Hurricane Fiona made landfall Sunday in southwestern Puerto Rico, shortly after the entire island lost power as it got battered nearly five years to the day after blockbuster Hurricane Maria ravaged the U.S. territory.
Fiona, a Category 1 storm, reached Puerto Rico at 3:20 p.m. EDT, bringing maximum sustained winds of 85 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The system is expected to unleash historic rainfall of up to 30 inches, widespread flooding and dangerous mudslides, forecasters said.
“The damages that we are seeing are catastrophic,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said.
In the central mountain town of Utuado, the storm washed away a bridge that police say was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017.
Hundreds of people were evacuated or rescued across the island as floodwaters rose, submerging cars, first floors, and an airport runway in the island’s southern region.
LUMA Energy, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, said fierce winds disrupted transmission lines, leading to “a blackout on all the island.” Fully restoring power could take several days, LUMA said.
President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency on the territory, home to 3.2 million people, the vast majority American citizens.
Hurricane Fiona’s projected path
The eye of Fiona was heading northwest toward the eastern part of the Dominican Republic, the hurricane center said in its 5 p.m. EDT advisory, and was expected to roar near the country’s northern coast Monday before turning toward the east of the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday.
“Torrential rains and mudslides are expected across Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” the center said.
After its path through the Caribbean and Bahamas, Fiona could move on a track toward Bermuda, Accuweather said. Hurricane warnings were in effect Sunday for Puerto Rico and parts of the Dominican Republic.
Forecasters expect the hurricane to gain strength in the next two days, with wind speeds possibly reaching 115 mph.
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How much rain is expected?
Fiona was expected to drop 12 to 18 inches of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, and as much as 30 inches in isolated spots, forecasters said.
The storm could pound cities and towns along the southern coast that are still recovering from a series of powerful earthquakes that struck in 2019.
“These rains will produce life-threatening flash flooding and urban flooding across Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic, along with mudslides and landslides in areas of higher terrain,” the hurricane center warned.
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What was the storm that devastated the island?
Fiona will not be the mammoth system Hurricane Maria was when it made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, 2017, but it still poses a serious threat, Accuweather said.
Maria was devastating to the island, leading to at least 3,000 deaths. Thousands of homes, roads, and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt. The government has completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that not a single project has begun, the Associated Press reported.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, ‘What is going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs might we face?’” resident Danny Hernández said.
Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan, said he planned to ride out the storm with family in the western city of Mayaguez. Residents stocking up at grocery stores were nervous, Hernandez said.
“After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some extent,” he said.
In the southwest town of El Combate, which is in the storm’s path, hotel co-owner Tomás Rivera fretted about the amount of rain that could be unleashed.
Rivera said workers brought bedridden family members to the hotel, concerned about the slow government response after Maria. Rivera said he has diesel, gasoline, food, water, and ice on hand. “What we’ve done is prepared ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government,” he said.
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How big of a concern is the power grid?
Hurricane Maria obliterated Puerto Rico’s power grid. The grid is still very fragile and in the process of reconstruction. Outages are frequent.
LUMA warned of “widespread service interruptions” earlier Sunday. By the afternoon, the entire island was dark. More than 3,000 homes still only have a blue tarp as a roof and infrastructure remains weak.
“Current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hindering our capacity to evaluate the complete situation,” the company said, adding that power restoration could take days.
Health centers were running on generators, some of which have failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews were working to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center.
Will Fiona directly impact the mainland US?
The potential for a direct impact on the U.S. mainland has lessened since last week, Accuweather said, but the storm could whip up dangerous surf and strong rip currents along the East Coast later this week.
How has the 2022 Atlantic hurricane season gone so far?
Fiona became the third hurricane of the Atlantic season when it formed on Sunday. The season has gotten off to a slow start.
For the first time in 25 years, no hurricane had formed by August, and no storm has directly affected the mainland U.S. The first hurricane of an Atlantic season typically develops by Aug. 11, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The season officially began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. The peak of the season is usually around Sept. 17.
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Contributing: Doyle Rice and Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY; The Associated Press