Fears of dam collapse add to Puerto Rico’s misery after Maria

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Puerto Rico’s governor met with mayors from around the ravaged island on Saturday as a dam in the U.S. territory’s northwest threatened to collapse from flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Friday that some 70,000 people who live in a cluster of communities downstream from the earthen dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River were being evacuated.

But municipal authorities on Saturday suggested not as many people were at risk as previously thought and that only about 320 people had been evacuated, according to a report in the local newspaper El Nuevo Dia.

Officials could not be reached on Saturday to provide an update on the evacuation or the dam, which authorities had said was in imminent danger of complete collapse.

Meanwhile, people across the island were struggling to dig out from the devastation left by the storm, which killed at least 25 people as it churned across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

“Beginning meeting with our mayors to know the most urgent needs and distribution of resources,” Rossello said in a Twitter message on Saturday. The governor planned to hold a briefing later in the day, according to media reports.

Severe flooding, structural damage to homes and virtually no electric power were three of the most pressing problems facing Puerto Ricans, said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo during a tour of the island.

”It’s a terrible immediate situation that requires assistance from the federal government – not just financial assistance, said Cuomo, whose state is home to millions of people of Puerto Rican descent.

“It is a dangerous situation today and it’s going to be a long-term reconstruction issue for months,” Cuomo, a Democrat and potential 2020 presidential candidate, told CNN.

DAM WARNING

Christina Villalba, an official for the island’s emergency management agency, said on Friday there was little doubt the Guajataca dam was about to break.

“It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it could be in the next few days, but it’s very likely it will be soon,” she told Reuters by telephone.

Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate, Rossello said in a statement on Friday. One small community was refusing, and Rossello instructed the police to force residents to leave under an emergency law, he said.

On Saturday, the El Nuevo Dia report said authorities had discovered that erosion near the dam had allowed water to escape and reduced pressure on the structure.

People stop on a highway near a mobile phone antenna tower to check for mobile phone signal, after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria, in Dorado, Puerto Rico September 22, 2017. Picture taken September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. It knocked out electricity, apart from emergency generators, on the island of 3.4 million inhabitants.

Officials confirmed on Friday at least six storm-related fatalities in Puerto Rico. Earlier news reports had put the death toll as high as 15.

Signs of the strain on Puerto Ricans were evident throughout San Juan, the capital.

At the few filling stations open on Saturday, drivers had to wait up to seven hours, according to local news reports, and lines of cars snaked for blocks. Hotels warned that guests might have to leave soon without fresh supplies of diesel to keep generators operating.

Water rationing also began on Saturday. Signs posted throughout San Juan’s Old Town informed residents that service would return for two hours each day, between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., until further notice.

Telephone service also was unreliable, with many of the island’s cell towers damaged or destroyed.

DEBT CRISIS

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as the island was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history.

The storm may have caused an estimated $45 billion in damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on Dominica, an island nation of 71,000 inhabitants.

Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Two people died in the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to media outlet El Jaya.

Maria still had sustained winds of up to 115 miles per hour (185 km/h) on Saturday, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to weaken gradually over the next two days as it turned more sharply to the north.

Dangerous surf and rip currents driven by the storm were expected along the southeastern coast of the U.S mainland for several days, the National Hurricane Center said.

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

Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar; Writing by Frank McGurty; Editing by Andrew Bolton and Paul Simao

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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