Puerto Rico was without power as nightfall approached Sunday amid catastrophic flooding, hurricane-force winds and the destruction of at least one bridge, five years nearly to the day after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Hurricane Fiona made landfall at 3: 20 p.m. and quickly caused upheaval, with government officials saying they were prepared to evacuate residents of hard-hit areas.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said at a news conference Sunday that the tropical cyclone came “directly for the island.” Later, in a statement, he said that the eye of the storm was headed away but that the storm’s impacts would continue through at least Monday.
Nearly 1.5 million utility customers were left without power, thanks to winds estimated at 85 mph, well above minimum hurricane force. The National Hurricane Center said Puerto Rico could get 12 to 18 inches of rain, with 30 inches possible in some areas.
The government said in a statement late Sunday that an estimated 196,000 people were without potable water as a result of the storm. Officials counted 1,033 evacuees in 130 storm shelters set up for Fiona, it said. And about one in five cellphone towers were inoperable, the government said.
Pierluisi said the storm dumped 9 to 13 inches of rain in five hours.
“These rains will produce life-threatening and catastrophic flash and urban flooding across Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic, along with mudslides and landslides in areas of higher terrain,” the hurricane center said in an early evening advisory.
Earlier, Pierluisi tried to reassure Puerto Ricans that the government was prepared for the worst, saying in a statement that the necessary protocols were in place.
First responders were answering calls to emergencies in which people’s lives were in danger, he said.
The number of customers without power was 1,468,223, according to poweroutage.us. That includes businesses, households and other accounts with multiple people who receive electricity.
Island utility LUMA Energy said in its own statement that it might need several days to restore power, given the dangerous conditions on the island Sunday night and the widespread nature of the outage.
It said the energy grid suffered multiple outages along transmission lines, which contributed to the islandwide blackout.
Later Sunday night, LUMA said it had deployed nearly 2,000 workers and had five helicopters at the ready in order to respond to outages. In a statement, the utility touted electricity restoration work in the mountain town of Ciales, where lines were taken out by downed trees and branches.
The struggle for electricity recalled the bitter memory of one of the worst storms to ever hit Puerto Rico, Hurricane Maria, the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. territory in 100 years.
The storm, which was blamed for 2,975 deaths, struck Sept. 20, 2017, and quickly exposed the island’s grid as deteriorating.
The resulting blackout, which lasted nearly 11 months, became the world’s second longest.
Maria was preceded by Irma, which struck the Florida Keys on Sept. 10 as a category 3 hurricane. It was eventually blamed for 10 fatalities.
FEMA on Sunday said it felt Puerto Ricans’ pain as another tropical cyclone threatened to upend daily life.
“We understand many are reliving the trauma of Hurricane Maria & Irma, 5 years later,” the agency tweeted. “They have our full support now & for as long as it takes to recover.”
Fiona continued to press relentless rain and whipping gusts into island communities Sunday night.
In the coastal city of Ponce a roof made in part of asphalt was peeled from a structure and blown into a number of parked vehicles, according to an independent news crew and video reviewed by NBC News.
There were reports of gusts surpassing 100 mph in the area.
What appeared to be a vehicle bridge in the town of Utuado, in the mountainous Cordillera Central region, was washed away by storm water, according to multiple videos obtained by NBC News.
Video showed floodwaters where there used to be a river, downed power lines and property damage in the southern towns of Yauco and Guayanilla.
Julia Nazario Fuentes, mayor of coastal town Loiza, told residents to evacuate, warning them that the rising river of the same name would put even the second levels of two-story buildings under the waterline.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Sunday that two members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 Urban Search & Rescue were expected to travel to Puerto Rico with a federal incident support team.
He said the first responders were prepared to be in Puerto Rico for as long as two weeks.
Earlier, President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency for the island. That freed federal emergency response efforts to assist local rescuers, and it makes Federal Emergency Management Agency cash and assistance available for Puerto Ricans affected by Fiona.
Biden was briefed on the situation in Puerto Rico during his trip abroad, a senior administration official said.
The official added that FEMA will have 1,000 staffers on the ground once 300 additional workers are deployed specifically for Fiona.
Forecasters called for much of the same wind and rain for nearly two days.
A hurricane warning was in effect for Puerto Rico and the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Francés Viejo, the National Hurricane Center said earlier Sunday.
It means residents could expect hurricane conditions, with sustained surface winds of at least 74 mph, in the next 24 hours, the center said. “Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” it said.
A 48-hour hurricane watch was in effect for the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Francés Viejo to Puerto Plata.
Fiona “jogged westward” for a few hours Sunday evening, the Hurricane Center said in a late-night public advisory. The move was unexpected, but forecasters say the tropical cyclone will most likely return to its expected track and head northeast.
In its last public advisory of Sunday, the center said Fiona was nearing the Dominican Republic’s southeastern coast. It was 45 miles south-southeast of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, it said, and catastrophic
The system’s 85-mph, hurricane-force winds, which could be felt as far as 30 miles away from the eye, would remain as a factor overnight, the center said.
The storm was expected to move near or to the east of Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday. The National Hurricane Center said the government of the Bahamas late Sunday upgraded its tropical storm warning for the Turks and Caicos to a more cautionary hurricane warning.
Storm surges of 3 to 5 feet were possible for the Puerto Rican coast, and life-threatening surf in parts of the Windward Islands, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the northern coast of the Dominican Republic was predicted, U.S. forecasters said.
Winds could get even stronger over the next two days, according to the National Hurricane Center, which added that the hurricane was also expected to bring torrential rains, flash flooding and mudslides to the Dominican Republic.
The British and U.S. Virgin Islands, the Turks and Caicos and the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic could get 3 to 8 inches of rain as the storm approached.
Pierluisi announced Sunday on Twitter that classes in the island’s public schools will be canceled Monday, as will work in government agencies, other than first responders and essential personnel.
The governor also said on Twitter on Sunday that people in flood-prone areas should evacuate, and that 118 shelters are open.
Pierluisi said $550 million in emergency funds were available to deal with the hurricane’s aftermath, along with enough food to feed 200,000 people for 20 days three times a day.
The governor previously said the expected heavy rains are dangerous because the island’s soil is already saturated.
One hurricane-related death was reported in the French territory of Guadeloupe, where more than 20 people were rescued in heavy wind and rain that left 13,000 customers without power.
Regional prefect Alexandre Rochatte told reporters Saturday that the body was found on the side of a road after floods washed away a home in the capital, Basse-Terre.