm with his parents and family in the western city of Mayaguez.
He said the atmosphere at the supermarket was bleak as he and others stocked up ahead of the storm.
“After Mary, we all experienced scarcity to some degree,” he said.
The storm was predicted to hit towns along Puerto Rico’s south coast that have yet to fully recover from a series of powerful earthquakes that began in late 2019.
Officials reported multiple road closures across the island as trees and small landslides blocked access.
More than 780 people with about 80 pets had taken shelter across the island by Saturday night, most of them on the south coast.
Puerto Rico’s power grid was devastated by Hurricane Maria and remains vulnerable as reconstruction has only recently begun. Failures are the order of the day.
In the southwestern town of El Combate, the hotel’s co-owner Tomás Rivera said he was prepared but worried about it “enormously” amount of rain he had expected. He noticed that it was eerily quiet at a nearby nature reserve.
“There are thousands of birds here and they are nowhere to be seen.” he said. “Even the birds have seen what is coming and they are preparing.”
Rivera said his staff brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he stocked up on diesel, gasoline, groceries, water and ice due to the government’s slow response in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
“We have prepared to be as little dependent on the central government as possible,” he said.
That sentiment was shared by Ana Córdova, 70, who arrived at an animal shelter in the north coast town of Loiza on Saturday after buying vast amounts of food and water.
“I don’t trust them” she said, referring to the government. “I lost confidence after what happened after Hurricane Maria.”
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approached.
“What worries me the most is the rain” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was predicted to drop 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) in spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria in 2017 unleashed 40 inches (102 centimeters).
Pierluisi announced on Sunday that public schools and government agencies would remain closed on Monday.
Fiona was predicted to hit the Dominican Republic and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Monday with the risk of heavy rain. It could threaten the far southern end of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the east coast of the Dominican Republic from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.
Fiona had previously hit the eastern Caribbean, killing a man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods washed away his home, officials said. 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 the international airport would reopen on Sunday afternoon. Dozens of customers were still without power or water, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline was expected to bring heavy rain and flooding to parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 155 miles (245 kilometers) south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 km/h).