HAVANA — Fiona strengthened into a hurricane Sunday as it bore down on Puerto Rico, where people braced for severe wind and potentially “historic” levels of rain.
Forecasters said the downpour was expected to produce landslides and heavy flooding, with up to 25 inches possible 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 south of Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Sunday morning. It had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph and was moving west-northwest at 8 mph.
Anxiety ran high across the island with Fiona due just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a devastating Category 4 storm that hit 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.
“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 that hit the region starting in late 2019.
Officials reported several road closures across the island as trees and small landslides blocked access.
More than 640 people with some 70 pets had sought shelter across the island by Saturday night, the majority of them in the southern coast.
Many Puerto Ricans also were concerned about blackouts. Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, warned of “widespread service interruptions.” As of Sunday morning more than 450,000 customers were without power.
Puerto Rico’s power grid was razed by Hurricane Maria and remains frail, with reconstruction starting only recently. Outages are a daily occurrence.
In the southwest town of El Combate, which is in the storm’s path, hotel co-owner Tomás Rivera said he was prepared but worried about the “enormous” amount of rain he expected. He noted that a nearby wildlife refuge was eerily quiet.
“There are thousands of birds here, and they are nowhere to be seen,” he said. “Even the birds have realized what is coming, and they’re preparing.”
Rivera said his employees brought bedridden family members to the hotel, where he has stocked up on diesel, gasoline, food, water and ice, given how slowly the government responded after Hurricane Maria.
“What we’ve done is prepared 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 north coastal town of Loiza after buying loads of food and water.
“I don’t trust them,” she said, referring to the government. “I lost trust after what happened after Hurricane Maria.”
Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, said he was ready to declare a state of emergency if needed and activated the National Guard as the Atlantic hurricane season’s sixth named storm approached.
“What worries me most is the rain,” said forecaster Ernesto Morales with the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was predicted to drop 12 to 16 inches of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with as much as 25 inches in isolated spots. Morales noted that Hurricane Maria in 2017 had unleashed 40 inches.
The National Weather Service warned late Saturday that the Blanco River in the southeast coastal town of Naguabo had already surpassed its banks and urged people living nearby to move immediately.
Pierluisi announced Sunday that public schools and government agencies would remain closed on Monday.
Fiona was forecast to swipe the Dominican Republic on Monday and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with the threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far southern end of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning was posted for the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.
Fiona previously battered the eastern Caribbean, killing one man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods washed his home away, 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 announced its international airport would reopen on Sunday afternoon. Dozens of customers were still without power or water, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.
In the eastern Pacific, Tropical Storm Madeline was forecast to cause heavy rains and flooding across parts of southwestern Mexico. The storm was centered about 155 miles south-southwest of Cabo Corrientes Sunday morning, with maximum sustained winds of 45 mph.