Alex Harris, Syra Ortiz-Blanes, Jacqueline Charles
Millions of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans remained in the dark or surrounded by floodwater on Monday as Hurricane Fiona raked through the islands, taking homes, piers, a bridge and power lines down with it and killing at least four people.
And for some still recovering from Hurricane Maria five years back, it’s already a new measuring stick for the ravages a hurricane can bring to island nations.
Fiona, a Category 2 storm, is far less powerful than Category 4 Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and its power grid in 2017. Fiona has also left most of the island without electricity or running water, exposing the weaknesses that still remain years later. Officials already have confirmed at least three deaths on Puerto Rico and another in the Dominican Republic, a total likely to increase as damage assessments are made in coming days.
And unlike Maria, Fiona is a slow-moving, wet storm and flooding appears to be more severe. While its eye remained firmly over the Dominican Republic Monday morning, collapsing piers, trees and power lines, Fiona’s heavy rain bands continued to pound Puerto Rico throughout much of Monday.
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi called the damage from Fiona “catastrophic.’
“The heavy rains have caused the greatest havoc in our towns. In some of our towns the concentration of water was higher than that of Hurricane Maria”, Pierluisi said during a Monday morning press conference. He said more than 1,000 people had already been rescued from their homes.
More rain, flooding for Puerto Rico
Nearly all of the island was under a flash flood warning. Some areas in the southeast had already seen more than 20 inches of rain and could reach totals of 30 inches by the day’s end, according to the National Hurricane Center.
“Unfortunately the situation in Puerto Rico is not good and not looking to improve until later today when the bands pull away,” Jamie Rhome, the NHC’s acting director, said in a broadcast Monday morning.
Some residents posted pleas for rescue on social media. A woman identified as Génesis Lían posted on Facebook begging for help for a group gathered with her that included a minor, a disabled person and an elderly person with diabetes.
“We need help, we need to get out of our houses in Playa de Salinas urgently. I already called emergency management and nothing, I swear I’m swimming and I’m very, very cold. I need to get us out of here, literally the beach is in the house,” she wrote.
The mayor of that community, Karilyn Bonilla, told a local TV station that the devastation was worse than Hurricane Maria.
Fiona’s winds took down the only bridge connecting the mountain town of Utuado to main roads, a deja vu moment for the town that christened itself “El Campamento de los Olvidados” or, the Camp of the Forgotten Ones, after Maria destroyed the same bridge. It took months to repair last time, and residents were forced to bring in food, water and medicine using a zip line they rigged with cable and a shopping cart.
At the San Juan international airport, where officials had warned of some delays, operations appeared to be running somewhat normally Monday evening. María Emilia Román, a 69-year-old woman from Ponce, said she was flying as scheduled on Monday from Miami.
Román, who was in a wheelchair, said she hoped “in God that everything was alright in her home,” in the southern city, the largest in a region hit hard by the storm. Its own local airport runway was flooded.
FEMA pledges ‘long term’ help
President Joe Biden, who on Sunday signed an emergency declaration for the island, said the federal government has “hundreds of personnel on the ground” and urged residents to “heed the warnings of state and local officials.”
“Jill and I are keeping the people of Puerto Rico in our prayers as Hurricane Fiona passes over your beautiful island,” Biden tweeted Monday morning. “We are here for you, and we will get through this together.”
At the press conference, Pierluisi said his contact with Biden has been “exemplary” and there are 300 officials from FEMA “dedicated exclusively to this response.” FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell is set to travel to Puerto Rico Tuesday.
The response will be a test for the Biden administration and the federal agency, which was criticized for reacting too slowly in the wake or Maria while Donald Trump was president.
In an interview, Keith Turi, assistant administrator of the FEMA Recovery Directorate, said that the island is better able to withstand and recover from the damage of Hurricane Fiona than it was in 2017, when Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
“There’s still a long way to go to get where we really need to be and where Puerto Rico wants to be in terms of resilient infrastructure, but there has been a lot of progress that’s been made,” Turi said. “Overall, I think we and Puerto Rico are in a much better place and better positioned for this storm than we were five years ago.”
He did caution, however, that it’s a “little early” for federal and local officials to assess the full damage of the storm. But he said the agency is preparing to respond to any part of the island most in need of help.
Restoring lost electrical power will be a priority, he said, and the agency plans to plans to continue helping Puerto Rico recover for as long as it takes. He noted that Maria struck almost exactly five years ago — Wednesday is the anniversary.
“Our hearts go out to those that are suffering a loss again, and we’re going to be with the people of Puerto Rico for the long term,” Turi said
Impact in the Dominican Republic
While Fiona continued to drench Puerto Rico on Monday night, the eye of the storm and its 100 mph sustained winds had moved north of the Dominican Republic, where it made landfall around 3 a.m. Listin Diario, a local paper, reported at least one death, after the storm knocked a tree onto a 65-year-old man.
Fiona was the first hurricane to hit the Dominican Republic since Ivan in 2004. It knocked out power for tens of thousands of homes, felled trees that blocked highways, overflowed rivers and tore roofs off buildings throughout the country. Dominican officials reported that almost 60 aqueducts were knocked out by the storm, leaving close to a million people without water.
President Luis Abinader pledged on Twitter Monday to “restore the drinking water service and electricity service as soon as possible, guaranteeing citizen security in the provinces affected by Hurricane Fiona.”
Fiona slammed the eastern end of the Dominican Republic, particularly the province la Altagracia, where the Duey River overflowed, according to El Caribe.
The mayor of la Altagracia, Manolín Ramírez, told the TV program Telesistema that Fiona’s winds broke the windows of city hall, and its floodwaters trapped at least three people in cars. They can’t be rescued until the waters recede.
The newspaper’s editorial board, in a column titled “Deliver us from all evil,” noted that although government officials called for mandatory evacuations ahead of the story, not all of the hurricane shelters needed were actually available and ready.
Fiona also washed away a major new tourist attraction, the Miches Pier, in the province of el Seibo, according to Diario Libre.
In Haiti, which could see some flooding from Fiona’s rain, the Office of Civil Protection confirmed to the Herald that looters had raided at least six of ten government warehouses full of hurricane supplies, with a seventh under threat. Gangs blocked fuel distribution at the Varreux port terminal amid days of violent protests, looting and demand for the Prime Minister’s resignation after an announced hike in fuel prices.
Officials in Turks and Caicos raced to prepare for the hurricane, which is expected to swipe the islands on Tuesday with winds topping about 115 mph. Shelters are open and businesses faced a 3 p.m. curfew.
Only one island in the Bahamas — Mayaguana — was expected to feel significant impacts from Fiona, Capt. Stephen Russell, head of the National Emergency Management Authority, told the Miami Herald. The Bahamas sent a mail boat to the island with supplies for its 173 residents and activated shelters. “They are in good shape,” Russell said.
Over the weekend, the Bahamas canceled all leave for members of its Defense Force in anticipation of Fiona.
In Haiti, authorities remain on alert and said it is too early to say if the disaster-prone nation managed to avoid another possible one. With experts expecting heavy rains in the northern regions of Haiti, interim Prime Minister Ariel Henry appealed for calm Sunday night, amid days of violent protests and looting.
McClatchy Staff Writer Alex Roarty, el Nuevo Herald Staff Writer Antonio Maria Delgado and Miami Herald Staff Writer Omar Rodríguez Ortiz contributed to this report. Miami Herald Staff Writer Syra Ortiz-Blanes reported from San Juan.