Hurricane Fiona intensifies after hitting Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People clear a road from a fallen tree after Hurricane Fiona affected the Joco region of Puerto Rico on September 18, 2022.REUTERS/Riccardo Aduungo

By Ivelisse Rivera and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico/San Domingo (Reuters) – Hurricane Fiona churned north on Monday night after it brought heavy rain and strong winds to the Dominican Republic and triggered a complete power outage in neighboring Puerto Rico that killed at least two people.

A Category 1 hurricane could become a Category 3 hurricane as it moves through warm Caribbean waters toward the Turks and Caicos Islands.

On Tuesday, the Fiona Center is expected to pass near or east of the archipelago, which currently has a hurricane warning in place, the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said. Tropical storms are also expected in the Bahamas.

Fiona made landfall near Boca Yuma, Dominican Republic, at 3:30 a.m. local time after strafing Puerto Rico, according to the NHC. The center of the storm had reached the northern coast of Hispanola by noon.

It was the first hurricane to hit the country directly since Jenny wreaked havoc in the eastern part of the country in September 2018.

Fiona caused severe flooding that isolated several villages and left some 800 evacuees and more than 11,000 without power in the eastern part of the country.

“The loss is considerable,” said Dominican Republic President Luis Abinad. He plans to declare a state of disaster in La Altagracia province, where the popular Punta Cana resorts of El Seibo and Hato Mayor are located.

In La Altagracia, the easternmost part of the country, where the hurricane made landfall on Monday morning, overflow from the Yuma River damaged agricultural areas and cut off several towns.

Electricity and water companies are working to restore service to areas that have lost supply.

In Puerto Rico, a U.S. possession, residents still faced strong winds, frequent lightning and heavy rain.

Fiona made landfall there on Sunday afternoon, dumping up to 30 inches (76.2 centimeters) of rain in some areas.

The storm came five years after the U.S. Caribbean was ravaged by Hurricane Maria, which triggered the nation’s worst power outages.

U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi on Monday, promising to increase the number of support personnel sent to the island in the coming days.

“The president has indicated that he will ensure that federal teams continue to work to get the job done,” the White House said.

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Administrator Deanne Criswell will be there on Tuesday.

Jeannette Rivera, a 54-year-old publicist in Orlando, Florida, said she hadn’t spoken to her family since a spotty phone call early Sunday.

She worries about the safety of her parents and the health of her 84-year-old father, who has just contracted COVID-19 and is running a fever.

“My concern is that if they need help, they won’t be able to communicate,” Rivera said.

no power

Nearly 90 percent of Puerto Rico remained without power Monday, according to Poweroutage.us. Officials said it would take days to reconnect the entire island of 3.3 million people.

Many roads are impassable due to fallen trees and mudslides. Pictures on social media depicted submerged cars, people wading in waist-deep water and rescue boats floating on swampy streets. Only 30% of drinking water customers are served.

Crews rescued about 400 people from flooding in the southern town of Salinas, where the rain had turned to drizzle. The southern and southeastern regions were the worst hit.

Despite emergency repairs after Maria caused the largest blackout in U.S. history in September 2017, Puerto Rico’s power grid remains vulnerable, according to the Center for the New Economy, a Puerto Rico think tank.

In that Category 5 storm that killed more than 3,000 people, 1.5 million customers lost power and 80 percent of power lines were knocked out. Thousands of Puerto Ricans still live under makeshift tarpaulin roofs.

While the National Weather Service lifted its hurricane warning for Puerto Rico on Monday, officials warned that bands of rain could follow the storm system for hundreds of miles.

A 70-year-old man in the northern town of Arecibo was Puerto Rico’s first known casualty. He was trying to start his generator when the machine exploded and died at the scene, police said.

A second person drowned in the afternoon. An 88-year-old woman also died of a heart attack at the shelter, police said.

Hundreds of responders are assisting with recovery efforts after Biden declared a state of emergency on the island, allowing FEMA to coordinate disaster relief and provide emergency protection.

Pierluisi said the government’s response was much more effective than during Hurricane Maria, because the administration of former President Trump was highly politicized for being too slow to provide relief. Trump refuted this.

The government has yet to estimate the damage because it is still in the response period, although the governor said it was in the millions.

For most of the five years since Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, the indebted government and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) have been mired in bankruptcy, with island finances run by a federally appointed oversight board.

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