Forecasters said the storm threatened to dump “historic” levels of rain on Sunday and Monday, with a chance of up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) in eastern and southern Puerto Rico.
“The damage we are seeing is catastrophic,” Governor Pedro Pierluisi said.
The storm washed away a bridge in the central mountain city of Utuado that police say was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria in 2017. Large landslides were also reported, with water running down large slabs of broken asphalt. and into ravines.
Fiona was centered 45 miles (75 kilometers) south-southeast of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph) on Sunday night, according to the US National Hurricane Center. It was moving west-northwest at 10 mph (17 kph).
Fiona struck on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which hit Puerto Rico 33 years ago as a Category 3 storm.
Storm clouds blanketed the entire island, and tropical storm-force winds extended up to 140 miles (220 kilometers) from the center of Fiona.
US President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in the US territory as the eye of the storm approached the southwestern corner of the island.
Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, said bad weather, including 80mph winds, had disrupted transmission lines, causing “an island-wide blackout.”
“Current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hampering the ability to assess the full situation,” he said, adding that it could take several days to fully restore power.
The health centers were running on generators, and some of them had failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews scrambled to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, where several patients had to be evacuated.
Fiona arrived just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that hit on September 20, 2017, destroying the island’s power grid and causing nearly 3,000 deaths.
More than 3,000 homes still have only a blue tarp for a roof, and infrastructure remains weak, including the power grid. Outages are still common, and rebuilding only recently began.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who live in Maria have that post-traumatic stress of ‘What’s going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs can we face?’” said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital of San Juan, but planned to weather it. the storm with his parents and family in the western city of Mayagüez.
He said the mood was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others stocked up before the storm hit.
“After Maria, we all experience scarcity to some degree,” he said.
The storm was forecast to hit cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast that have yet to fully recover from a series of strong earthquakes that began in late 2019.
More than 1,000 people with about 80 pets had sought shelter across the island by Sunday night, most of them on the south coast.
Ada Vivian Román, a 21-year-old photography student, said the storm toppled trees and fences in her hometown of Toa Alta.
“I’m actually very anxious because it’s a very slow hurricane and time doesn’t move,” she said. “You look at the clock and it’s still the same time.”
He said he also worries whether the public transportation he relies on to get to his job at a public relations agency will be working by the time he has to return to the office.
“But I know that I am privileged compared to other families who are practically losing their houses because they are under water,” she said.
In the southwestern city of El Combate, hotel co-owner Tomás Rivera said he was prepared but concerned about the “enormous” amount of rain expected. He noted that a nearby wildlife refuge was eerily quiet before the storm hit.
“There are thousands of birds here, and they are nowhere to be seen,” he said. “Even the birds have realized what is coming and are preparing.”
Rivera said his employees brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he has stocked up on diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given how slowly the government responded after Hurricane Maria.
“What we have done is prepare ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government,” he said.
Puerto Rico Governor Pierluisi activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approached.
“What worries me most is the rain,” said meteorologist Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was predicted to drop 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) in isolated spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria in 2017 had unleashed 40 inches (102 centimeters).
Fiona is forecast to hit the Dominican Republic on Monday and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with the threat of heavy rain. She could threaten the southern tip of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning was posted for the east coast of the Dominican Republic from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Francés Viejo.
Fiona previously hit the eastern Caribbean, killing a man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floodwaters washed away his home, authorities said. The storm also damaged roads, uprooted trees and destroyed at least one bridge.
St. Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees, but announced its international airport would reopen Sunday afternoon.
In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline is forecast to bring heavy rain and flooding to parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 160 miles (260 kilometers) west-southwest of Cabo Corrientes on Sunday night, with maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kph).
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