Fiona becomes a hurricane as it heads toward Puerto Rico

HAVANA — Fiona strengthened into a hurricane Sunday as it made landfall over Puerto Rico, where people braced for strong winds and heavy rain.

Forecasters said “historic” levels of rain were expected to trigger landslides and severe flooding, with up to 25 inches (64 centimeters) forecast in isolated areas.

“It’s time to take action and be concerned,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico’s emergency management commissioner.

Fiona was centered 50 miles (80 kilometers) south of Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Sunday morning. It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph (130 km/h) and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph (13 km/h).

Anxiety has run rampant on the island with Fiona due just two days before anniversary of Hurricane Mariaa devastating Category 4 storm that struck on September 20, 2017, knocked out the island’s power grid and killed nearly 3,000 people.

More than 3,000 homes still have only a blue tarp as a roof, and infrastructure remains weak.

“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress, ‘What’s going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs are we going to face?'” said Danny Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan, but plans to ride out the storm with his parents and family in the western city of Mayaguez.

He said the atmosphere at the supermarket was somber as he and others stocked up ahead of the storm.

“After Maria, we all felt shortchanged to some degree,” he said.

The storm was predicted to devastate towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast, which have yet to fully recover from a series of strong earthquakes that struck the region in late 2019.

Officials reported several road closures across the island as trees and small landslides blocked access.

More than 100 people had sought shelter across the island by Saturday night, most of them in the southern coastal town of Guayanilla.

Many Puerto Ricans were also concerned about the power outage. Luma, the company that manages the transmission and distribution of electricity, warned of “widespread service disruptions”. As of Sunday morning, more than 320,000 customers were without power.

Puerto Rico’s power grid was devastated by Hurricane Maria and remains fragile, with reconstruction only recently beginning. Interruptions are a daily occurrence.

In the southwestern town of El Combate, which is in the storm’s path, hotel co-owner Thomas Rivera said he was prepared but worried about the “enormous” amount of rain he expected. He noted that the nearby wildlife sanctuary was eerily quiet.

“There are thousands of birds here, and they are nowhere to be seen,” he said. “Even the birds have figured out what’s coming and are preparing.”

Rivera said his staff brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he stocked up on diesel fuel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given how slow the government has been to respond since Hurricane Maria.

“What we have done is to prepare ourselves to depend as little as possible on the central government,” he said.

It’s a sentiment shared by 70-year-old Ana Cordova, who arrived Saturday at a shelter in the northern coastal town of Loiza after buying plenty of food and water.

“I don’t trust them,” she said, referring to the government. “I lost confidence after what happened after Hurricane Maria.”

Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, said he was prepared to declare a state of emergency if necessary and activated the National Guard as the sixth named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season approached.

“What worries me the most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales of the National Weather Service in San Juan.

Fiona was forecast to drop 12 to 16 inches (30 to 41 centimeters) of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with as much as 25 inches (64 centimeters) in isolated locations.

The National Weather Service warned late Saturday that the Blanco River in the southeastern coastal city of Naguabo had already breached its banks and urged people living nearby to evacuate immediately.

Pierluisi announced Sunday that public schools and government agencies will remain closed Monday.

Fiona was forecast to make landfall in the Dominican Republic on Monday, then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with the threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far southern tip of the Bahamas on Tuesday.

A hurricane warning was issued for the east coast of the Dominican Republic from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.

Fiona earlier hit the eastern Caribbean, killing one 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.

St. Kitts and Nevis also reported flooding and downed trees, but said its international airport would reopen Sunday afternoon. Dozens of customers are still without power or water, according to the Caribbean Emergency Management Agency.

In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline is forecast to bring heavy rain and flooding to parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 155 miles (245 kilometers) south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes on Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph (75 kph).

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