CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) – Hurricane Fiona has left dozens of families stranded across Puerto Rico after destroying roads and bridges, and authorities are still struggling to reach people four days after the storm hit the U.S. territory, causing historic flooding.
For now, government officials are working with religious groups, nonprofits and others battling mudslides, thick mud and broken asphalt to provide food, water and medicine to people in need, but are under pressure to clear the road so vehicles can enter isolated areas soon.
Nino Correa, commissioner of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency, estimated that at least six municipalities across the island had areas cut off by Fiona, which struck as a Category 1 hurricane and was up to Category 4 strength on Wednesday as it headed toward Bermuda.
In one of those areas lives Manuel Veguilla, who hasn’t been able to leave his neighborhood in the northern mountain town of Caguas since Fiona walked in on Sunday.
“We are all isolated,” he said, adding that he worries about his elderly neighbors, including his older brother who doesn’t have the strength to make the long walk to the nearest community.
Veguilla heard municipal officials could open the road Thursday, but he doubts that will happen because he said large rocks covered a nearby bridge and the 10-foot space below it.
Neighbors shared food and water delivered by nonprofit groups, and the elderly woman’s son was able to bring basic supplies on foot Wednesday, he said.
Veguilla said that after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that struck five years ago and left nearly 3,000 dead, he and others used pickaxes and shovels to clear the debris. But Fiona was different, she set off huge landslides.
“I can’t throw those stones over my shoulder,” he said.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans after Fiona, Veguilla had no running water or electricity, but he said there was a natural water source nearby.
Fiona caused an island-wide blackout when it hit the southwestern region of Puerto Rico, which is still trying to recover from a series of strong earthquakes in recent years. About 70% of 1.47 million customers were without power three days after the storm due to an extreme heat warning issued by the National Weather Service. About 40% of customers, i.e. more than half a million, did not have water supply.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency sent hundreds of additional personnel to assist local officials as the federal government approved a major disaster declaration and declared a public health emergency on the island.
Neither local nor federal government officials have released any damage estimates as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from the storm, which dropped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas. More than 1,000 people remained in shelters.
“Our hearts go out to the people of Puerto Rico who have suffered so much over the past few years,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of operations and logistics at the Red Cross.
After Puerto Rico, Fiona pummeled the Dominican Republic and then raced past the Turks and Caicos Islands as it strengthened into a Category 4 storm. Officials there reported relatively little damage and no deaths, although the eye of the storm on Tuesday passed close to Grand Turk, the main the islands of the small British territory.
“God has been good to us and kept us during this time when we could have had a much worse outcome,” said Lieutenant Governor Anya Williams.
Fiona is forecast to pass near Bermuda early Friday and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturday, the US National Hurricane Center said.
The center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 215 km/h late Wednesday. It was centered about 550 miles (885 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, and was moving north at 10 mph (17 km/h). It is forecast to pass near Bermuda early Friday.