HAVANA — Puerto Ricans braced for strong winds and rain as Tropical Storm Fiona swept through when it was expected to develop into a hurricane before hitting the southern coast of US territory on Sunday.
Forecasters said “historic” rain levels are expected to produce landslides and heavy flooding, with up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) predicted in isolated areas.
“It’s time to act and worry,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico’s emergency management commissioner.
Fiona was centered 65 miles (105 kilometers) southeast of Ponce, Puerto Rico, early Sunday. It had maximum sustained winds of 70 mph (110 km/h) and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 km/h).
The storm was expected to hit cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast that have yet to fully recover from a series of strong earthquakes that hit the region beginning in late 2019.
More than 100 people had sought refuge across the island by Saturday night, the majority of them in the southern coastal town of Guayanilla.
Anxiety was high across the island with Fiona just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that hit on September 20, 2017 knocking out the island’s power grid and causing nearly 3,000 dead.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who’ve lived through Maria have this post-traumatic stress of, ‘What’s going to happen, how long is this going to last and what needs could we to be confronted? said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital city of San Juan but planned to ride out the storm with his parents and family in the western town of Mayaguez.
He said the atmosphere was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others stocked up before the storm hit.
“After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some degree,” he said.
Many Puerto Ricans were also concerned about power outages. Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, warned of “widespread service interruptions”. Sunday morning, more than 128,700 customers were without electricity.
Puerto Rico’s power grid was flattened by Hurricane Maria and remains fragile, with reconstruction having only recently begun. Breakdowns are daily.
Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said he was ready to declare a state of emergency if necessary and activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season neared. .
“What worries me the most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was expected to drop 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) in isolated spots.
The National Weather Service warned late Saturday that the Blanco River in the southeastern coastal town of Naguabo had already overshot its banks and urged people living nearby to move immediately.
Fiona was expected to sweep across the Dominican Republic on Monday, then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands under threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far south of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning has been issued for the east coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.
Fiona has already battered the eastern Caribbean, killing a man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods washed away his home, officials said. The storm also damaged roads, uprooted trees and destroyed at least one bridge.
Saint Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees and announced that its international airport would reopen on Sunday afternoon. Dozens of customers were still without power or water, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
In the Eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline was expected to bring heavy rain and flooding to parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 165 miles (265 kilometers) south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes on Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).