South Florida reaching out to help Puerto Rico as Fiona brings devastation

MIAMI – Hurricane Fiona unleashed more rain on Puerto Rico on Monday, a day after the storm knocked out power and water to most of the island, and National Guard troops rescued hundreds of people who got stranded.

The governor warned that it could take days to get the lights back on.

The island is getting help from South Florida. Three members of the Miami-Dade Fire Rescue Urban Search & Rescue team, Florida Task Force 1, left for San Juan on Monday, the department said.

Several Puerto Rican organizations in South Florida met Monday afternoon to figure out how to help. They were reportedly waiting on word from the governor.

The blow from Fiona was made more devastating because Puerto Rico has yet to recover from Hurricane Maria, which killed nearly 3,000 people and destroyed the power grid in 2017. Five years later, more than 3,000 homes on the island are still covered by blue tarps.

The storm stripped pavement from roads, tore off roofs and sent torrents pouring into homes. It also took out a bridge and flooded two airports.

Authorities reported one death from the hurricane — a man swept away by a flooded river in the inland town of Comerio.

Puerto Rico officials said it was too early to know the full scope of damage. The storm was still expected to dump up to 15 inches (38 centimeters) of rain in some places as it spun away from the U.S. territory that is home to 3.2 million people.

Miriam Camacho, who lives in the town of Vega Alta, spoke to Local 10 News about the destruction Monday.

“Throughout the island there has been mud slides, the rivers overflowing, people needing to relocate,” Camacho said. “The island is going through a very tough time.”

I want to be politically correct but we have a lot of distrust in the services in the services--I mean, when will they restore power? asked Camacho. “It’s a big question mark.”

Local 10 News also spoke with some people Monday that arrived to Miami International Airport from Puerto Rico.

“I feel horrible for the people of Puerto Rico,” Mari Martin said.

Passengers described the storm’s impact on the island.

“We didn’t have electricity or water since like Saturday, before the storm even hit,” Olivia Barron said.

One death was associated with the blackout — a 70-year-old man who was burned to death after he tried to fill his generator with gasoline while it was running, officials said.

Gov. Pedro Pierluisi declined to say how long it would take to fully restore electricity, but he said for most customers it would be “a question of days.”

Hurricane Fiona unleashed more rain on Puerto Rico on Monday, a day after the storm knocked out power and water to most of the island, and National Guard troops rescued hundreds of people who got stranded.

“Folks are struggling to keep their medications refrigerated at this point,” Allison Dworschak, the acting director of Mercy Corps, an international development agency that’s been on the ground in Puerto Rico since 2017, told Local 10 News Monday.

Dworschak said the island will once again have to start rebuilding and that includes major infrastructure updates.

“I think we’ll (see) some lessons learned playing out,” she said.

Since the start of the storm, National Guard troops have rescued more than 900 people, Gen. José Reyes said at a news conference.

Meanwhile in the Dominican Republic, authorities closed ports and beaches and told most people to stay home from work. The government reported one death from falling trees.

Nearly 800 people were evacuated to safer locations, and more than 700 were in shelters, officials said.

The hurricane left several highways blocked, and a tourist pier in the town of Miches was badly damaged by high waves. At least four international airports were closed, officials said.

Olivia Barron, who was visiting Puerto Rico said, “We didn’t have electricity or water since like Saturday before the storm even hit.”

The Dominican president, Luis Abinader, said authorities would need several days to assess the storm's effects.

Back in Puerto Rico, the National Weather Service office said flash flooding was occurring in south-central parts of the island and tweeted, “MOVE TO HIGHER GROUND IMMEDIATELY!”

Up to 22 inches (56 centimeters) of rain fell in some areas of Puerto Rico and forecasters said another 4 to 8 inches could fall as the storm moves away, with even more possible in some places.

“It’s important people understand that this is not over,” said Ernesto Morales, a weather service meteorologist in San Juan.

He said flooding reached “historic levels,” with authorities evacuating or rescuing hundreds of people across Puerto Rico.

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

Water service was cut to more than 837,000 customers — two thirds of the total on the island — because of turbid water at filtration plants or lack of power, officials said.

Before dawn Monday, authorities in a boat navigated the flooded streets of the north coast town of Catano and used a megaphone to alert people that the pumps had collapsed, urging them to evacuate as soon as possible.

Authorities said at least 1,300 people spent the night in shelters across the island.

Brown water poured into streets and homes and closed airports in Ponce and Mayaguez.

The system also ripped asphalt from roads and washed away a bridge in the central mountain town of Utuado that police said was installed by the National Guard after Maria hit as a Category 4 storm.

Fiona also tore the roofs off homes, including that of Nelson Cirino in the northern coastal town of Loiza.

“I was sleeping and saw when the corrugated metal flew off,” he said as he watched rain drench his belongings and wind whip his colorful curtains into the air.

By early afternoon, Fiona had moved into the open Atlantic, where it was projected to strengthen, according to the National Hurricane Center. It was not expected to threaten the U.S. mainland.

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

Puerto Rico's health centers were running on generators, and some of those failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews rushed to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, where several patients had to be evacuated.

Fiona previously battered the eastern Caribbean, killing one man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floodwaters washed his home away, officials said.

The system hit Puerto Rico on the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the island in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.

The White House says Biden has pledged support from FEMA, saying “more than 300 federal personnel are already working to assist with response and recovery.” And that number “will increase substantially” in the coming days.

FEMA already has a large presence in Puerto Rico due to the island’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Maria, which made landfall exactly five years ago Monday.

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Coto reported from Havana.


About the Authors:

In January 2017, Hatzel Vela became the first local television journalist in the country to move to Cuba and cover the island from the inside. During his time living and working in Cuba, he covered some of the most significant stories in a post-Fidel Castro Cuba. 

Chris Gothner joined the Local 10 News team in 2022 as a Digital Journalist.