The eye of newly formed Hurricane Fiona made landfall on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast on Sunday — already causing a power outage across the island and threatening to dump “historic” rain levels.
The hurricane had maximum sustained winds of 40 km/h, the US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said Sunday.
Forecasters said the downpour was expected to cause landslides and catastrophic flooding, with up to 64 centimeters possible in isolated areas.
“It’s time to take action and be concerned,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico’s emergency management commissioner.
Tropical storm 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.
Puerto Rico’s largest public hospital ran on generators and in some centers they were out of order. Secretary of Health Carlos Mellado said crews were working to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center as quickly as possible.
Hurricane Maria killed nearly 3,000
Fiona just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that hit the island on September 20, 2017, destroying the electrical grid and causing nearly 3,000 deaths.
More than 3,000 homes still only have blue sails for their roofs and infrastructure remains weak.
Luma, the company that manages power transmission and distribution, had warned of “widespread service outages” and on Sunday the governor announced that all power had been shut down.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who have been through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, ‘What’s going to happen, how long is it going to take and what needs might we face?’ said Danny Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan, but planned to weather the storm with his parents and family in the western city of Mayaguez.
He said the atmosphere in the supermarket was bleak as he and others stocked up before the storm hit.
“After Maria, we’ve all dealt with scarcity to some degree,” he said.
The storm would ravage towns and villages along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, which have not yet fully recovered from a series of strong earthquakes at the end of 2019.
Officials reported several road closures across the island as trees and minor landslides blocked access.
More than 640 people with some 70 pets had sought shelter all over the island on Saturday night, most of them on the south coast.
Puerto Rico’s electrical grid was devastated by Hurricane Maria and remains fragile, with reconstruction only recently beginning. Disruptions are the order of the day.
‘Even the birds know what’s coming’
In the southwestern town of El Combate, hotel co-owner Tomas Rivera said he was prepared but concerned about the “huge” amount of rain he expected. He noted that a nearby wildlife sanctuary was eerily quiet.
“There are thousands of birds here and they are nowhere to be seen,” he said. “Even the birds have realized what’s to come, and they’re preparing.”
Rivera said his workers brought bedridden relatives to the hotel, where he stocked up on diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given the government’s slow response to Hurricane Maria.
“What we’ve done is we’ve prepared ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government,” he said.
It’s a sentiment shared by 70-year-old Ana Cordova, who arrived on Saturday at a shelter in the north coast of Loiza after buying loads 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 storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approached.
“What worries me most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was forecast to drop 30 to 41 inches of rain across eastern and south Puerto Rico, with as much as 64 inches in isolated spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria had released 102 centimeters in 2017.
Some residents have already urged to move
The National Weather Service warned late Saturday that the Blanco River in the southeastern coastal city of Naguabo had already overrun its banks and urged people living nearby to move immediately.
Pierluisi announced on Sunday that public schools and government agencies will remain closed on Monday.
Fiona was set to flood the Dominican Republic and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands on Monday with the threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far south of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.
Fiona has previously 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.
St. Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and fallen 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 forecast to cause heavy rainfall and flooding in parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 150 miles south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 75 mph.