(NEW YORK) — Hurricane Fiona strengthened to a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, after killing at least four people in Puerto Rico and leaving the entire island without power.
The storm dropped 6 to 20 inches of rain in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with up to 30 inches of rain falling in southern and southeastern Puerto Rico. The rain caused rivers to rise over their banks and triggered rock and mudslides, according to officials with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
As of early Wednesday morning, the storm system was carrying maximum sustained winds of 130 miles per hour as it moved away from Turks and Caicos after dropping heavy rains over parts of the islands. Winds could possibly increase to 140 mph, according to the National Weather Service.
Fiona is expected to move parallel to the eastern United States, passing between the East Coast and Bermuda late Thursday into early Friday, the National Weather Service said.
The East Coast could see high surf, rip currents and even coastal flooding over the coming days. Meanwhile, a tropical storm watch remains in effect for Bermuda, which could see heavy rain, gusty winds and coastal flooding on Thursday night and Friday morning, according to the National Weather Service.
FEMA officials said during a press conference Tuesday that at least four people have died in Puerto Rico due to Fiona. A public health emergency was declared in the U.S. territory.
On Monday, officials reported that one person was killed as the then-Category 1 storm slammed the island. The Arecibo resident was attempting to fill his generator with gasoline while it was on, causing an ignition, officials said.
No one has been reported missing as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Steve Goldstein, the National Weather Service’s liaison to FEMA.
FEMA officials were still assessing the extent of the damage in Puerto Rico, saying it is too early to estimate the financial impact of the storm.
Fiona made a second landfall Monday in the Dominican Republic near Boca de Yuma on the eastern side of the island with sustained winds of 90 mph and even higher gusts.
Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi warned residents that more rain was expected on the island through Tuesday evening.
“We are going through a difficult moment but our people are strong and very generous,” he said during a press conference.
Four helicopters are in the air surveying damage from Fiona. The governor said it would take at least a week to determine the extent of the damage left by the storm.
In addition to the four deaths cited by FEMA, at least two other people died in a shelter due to natural causes, but those have not been labeled as storm-related, Pierluisi said.
Restoring power in Puerto Rico
LUMA Energy said that only 300,000 out of 1.5 million clients have had power restored on the island as of Tuesday morning, with more expected in the coming days.
“We assure you that a large part of Puerto Rico will have electricity today and tomorrow,” Abner Gomez, spokesperson for LUMA Energy, said at a press conference Tuesday.
In an update Tuesday afternoon, FEMA said that 80% of customers still remain without power.
The governor said Monday the goal is for “a large number of LUMA customers” to have power “in a matter of days.” However, LUMA said in a statement Sunday that “full power restoration could take several days.”
Hospitals on the island are currently operating on generators, according to the governor.
Only 34% of households on the island have potable water after rivers grew and heavy rainfall impacted the system — meaning more than 834,000 people are without drinking water, the governor said Monday.
More than 1,000 people have been rescued by authorities, including a woman rescued Sunday who was stuck in a tree for seven hours after trying to look at the damage, officials said.
Heavy rainfall causes flooding across the island
Fiona strengthened to a hurricane from a tropical storm Sunday morning. The National Hurricane Center said Fiona made landfall in southwestern Puerto Rico on Sunday at 3:20 p.m. ET, dumping torrential rain on much of the island.
Some regions measured up to 25 inches of rain by 8 a.m. Monday.
A flash flood emergency was issued due to many rivers rising very quickly out of their banks. The Rio Grande de Arecido river rose 13 feet in one hour.
A bridge near Utuado, a town in the central mountainous region of the island, has collapsed, cutting off the communities of Salto Arriba and Guaonico, local newspaper El Vocero de Puerto Rico reported.
The portion of the bridge that collapsed is on Highway 123, a branch of Highway 10, which serves as a link between both roads and is one of the accesses to the University of Puerto Rico at Utuado campus, according to El Vocero.
The bridge, installed by the National Guard following Hurricane Maria, cost about $3 million to construct, the newspaper reported.
The rain saturated areas in the southeastern part of Puerto Rico, along with the mountainous areas, where potential mudslides could cause the most damage.
Prior to landfall, Pierluisi said Puerto Rico was prepared as it could be, with enough resources and manpower in place to respond — adding that the island learned its lessons from the devastating effects of Hurricane Maria in September 2017.
“We’re much in a much better position than we were five years ago,” he said.
Where Fiona heads next
After passing through the Caribbean, the storm system will head northward, passing just east of Turks and Caicos before tracking near Bermuda, forecasts show. The storm system will continue to gradually strengthen in the coming days as it moves north and then northeast this week.
The Dominican Republic is expected to receive up to 10 inches and some regions in Turks and Caicos are expected to see 8 inches of rain.
On Tuesday, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic will continue to see gradually improving conditions, however, lingering showers and thunderstorms will still be likely, potentially impacting initial cleanup and recovery efforts.
Winds could be as high as 125 mph as the storm passes near Bermuda, bringing strong winds, heavy rain and storm surge. The latest model shows Bermuda will not see a direct hit, with the worst of the storm passing just west of the island.
While it won’t make landfall in the U.S., the hurricane will affect the entire East Coast with huge waves, rip currents and coastal flooding from Florida to Maine as it moves northward.
President Joe Biden approved an emergency declaration for Puerto Rico on Sunday, which allows federal agencies to coordinate all relief efforts.
Biden’s decision has the “purpose of alleviating the hardship and suffering caused by the emergency on the local population, and to provide appropriate assistance for required emergency measures, authorized under Title V of the Stafford Act, to save lives and to protect property and public health and safety, and to lessen or avert the threat of a catastrophe in all 78 municipalities in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico,” the White House said in a statement.
FEMA Administrator Deanna Criswell arrived in Puerto Rico on Tuesday to coordinate the emergency response, the White House said. “Hundreds” of federal responders are already on the island, including members of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
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