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Tens of Thousands Ordered to Evacuate as Puerto Rico Dam Fails

  • VOA News

Yamary Morales looks at the damage at a neighbor's house after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico Sept. 22, 2017.

Officials in Puerto Rico scrambled Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam that is on the verge of collapsing under the weight of flooding after Hurricane Maria.

Operators at the nearly 90-year-old dam on Lake Guajataca in northwestern Puerto Rico reported the dam began to fail Friday afternoon and said it was causing flash floods downstream.

Officials say 50,000 to 70,000 people may need to be evacuated.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said earlier Friday at least 13 people have died so far as the island deals with dangerous floodwaters following the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria.

Speaking with CNN Friday morning, Rossello said authorities had rescued nearly 700 people from the flooding. He called Maria the most devastating storm in a century.

An ambulance drives on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017.
An ambulance drives on a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Sept. 22, 2017.

“Part of the island is lacking communications so what we have are some preliminary assessments about 13 deaths at this juncture,” he said. “We’re 24 hours post-hurricane warning and right now our efforts are to make sure we have everybody safe, that we can rescue people.”

Officials say most of the country’s cellphone towers have been downed, along with 85 percent of landline service and internet cables, making it impossible to reach many people. They say the situation may be worse than they know.

In addition to Puerto Rico, the storm lashed other Caribbean islands. Fourteen people were reported dead on the island nation of Dominica, which has a population of about 71,000. Three deaths were reported in Haiti, two deaths in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the Dominican Republic.

Maria passed over Turks and Caicos Friday morning with maximum sustained winds of 205 kph (125 mph). The storm is weakening as it moves north toward the Bahamas over the weekend.

For the U.S., Maria is expected to create dangerous waves and strong rip currents Saturday along parts of the southeast U.S. coast as the storm moves away from the Bahamas and into open water.

Antigua and Barbuda’s Prime Minister Gaston Browne told VOA that Antigua has seen an influx of residents from Dominica from both Hurricane Maria and Hurricane Irma, which struck two weeks ago. Barbuda was also devastated by Irma, and all of its residents evacuated to Antigua.

FILE - A completely ruined house is seen in El Negro community a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, Sept. 21, 2017.
FILE - A completely ruined house is seen in El Negro community a day after the impact of Hurricane Maria, in Puerto Rico, Sept. 21, 2017.

“Almost overnight, the resident population of Antigua increased by about 3 percent … our health services are strained, and generally speaking it is just a monumental task not only to provide relief but certainly the rebuilding itself will be even more challenging,” he said.

Browne appealed to the international community to help rebuild Barbuda.

“The primary estimate is that it will require about $250 million to rebuild Barbuda, which is clearly beyond the means of my small island state.”

Maria was the strongest hurricane to hit Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, in almost 90 years.

“There’s a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico,” Rossello said. “This is an event without precedent.”

The full extent of the damage has yet to be determined given that communities remain isolated and unable to communicate, but there are reports of towns being overwhelmed with flash floods and mudslides.

More than 11,000 people took cover in the hundreds of shelters set up across Puerto Rico, while others rode out the storm in their homes. Hurricane Maria’s strong winds took down power lines, cellphone towers and blew off roofs.

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.
Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters Thursday at the U.N. General Assembly in New York that Maria “totally obliterated” Puerto Rico and said U.S. emergency crews were beginning to help with the recovery.

Federal Emergency Management Administrator Brock Long said the federal government will attempt to restore power to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as soon as possible, and in a way that will make the power grid less susceptible to future disruptions.

Puerto Rico Governor Rossello has imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. daily until Saturday to allow rescue crews and officials to respond to the hurricane’s aftermath.

He also thanked President Trump for his support.

Rossello asked Trump to declare Puerto Rico a disaster area, which Trump did Thursday and said he would visit the island, although he did not say when. The declaration allows the federal government to provide funding for temporary housing, home repairs and low-cost loans for property damages not covered by insurance.

The White House announced late Wednesday that Trump has approved a disaster declaration for the U.S. Virgin Islands, which Hurricane Maria battered on its way to Puerto Rico. The island of St. Croix was the hardest hit there, after sustaining damage from another powerful storm, Hurricane Irma, earlier this month.

A supermarket was damaged after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, Guayama, Puerto Rico Sept. 20, 2017.
A supermarket was damaged after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, Guayama, Puerto Rico Sept. 20, 2017.

“After touring damaged neighborhoods across St. Croix, my prayer is for renewed strength and resolve to rebuild all of our islands in the wake of these two terrible storms,” said U.S. Virgin Islands Governor Kenneth Mapp.

The hurricane traveled directly over the island of Dominica, while also nearly making landfall in Guadeloupe.

About 4,300 U.S. military personnel have deployed to the Caribbean to help with hurricane relief efforts.

Hartley Henry, an adviser to the prime minister of Dominica, said Wednesday the country was "in a daze" and had no electricity and little communications. He described the damage as including a "tremendous loss of housing and public buildings."

Dominica Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said, "It is a miracle there were not hundreds of deaths." He added, "Dominica is going to need all the help the world has to offer."

Carla Babb at the Pentagon and Ramon Taylor at the United Nations contributed to this story.

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