HAVANA (AP) — Hurricane Fiona slammed the southwest coast of Puerto Rico on Sunday causing landslides, knocking out the power grid and ripping asphalt from roads and throwing up chunks.
Forecasters said the storm would cause massive flooding and threatened to dump “historic” levels of rain, with up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) possible in eastern and southern Puerto Rico.
“The damage we are seeing is catastrophic,” Governor Pedro Pierluisi said.
“I urge people to stay home,” said William Miranda Torres, mayor of the northern town of Caguas, where at least one large landslide was reported, with water rushing over a large slab of rock. broken asphalt and in a ravine.
The storm also swept away a bridge in the central mountain town of Utuado that police say was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria struck in 2017.
Fiona was centered 10 miles (15 kilometers) west of Mayaguez with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 km/h), according to the US National Hurricane Center. It was moving northwest at 9 mph (15 km/h).
Fiona hit on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which hit Puerto Rico 33 years ago as a Category 3 storm.
Storm clouds blanketed the entire island, and tropical storm-force winds extended up to 220 kilometers from the center of Fiona.
US President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency on US territory as the eye of the storm approached the southwest corner of the island.
Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, said bad weather, including 80mph winds, had disrupted transmission lines, leading to ‘an island-wide blackout’ .
“The current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and hamper our ability to assess the bigger picture,” he said, adding that full power restoration could take several days.
Health centers were running on generators – and some of them had broken down. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews were working to repair generators as soon as possible at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Fiona hit just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that struck on September 20, 2017, knocking out the island’s power grid and killing nearly 3,000 people.
More than 3,000 houses still only have a blue tarp as a roof, and the infrastructure remains weak.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who have lived through Maria have this post-traumatic stress of, ‘What’s going to happen, how long is this going to last, and what needs might we be facing? ? said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital city of San Juan but planned to ride out 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 before the storm hit.
“After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some degree,” he said.
The storm was expected to hit cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast that have yet to fully recover from a series of strong earthquakes beginning in late 2019.
Authorities reported several road closures across the island as trees and small landslides blocked access.
More than 780 people with some 80 pets had sought refuge across the island on Saturday evening, the majority of them on the south coast.
Puerto Rico’s power grid was flattened by Hurricane Maria and remains fragile, with reconstruction having only recently begun. Breakdowns are daily.
In the southwestern town of El Combate, hotel co-owner Tomás Rivera said he was ready but worried about the “enormous” amount of rain he expected. He noted that a nearby wildlife refuge was eerily quiet.
“There are thousands of birds here, and they are nowhere to be found,” he said. “Even the birds have realized what is coming, and they are getting ready.”
Rivera said his employees brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he refueled with diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given how slowly the government reacted after Hurricane Maria.
“What we have done is prepare ourselves to be as little dependent on central government as possible,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by Ana Córdova, 70, who arrived at a shelter in the northern coastal town of Loiza on Saturday after buying plenty 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 has activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approaches.
“What worries me the most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was forecast 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 isolated spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria in 2017 triggered 40 inches (102 centimeters).
Pierluisi announced on Sunday that public schools and government agencies would remain closed on Monday.
Fiona was expected to sweep across the Dominican Republic on Monday, then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands under threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far south 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 has already battered 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.
Saint Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees, but said its 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 on Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).
Danica Coto, The Associated Press