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Already flooded, Puerto Rico awaits intense rains and floods in aftermath of Hurricane Fiona

Sept. 19, 2022 Updated Mon., Sept. 19, 2022 at 9:44 p.m.

By Alex Harris, Syra Ortiz-Blanes and Jacqueline Charles Miami Herald

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 news conference. He said more than 1,000 people had already been rescued from their homes.

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 , 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 all right in her home,” in the southern city, the largest in a region hit hard by the storm. Its own local airport runway was flooded.

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 . “We are here for you, and we will get through this together.”

At the news 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.

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.”

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