SAN SALVADOR, Puerto Rico (AP) — Bermuda and Canada's Atlantic provinces were preparing for a blast from Hurricane Fiona even as Puerto Rican authorities struggled Thursday to open roads for people left stranded and without power by the storm's devastating blow.
The storm was expected to still be at Category 4 force when it passes close to Bermuda overnight, and its outer bands were already reaching the British territory in early afternoon.
It is likely to still be dangerously potent when it reaches Canada's Atlantic provinces, likely late Friday, as a post-tropical cyclone.
“It’s going to be a very large storm when it does make landfall,” said Bob Robichaud, warning preparedness meteorologist for the Canadian Hurricane Centre. “This is going to cover a fairly large area.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of people in Puerto Rico remained cut off by road four days after the hurricane ripped into the U.S. territory, and frustration was mounting for people like Nancy Galarza, who tried to signal for help from work crews she spotted in the distance.
“Everyone goes over there,” she said pointing to where crews at the bottom of the mountain were helping others also cut off by the storm. “No one comes here to see us. I am worried for all the elderly people in this community.”
At least five landslides cover the narrow road to her community in the steep mountains around the northern town of Caguas. The only way to reach the settlement is to climb over thick hills of mud, rock and debris left by Fiona, whose floodwaters shook the the foundations of nearby homes with earthquake-like force.
“The rocks sounded like thunder,” recalled Vanessa Flores, a 47-year-old school janitor. “I’ve never in my life heard that. It was horrible.”
Officials have been working with religious groups, nonprofits and others to bring food, water and medicine to people in need, but they are under pressure to clear a path for vehicles.
At least one elderly woman who relies on oxygen was evacuated on Thursday by city officials who were working under a pelting rain to clear paths to the San Salvador community.
Ramiro Figueroa, 63, said his bedridden 97-year-old bedridden father refused to leave their home despite insistence from rescue crews. The road to their homes is blocked by mud, rocks, trees and his sister’s pickup, which was washed down the hill during the storm.
National Guard troops and others brought water, cereal, canned peaches and two bottles of apple juice.
“That has helped me enormously,” Figueroa said as he scanned the devastated landscape, where a river had changed its course and tore up the community.
At least eight of 11 communities in Caguas are completely isolated, said Luis González, municipal inspector of recovery and reconstruction.
It is one of at least six municipalities across Puerto Rico reporting that crews have yet to reach some areas, where people often depend on help from neighbors, as they did following Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that slammed into the island and killed nearly 3,000 people in its aftermath.
Miguel Veguilla said that in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, he and others in his settlement used picks and shovels to clear debris. But Fiona was different, unleashing huge landslides.
“I cannot throw those rocks over my shoulder,” he said.
Like hundreds of thousands of others, Veguilla has no water or electricity service, but said there is a natural water source nearby.
Danciel Rivera, 31, arrived in rural Caguas with a church group and tried to bring a little cheer by dressing as a clown.
“That’s very important in these moments,” he said, noting that people are still struggling in the aftermath of Maria. “A lot of PTSD has reared its head these days.”
His huge clown shoes squelched through the mud as he greeted people, whose faces lit up as they smiled at him.
Fiona caused an island-wide blackout and some 62% of 1.47 million customers remained without power Thursday. 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 the hardest-hit places.
“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 and the federal government approved a major disaster declaration and announced a public health emergency.
Neither local nor federal government officials had provided an overall estimate of damage from the storm, which dropped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas.
The U.S. center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) on Thursday. It was centered about 345 miles (550 kilometers) southwest of Bermuda, heading north-northeast at 16 mph (26 kph).
Hurricane-force winds extended outward up to 70 miles (110 kilometers) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extended outward up to 205 miles (335 kilometers).
Bermuda 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.”
The Canadian Hurricane Centre 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.
Canadian officials said they were preparing for the possibility of flooding, washouts, storm surges and power outages.
Jason Mew, a director with Nova Scotia’s Emergency Management Office, encouraged residents to fill-up on fuel, trim any weak tree limbs and check on their neighbors.
Hurricanes in Canada are somewhat rare, in part because once the storms reach colder Canadian waters, they lose their main source of energy.
The storm so far has been blamed for at least five deaths — two in Puerto Rico, two in the Dominican Republic and one in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe.
Fiona also hit the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday, but officials there reported relatively light damage and no deaths.
Associated Press writers Rob Gillies in Toronto and Maricarmen Rivera Sánchez in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed.