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Hurricane Fiona rips through powerless Puerto Rico, Hundreds evacuated

Havana, September 19: Hurricane Fiona struck Puerto Rico’s southwest coast on Sunday as it unleashed landslides, knocked the power grid out and ripped up asphalt from roads and flung the pieces around.

Hundreds of people were evacuated or rescued across the island as floodwaters rose swiftly. Rushing rivers of brown water enveloped cars, first floors and even an airport runway in the island’s southern region.

Forecasters said the storm threatened to dump “historic” levels of rain on Sunday and Monday, with up to 30 inches (76 centimetres) possible in eastern and southern Puerto Rico.

“The damages that we are seeing are catastrophic,” said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.

The storm washed away a bridge in the central mountain town of Utuado that police say was installed by the National Guard after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017. Large landslides also were reported, with water rushing down big slabs of broken asphalt and into gullies.

Fiona was centred 50 miles (85 kilometres) southeast of Punta Cana, Dominican Republic with maximum sustained winds of 85 mph (140 kph) on Sunday night, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was moving to the northwest at 9 mph (15 kph).

Fiona struck on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which hit Puerto Rico 33 years ago as a Category 3 storm.

The storm’s clouds covered the entire island and tropical storm-force winds extended as far as 140 miles (220 kilometres) from Fiona’s centre.

U.S. President Joe Biden declared a state of emergency in the U.S. territory as the eye of the storm approached the island’s southwest corner.

Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, said bad weather, including winds of 80 mph, had disrupted transmission lines, leading to “a blackout on all the island.”

“Current weather conditions are extremely dangerous and are hindering out capacity to evaluate the complete situation,” it said, adding that it could take several days to fully restore power.

Health centres were running on generators — and some of those had failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews rushed to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, where several patients had to be evacuated.

Fiona hit just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that struck on Sept. 20, 2017, destroying the island’s power grid and causing nearly 3,000 deaths.

More than 3,000 homes still have only a blue tarp as a roof, and infrastructure remains weak, including the power grid. Outages remain common, and reconstruction started only recently.

“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?’” said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital of San Juan but planned to weather 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 extent,” he said.

The storm was forecast to pummel cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast that have not yet fully recovered from a string of strong earthquakes starting in late 2019.

More than 1,000 people with some 80 pets had sought shelter across the island by Sunday night, the majority of them in the southern coast.

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