Hurricane Fiona dumped torrential rains on the Dominican Republic on Monday after triggering major flooding in Puerto Rico and widespread power outages in the two Caribbean islands.
The storm upgraded to a Category 2 hurricane on Monday evening, the U.S. National Hurricane Center (NHC) said, forecasting continued rains and possible further catastrophic flooding overnight in Puerto Rico and across eastern Dominican Republic.
The NHC said the hurricane continued to strengthen and warned that “life-threatening and catastrophic flooding and mudslides” were possible.
Several roads were flooded or cut by fallen trees or electric poles around the Dominican seaside resort of Punta Cana where the electricity was cut, an AFP journalist said on the spot.
President Luis Abinader declared three eastern provinces to be disaster areas: La Altagracia, home to the tourist resort of Punta Cana, El Seibo and Hato Mayor.
Local media footage showed residents of the east coast town of Higuey waist deep in water, trying to retrieve their belongings.
With 18 of the island’s 32 provinces on red alert, nearly 800 people have taken refuge in safe areas, according to emergency services.
Fiona was packing maximum sustained winds of 100 miles per hour (155 kilometers per hour), according to the NHC which expected it to strengthen into a Category 3 storm on Tuesday, making it the first major Atlantic hurricane to hit. this season.
After passing near the Turks and Caicos Islands late Monday or early Tuesday, the storm is expected to track north later in the week into the ocean, although it could come dangerously close to tiny Bermuda.
In Puerto Rico, where the rain was still pounding, Governor Pedro Pierluisi said the storm had caused catastrophic damage since Sunday, with some areas facing more than 30 inches (76 centimeters) of rain.
“It’s completely underwater.” Puerto Rican pilot Carlos Benitez says as he flies over the town of Toa Baja, a municipality along the north coast of the island.
—Anaridis Rodriguez (@Anaridis) September 19, 2022
Nelly Marrero returned Monday afternoon to her home in Toa Baja, in the north of the American island territory, to clean the mud that had accumulated inside after its evacuation the day before.
“Thank God I have food and water,” she told AFP by phone, after losing everything when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico five years ago.
Hearing the flood warning sound, Marrero headed into the rain with her daughter and three toddler grandchildren, seeking refuge with a relative.
“It was very difficult with the babies – they were crying, they didn’t understand what was going on,” she said.
In Puerto Rico, Fiona caused landslides, blocked roads and toppled trees, power lines and bridges, Pierluisi said.
A man was killed as an indirect result of the power outage – burned to d*ath as he tried to fill up his generator, authorities said.
Fernando Vera, a resident of the town of Utuado, told US broadcaster NPR that his family never fully recovered from the devastation of Maria, one of two hurricanes to hit the island in 2017, with Irma.
“We’re still struggling with the aftermath of Maria and it’s kind of hard to know that we’re probably going to have to start over,” Vera said.
The governor said Fiona had caused “unprecedented” flooding.
“Unfortunately we are expecting more rain all over the island today and tomorrow,” he said.
Most of Puerto Rico, an island of three million people, was without power, but power was restored Monday for about 100,000 customers, the governor said.
The hurricane also left about 196,000 people without clean water due to power outages and flooded rivers, officials said.
Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 1 hurricane, at the lower end of the five-level Saffir-Simpson scale.
Prior to that, the storm claimed one life – a man killed after his house was swept away by floods in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, while Fiona was still classified as a tropical storm.
US President Joe Biden has declared a state of emergency in Puerto Rico, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide assistance.
The former Spanish colony became an American territory at the end of the 19e century before gaining Associated Free State status in 1950.
After years of financial hardship and recession, in 2017 Puerto Rico declared the largest bankruptcy ever undertaken by a local US government.
Later that year, Irma and Maria’s double whammy added to the misery, devastating the island’s power grid, which has suffered from major infrastructure problems for years.
The network was privatized in June 2021 in a bid to solve the problem of power cuts, but the problem persisted and the whole island lost power earlier this year.
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