Hurricane Maria skirts Turks and Caicos as Puerto Rico endures fresh flooding

A collapsed building after Hurricane Maria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept 21, 2017.
A collapsed building after Hurricane Maria in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept 21, 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (REUTERS) - Hurricane Maria, the second major hurricane to wreak havoc in the Caribbean this month, skirted by the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday (Sept 22) and was blamed for fresh flooding on Puerto Rico two days after ravaging the US island territory.

The storm, which ranked as the most powerful hurricane to strike Puerto Rico in 90 years, has killed at least 25 people there and on other Caribbean islands, according to government officials and local news media accounts.

US weather forecasters and Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello warned that a dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River in northwestern Puerto Rico was failing, causing flash flooding in the area.

“This is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION,” the National Weather Service’s San Juan office said on Twitter. “Buses are currently evacuating people from the area as quickly as they can.”

Roughly 70,000 people live in the area downstream from the dam that was under evacuation, Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference.

Maria struck Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants, as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale and cut a path of destruction through the center of the island on Wednesday, ripping roofs from buildings and triggering widespread flooding. Torrential downpours from the storm sent several rivers to record levels.

Puerto Rico officials said on Friday that six people had been confirmed killed by the storm: Three died in landslides in Utuado, in the island’s mountainous center; two drowned in flooding in Toa Baja, west of San Juan, and one died in Bayamon, also near San Juan, after being stuck by a piece of wind-blown lumber.

Earlier news media reports had put the island’s death toll as high as 15.

“We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven’t been able to confirm,” said Hector Pesquera, the government’s secretary of public safety.

In San Juan, people worked to clear debris from the streets on Friday and some began to reopen businesses, though they wondered how long they could operate without power and with limited inventory.

“There’s no water, no power, nothing,” said Rogelio Jimenez, a 34-year-old pizzeria worker.

“We’re opening today,” he said, estimating that the restaurant had enough supplies to last a week. “If there’s nothing after that, we’ll close.”

DAMAGE ESTIMATED AT $60 BILLION

Puerto Rico was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in US history. A team of judges overseeing its bankruptcy has advised involved parties to put legal proceedings on hold indefinitely as the island recovers, said a source familiar with the proceedings.

The storm was expected to cause US$45 billion (S$60 billion) of damage across the Caribbean, with at least US$30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia. The figures included both physical damage and losses in business from tourism.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the US Virgin Islands. Two people died when the storm roared past the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to local media outlet El Jaya.

Communications outages throughout the region were making it difficult for officials to get a clear picture of the damage.

STORM SKIRTS TURKS AND CAICOS

Maria churned past Turks and Caicos and was 185km east-northeast of the southeastern Bahamas by 5pm EDT on Friday (5am on Saturday, Singapore time), the NHC said. It was packing sustained winds of up to 205kmh, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to gradually weaken during the next two days.

Officials on Turks and Caicos had ordered all residents of the islands to remain indoors and businesses to close on Friday as the hurricane neared, bringing a storm surge of as much as 3.7m above normal tide levels. But hurricane warnings for the islands, constituting a British overseas territory, were later downgraded to tropical storm warnings as Maria passed.

Storm swells driven by the storm were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the USmainland on Friday, the NHC said, adding that it was too soon to determine what, if any, other direct effects it would have.

In the Dominican Republic, Maria damaged nearly 3,000 homes and sent more than 9,300 to shelters, local emergency response agencies reported. Some 25 towns remained cut off.

Maria passed close by the US Virgin Island of St Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

Maria hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other US Virgin Islands: St Thomas and St John.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which also killed more than 80 people when it struck Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

More than two months remain in the Atlantic hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov 30, although the busiest period is generally from mid-August to mid-October.