Five years after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico and knocked out power to the island, residents of the territory faced another collapse of their energy grid as Hurricane Fiona — which forecasters warned could bring more than 2 1/2 feet of rain and cause life-threatening floods and landslides — made landfall.
Nearly 1.5 million customers were without electricity Sunday afternoon, according to poweroutage.us, which tracks power interruptions.
Pedro Pierluisi, the governor of Puerto Rico, said at a news conference Sunday afternoon that authorities were assessing damage and working to stave off a growing disaster. He said officials were rescuing people in isolated areas and deploying the National Guard and other personnel to evacuate low-lying areas where rivers were expected to flood.
“Hurricane Fiona has blanketed Puerto Rico,” Pierluisi said in Spanish, adding that the storm has been one of the most significant to hit since Hurricane Maria devastated it in 2017. “This has been a direct impact that has covered all of the island.”
Since Hurricane Maria, unreliable electricity has been a mainstay of life on the island, leading to a slow recovery and widespread protests by frustrated residents.
WATCH: Bridge washed away as hurricane Fiona makes landfall in Puerto Rico pic.twitter.com/1GALY42xqk
— BNO News (@BNONews) September 18, 2022
When asked what went wrong with the island’s power grid, Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Sunday that the agency’s priority was on how to meet immediate needs, and a diagnosis of what had gone wrong would have to come later.
“Our focus remains on critical needs and lifesaving efforts, should there be any, given the fact that the storm is literally hovering over the island,” Rothenberg said.
Power company LUMA warned Sunday that full power restoration could take several days. It said that the storm was “incredibly challenging” and that restoration efforts would begin when it was safe to do so.
“The current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hampering our ability to fully assess the situation,” it said on its website.
When Hurricane Maria struck the island as a Category 4 storm, it produced as much as 40 inches of rainfall and caused the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people. On Sunday morning, Fiona strengthened from a tropical storm to a Category 1 hurricane.
Fiona made landfall, meaning the eye of the storm crossed the shoreline, along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico near Punta Tocon around 3.20 pm local time, the National Hurricane Center said.
Significant flooding had already occurred, and it was likely the rain would continue through Monday morning, said Jamie Rhome, acting director of the National Hurricane Center.
“It’s basically going to park itself over the island tonight and produce very, very, very heavy rainfall,” Rhome said.
While still a tropical storm, Fiona brought flooding to Guadeloupe, an island southeast of Puerto Rico, and there was at least one storm-related death in the capital, a government official said Saturday.
The entire island of Puerto Rico was without power as Hurricane Fiona made landfall and threatened to cause ‘catastrophic flooding’ and landslides https://t.co/mPlmuME5Ne pic.twitter.com/BRR7NfDGCt
— Reuters (@Reuters) September 19, 2022
In Puerto Rico, rainfall totals could reach 12 to 16 inches, with local maximum totals of 30 inches, particularly across eastern and southern Puerto Rico, forecasters said. The rain threatened to cause not only flash flooding across Puerto Rico and portions of the eastern Dominican Republic but also mudslides and landslides.
At a Sunday morning news conference, Pierluisi urged people to stay in their homes if they could or evacuate if they lived in an area prone to landslides or floods.
Public schools on the island will be closed Monday, he said, and only public employees who perform essential roles or respond to emergencies should report to work.
President Joe Biden on Sunday approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico, which authorises federal agencies to coordinate disaster relief efforts.
Heavy rains from Fiona will continue into Sunday night in Puerto Rico, forecasters said. The storm surge and tide could flood normally dry areas along the coast, and forecasters warned that the water could reach 1 to 3 feet on the southern coast if the peak surge occurred at high tide.
The storm could bring 4 to 6 inches of rain to the British and US Virgin Islands and up to 10 inches on St. Croix, forecasters said.
The storm is expected to continue strengthening through Tuesday as it moves near the Dominican Republic, which could see hurricane conditions as soon as Sunday night. The northern and eastern parts of the country could get 4 to 8 inches of rain, with isolated areas of up to 1 foot.
If the storm continues on a north northwest track, it could possibly affect the Bahamas, the Hurricane Center said.
Tropical storm warnings were issued for Turks and Caicos and the Bahamas, including the Acklins, Crooked Island, Long Cay, Inagua, Mayaguana and the Ragged Islands.
The Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June through November, had a relatively quiet start, with only three named storms before September. There were no named storms in the Atlantic during August, the first time that happened since 1997. But storm activity picked up in early September, with Danielle and Earl, which both eventually became hurricanes, forming within a day of each other.
In early August, scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration issued an updated forecast for the rest of the season, which still called for an above-normal level of activity.
In it, they predicted the season could include 14 to 20 named storms, with six to 10 turning into hurricanes that could sustain winds of at least 74 mph. Three to five of those could strengthen into what the agency calls major hurricanes — Category 3 or stronger — with winds of at least 111 mph.
Last year, there were 21 named storms, after a record-breaking 30 in 2020. For the past two years, meteorologists have exhausted the list of names used to identify storms during the Atlantic hurricane season, an occurrence that has happened only one other time, in 2005.
The links between hurricanes and climate change have become clearer with each passing year. Data show that hurricanes have become stronger worldwide during the past four decades. A warming planet can expect stronger hurricanes over time and a higher incidence of the most powerful storms — though the overall number of storms could drop, because factors like stronger wind shear could keep weaker storms from forming.
Hurricanes are also becoming wetter because of more water vapor in the warmer atmosphere; storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 produced far more rain than they would have without the human effects on climate, scientists have suggested. Also, rising sea levels are contributing to higher storm surge — the most destructive element of tropical cyclones.
(The New York Times)