Fiona batters Dominican Republic, leaves Puerto Rico in blackout

(Adds death toll, interviews, background information) By Ivelisse Rivera and Ezequiel Abiu Lopez

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico/Santo Domingo, September 19 (Reuters) – Hurricane Fiona battered the Dominican Republic on Monday with torrential rain and winds up to 136.79 km per hour, a day after it caused a total blackout neighboring Puerto Rico, where at least one person has died. The Category 1 hurricane is likely to become a Category 3 hurricane as it moves north of Hispanola, the Caribbean island that the Dominican Republic shares with Haiti, the US National Hurricane Center said. The Turks and Caicos Islands are now under a hurricane warning and tropical storm conditions could hit the Bahamas through Tuesday morning.

After shelling Puerto Rico, Fiona landed in the Dominican Republic near Boca Yuma at 3:30 a.m. local time, the NHC said. The center of the storm had reached the north shore of Hispanola before noon. It is the first hurricane to hit the country directly since Jeanne left severe damage in the east of the country in September 2018.

Fiona made landfall in Puerto Rico Sunday afternoon, dropping up to 30 inches of rain in some areas and causing catastrophic flooding. The storm comes five years after the US Caribbean region was devastated by Hurricane Maria, which triggered the worst power outage in the US. Jeannette Rivera, 54, a public relations worker in Orlando, Fla., said she hasn’t spoken to her family since a bumpy phone call early Sunday. She fears for the safety of her parents and the health of her 84-year-old father, who had just contracted COVID-19 and was running a fever.

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“My concern is that if they need help, there’s no way to communicate,” Rivera said. Almost 90% of Puerto Rico remained without power as of Monday afternoon, according to Officials said it would take days to reconnect the entire island of 3.3 million people.

Many roads were impassable due to fallen trees and mudslides. Images on social media showed submerged cars, people wading in waist-deep water and lifeboats drifting across flooded streets. Only 30% of drinking water customers have a service. Crews rescued about 400 people from flooding in Salinas, a southern town where rain has turned to drizzle. The southern and southeastern regions were hardest hit.

The National Weather Service urged the public to be aware of weather conditions and take timely preventative measures with four to six inches of rain still expected. “It’s not over yet,” said Ernesto Morales, acting director of the National Weather Service.

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According to the Center for a New Economy, a Puerto Rican think tank, Puerto Rico’s power grid remains vulnerable despite emergency repairs after Maria caused the largest power outage in U.S. history in September 2017. The Category 5 storm, which killed more than 3,000 people, lost power to 1.5 million customers, with 80% of power lines down. Thousands of Puerto Ricans still live under makeshift tents. In the Dominican Republic, Fiona brought down trees, power lines and billboards early Monday in the cities of Punta Cana, La Romana and El Seibo in the eastern part of the Dominican Republic. Aid groups said there were no immediate reports of injuries.

About 800 people have been evacuated from high-risk areas and near rivers and ravines in rural communities in the east, according to the State Office for Civil Protection. While the National Weather Service lifted its hurricane warning for Puerto Rico on Monday, officials warned rain bands could follow the storm system for hundreds of miles. Authorities urged residents to seek higher ground.

“Unfortunately, the situation in Puerto Rico is not good and to this day, when these bands finally leave, it’s not looking good,” NHC acting director Jamie Rhome said. A 70-year-old man in the northern city of Arecibo is the first known victim in Puerto Rico. He was trying to start his power generator when the machine exploded, killing him instantly, police said.

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Hundreds of responders were helping with recovery efforts after US President Joe Biden declared the island a state of emergency, Biden said in a tweet. The announcement authorized the Federal Agency for Emergency Management to coordinate disaster relief and provide emergency response. Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said the government’s response has been much more efficient than it was during Hurricane Maria.

The government has not estimated the damage as it is still in response time, although the governor said it was in the millions. For most of the five years since Maria attacked Puerto Rico in 2017, the debt-ridden government and the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) had been in bankruptcy, and the island’s finances were being managed by a federally appointed oversight board.

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

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