Puerto Rico evacuates western towns as dam fails

A child plays in a flooded street in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Catano, Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century, has knocked out power to all of the island's 3 million residents. Photo by Thais Llorca/EPA-EFE

Sept. 22 (UPI) — Puerto Rican officials on Friday afternoon evacuated people living near the Guajataca Dam, which is failing and causing an “extremely dangerous situation,” the National Weather Service said.

The NWS issued a series of alerts on Twitter Friday afternoon, declaring a flash flood emergency in the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas.

“At 210 PM, dam operators reported the Guajataca Dam is failing causing flash flooding downstream on the Rio Guajataca,” NWS San Juan said. “This is an EXTREMELY DANGEROUS SITUATION. Busses are currently evacuating people from the area as quickly as they can.”

The dam is located in the northwestern region of Puerto Rico.

Earlier in the day, officials said the death toll from Hurricane Maria rose to at least six, but cautioned a full accounting of the destruction is nowhere close to complete.

The entire island remains without electricity and portions of the island outside the capital San Juan remain cut off from the outside world. The lack of electricity has rendered the Puerto Rico’s water and sewer infrastructure useless, leading to fears of drinking water shortages and the risk to public health in the days and weeks to come.

Residents requiring medical attention, including the sick and elderly who needed care before the storm, were resigned to whatever was available in shelters. Those who did not evacuate were reliant on the care of neighbors and strangers, with police and ambulance services nearly impossible to come by.

Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rossello said it could be months before power is restored to the island’s more than 3 million residents.

After riding out the storm, the first Category 4 hurricane to strike the island in nearly a century, residents in San Juan set about the massive task of cleaning up their city. They are doing so largely on their own.

With government infrastructure paralyzed, individual citizens took to the streets in San Juan with garden tools and their own vehicles to begin cutting up and hauling aside downed trees and debris blocking major roadways. Highways are so clogged with debris, mud and lingering floodwater that entire neighborhoods remain impossible to reach, the Miami Herald reported.

While some people worked, others simply wandered the streets.

Only one radio station was broadcasting on the island after Maria. Cell service is almost nonexistent, leaving scores of San Juan residents cut off from the outside world, unable to check on the welfare of loved ones on other parts of the island or to relay their own survival to others.

The situation is equally upsetting for the millions of Puerto Ricans living on the United States mainland, who have been trying to contact family in the Caribbean.

Government officials acknowledged the rest of the island’s fate is still almost completely unknown. Virtually no part of Puerto Rico outside San Juan was accessible by land as of Friday, making it impossible to know how many more were killed or injured and how many more homes were destroyed.

What information is available has come from those who have been rescued. The U.S. Coast Guard and National Guard have been dispatched to the island and have conducted a reported 4,000 helicopter rescues across the island in the 48 hours since the storm passed.

Puerto Rico was not the only Caribbean island to fall under Maria’s wrath. Dominica suffered tremendous wind damage and flooding, as well. CNN reported nearly every palm tree on the island was stripped of its leaves from the force of the 160 mph gales.

With the island’s communication infrastructure destroyed, amateur radio operators are serving as the primary means of direction for recovery efforts. The island’s prime minister said 15 deaths were confirmed there and at least another 20 people were missing.


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