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Friday September 30th, 2022 7:56AM

Puerto Rico struggles to reach areas cut off by Fiona

By The Associated Press
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CAGUAS, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Fiona was on a track Thursday to menace Bermuda and far-eastern Canada after leaving hundreds of people stranded across Puerto Rico, where it smashed roads and bridges and caused historic flooding.

Government officials have been working with religious groups, nonprofits and others braving landslides, thick mud and broken asphalt by foot to provide food, water and medicine for people in need, but they are under pressure to clear a path so vehicles can enter isolated areas soon.

Nino Correa, commissioner for Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency, estimated that at least six municipalities across the island had areas that were cut off by Fiona, which struck as a Category 1 hurricane and was up to Category 4 power Thursday as it headed toward Bermuda.

Manuel Veguilla said he has been unable to leave his neighborhood in the north mountain town of Caguas since Fiona swept in on Sunday.

“We are all isolated,” he said, adding that he worries about elderly neighbors, including his older brother who does not have the strength for the long walk it takes to reach the closest community.

Veguilla heard that municipal officials might open a pathway Thursday, but he doubted that would happen because large rocks covered a nearby bridge and the 10-foot space beneath it.

Neighbors have shared food and water dropped off by nonprofit groups, and the son of an elderly woman was able to bring back basic supplies by foot Wednesday, he said.

Veguilla said that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that struck five years ago and resulted in nearly 3,000 deaths, he and others used picks and shovels to clear the debris. But Fiona was different, unleashing huge landslides.

“I cannot throw those rocks over my shoulder,” he said.

Like hundreds of thousands of other Puerto Ricans after Fiona, Veguilla had no water or electricity service, but said there is a natural water source nearby.

Fiona sparked an islandwide blackout when it hit Puerto Rico's southwest region, which already was still trying to recover from a series of strong earthquakes in recent years. Some 62% of 1.47 million customers remained without power Thursday, four days after the storm, amid an extreme heat alert issued by the National Weather Service. A third of customers, or more than 400,000, did not yet have water service.

The executive director of Puerto Rico's Electric Energy Authority, Josué Colón, told a news conference that areas less affected by Fiona should have power by Friday morning.

But officials declined to say when power would be restored to areas hit hardest by the storm.

“We are working by steps. Our next step is now to focus on the critical load” — service to hospitals and other key infrastructure — said Daniel Hernández, the director of renewable energy for LUMA Energy, which distributes power in Puerto Rico.

The U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency has sent hundreds of additional personnel to help local officials as the federal government approved a major disaster declaration and announced a public health emergency on the island.

Neither local nor federal government officials had provided any overall damage estimates from the storm, which dropped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas. More than 470 people and 48 pets remained in shelters.

“Our hearts go out to the people of Puerto Rico who have endured so much suffering over the last couple of years,” said Brad Kieserman, vice president of operations and logistics at the Red Cross.

After Puerto Rico, Fiona pummeled the Dominican Republic and then roared over the Turks and Caicos Islands as it strengthened. Officials there reported relatively light damage and no deaths, though the eye of the storm passed close to Grand Turk, the small British territory’s capital island, on Tuesday.

“God has been good to us and has kept us safe during this period when we could have had a far worse outcome,” Deputy Gov. Anya Williams said.

Fiona was forecast to pass near Bermuda late Thursday or early Friday, and then hit easternmost Canada early Saturday, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said.

The Canadian Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Nova Scotia from Hubbards to Brule, Prince Edward Island, Isle-de-la-Madeleine and the coast of Newfoundland from Parson’s Pond to Port-Aux-Basques.

The U.S. center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) on Thursday morning. It was centered about 410 miles (660 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, heading north-northeast at 15 mph (24 kph).

A hurricane warning was in effect for Bermuda, where Premier David Burt sent a tweet urging residents to “take care of yourself and your family. Let’s all remember to check on as well as look out for your seniors, family and neighbors. Stay safe.”

___

Associated Press reporter Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez contributed.

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