SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – A failing dam prompted emergency evacuations of two towns in northwest Puerto Rico on Friday as the U.S. territory struggled with flooding, an island-wide power blackout and other dangers in Hurricane Maria’s wake.
The National Weather Service in San Juan said Friday that the northwestern municipalities of Isabela and Quebradillas, home to some 70,000 people, were being evacuated with buses because the nearby Guajataca Dam was failing. Details remained sketchy about the evacuation with communications hampered after the storm. The 345-yard dam holds back a manmade lake covering about 2 square miles and was built decades ago, U.S. government records show.
All across the battered island, residents feared power could be out for weeks – or even months – and wondered how they would cope. Some of the island’s 3.4 million residents planned to head to the U.S. to temporarily escape the desolation. At least in the short term, though, the soggy misery will continue: additional rain – up to 6 inches – is expected through Saturday.
In San juan, Neida Febus wandered around her neighborhood with bowls of cooked rice, ground meat and avocado, offering food to anyone in need. The damage was so extensive, the 64-year-old retiree said, that she didn’t think the power would be turned back on until Christmas.
“This storm crushed us from one end of the island to the other,” she said.
The death toll in Puerto Rico stood at six but was likely to rise. At least 27 lives have been lost around the Caribbean, including at least 15 people killed on hard-hit Dominica. Other islands reporting deaths were Haiti with three; Guadeloupe, two; and Dominican Republic, one.
By Friday afternoon, Maria was passing northeast of the Turks and Caicos with winds of 125 mph. A hurricane warning remained in effect for those islands as well as the southeastern Bahamas. The storm is not expected to pose a threat to the U.S. mainland.
Meanwhile, the loss of power left residents hunting for gas canisters for cooking, collecting rainwater or steeling themselves mentally for the hardships to come in the tropical heat.
“You cannot live here without power,” said Hector Llanos, a 78-year-old retired New York police officer who planned to leave Saturday for the U.S. mainland to live there temporarily.
In Puerto Rico, the electric grid was in sorry shape long before Maria – and Hurricane Irma two weeks ago – struck.
The territory’s $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.
Diana Jaquez, one of the owners of the Coquette hair salon in the Santurce area, assessed damage from the storm with her husband Friday as their children played nearby. She said she hadn’t decided whether to leave the island.
“Business has dropped a lot,” she said. “People have other priorities than looking good.”
Outside her store, more than 100 people stood in line waiting to get money out of an ATM and hoping there would still be some cash left when their turn came.
“We knew this was going to happen given the vulnerable infrastructure,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would open an air bridge from the mainland on Friday, with three to four military planes flying to the island every day carrying water, food, generators and temporary shelters.
Rossello said his administration was trying to open ports soon to receive food, water, generators, cots and other supplies.
The government has hired 56 small contractors to clear trees and put up new power lines and poles and will be sending tanker trucks to supply neighborhoods as they run out of water. The entire island has been declared a federal disaster zone.
Mike Hyland, senior vice president of engineering services for the American Public Power Association, a utility industry group that is sending repair crews into the Caribbean, refused to speculate on how long it would take to restore power in Puerto Rico.
“Let’s see what the facts tell us by the end of the weekend,” he said. But he acknowledged: “This is going to be a tall lift.”
Jaime Rullan, a sports commentator, has a gas stove at home but tried not to think about the lack of air conditioning on an island where the heat index has surpassed 100 degrees in recent days.
“We’re used to the lights going out because of storms here in Puerto Rico, but this time, we’re worried,” he said.