Puerto Rico asks US to declare major disaster amid damage from Fiona
By Marina Villen and Esther Alaejos
San Juan/Naranjito, Sep 20 (EFE).- The government of Puerto Rico on Tuesday asked the United States to declare a “major disaster” on the island due to the damage caused by Hurricane Fiona, which hit the island on the weekend, destroying many homes and much infrastructure and leaving a large portion of the public without electricity or potable water.
Almost five years to the day after Hurricane Maria devastated the island on Sept. 20, 2017, a blow from which Puerto Rico still has not recovered, the situation there has worsened dramatically for the local population.
“I thought I was going to lose the house,” Jose Morales, a resident of the town of Naranjito, in the central mountains, told EFE, adding that his home was seriously damaged by the collapse of a nearby rain-soaked hillside.
Morales also said he was afraid that a house located farther up the hillside might slide into his own home. “We had never seen such heavy rain, it was terrible,” he said, visibly anxious.
In an attempt to alleviate the situation, Gov. Pedro Pierluisi announced that he will send a request to declare a “major disaster” to US President Joe Biden, who has promised to give priority to the matter and who on Sunday had already approved the declaration of a federal emergency.
Pierluisi said at a press conference that if a disaster is declared this would free up economic aid from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) to provide emergency services and other aid to people affected by the storm.
FEMA will also send hundreds of additional personnel to Puerto Rico to respond to the emergency and the agency’s administrator, Deanne Criswell, will arrive on the island on Tuesday to evaluate the situation and determine the resources needed to support local authorities and the public in recovering from Fiona.
The governor said that he will do what is needed so that Puerto Rico recovers as quickly as possible from this new disaster, adding that it could take a week to determine the extent of the damage.
So far, there is no word on how many people may have died as a result of the storm, although preliminary reports indicate that at least eight people have lost their lives as a direct or indirect result. One man is known to have been swept away by floodwaters, another man died when an electric generator exploded and still others apparently died from natural causes, for instance heart attacks.
Among the damage left by the Category 1 storm on the 5-point Saffir-Simpson scale, which made landfall on the island’s southeastern coast on Sunday, are impassable roadways, extensive flooding, destroyed homes and downed trees and power poles.
On one of the roadways connecting San Juan with the town of Naranjito, several teams were working to remove downed trees and other debris so that full access to the town can be restored.
“Hurricane Fiona affected the town of Naranjito in multiple ways such as landslides onto state and municipal roads, which are the main access routes,” interim Mayor Rafael Rodriguez told EFE.
The mayor also said that the La Plata and Guadiana Rivers overflowed into the town causing damage and flooding, with mud cascading into a number of homes and all electric and water service knocked out.
Some 80 percent of the island on Tuesday was without power, according to figures provided by LUMA Energy, the firm tasked with transmitting and distributing electricity. So far, electric service has been restored to some 300,000 of the company’s more then 1.4 million customers.
LUMA Energy public safety director Abner Gomez said at a press conference that the number of customers who have had power restored could rise in the coming hours as the company’s helicopters finalize their inspection of the transmission lines from the Costa Sur power station.
In addition, Pierluisi said that by Wednesday a “large portion” of the public will have electric service restored except in the southern part of the island and the central mountains, including Naranjito, where he said that it will take “a little longer.”
Meanwhile, the Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (AAA) said that 55 percent of the public does not have potable water service, a total of almost 700,000 people, although that appears to be a somewhat smaller number than were without water on Monday.
AAA CEO Doriel Pagan said that the lower figure is due to the fact that more than 50 percent of the island’s reservoirs were impacted by the torrential rains brought by the storm and that many filtration plants have been knocked offline due to obstructions or the turbidity of the water that is available to be processed.
Despite the precariousness of the situation, the aim is to gradually get things back to normal and officials have been instructed to return to their places of work on Wednesday.