Puerto Ricans braced for severe wind and extreme rain as Tropical Storm Fiona approached, amid expectations it would grow into a hurricane before striking the US territory’s southern coast on Sunday afternoon.
Forecasters said “historic” levels of rain were expected to produce landslides and heavy flooding, with up to 500 millimetres forecast in isolated areas.
“It’s time to take action and be concerned,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico’s emergency management commissioner.
Fiona was centred 240 kilometres south-east of Ponce, Puerto Rico, late on Saturday. It had maximum sustained winds of 95 kilometres an hour and was moving west-northwest at 13 kph.
The storm has already battered the eastern Caribbean, killing one man in the French territory of Guadeloupe when floods washed his home away, officials said. It also damaged roads, uprooted trees and destroyed at least one bridge.
Fiona was forecast to pummel cities and towns along Puerto Rico’s southern coast that are still recovering from a string of strong earthquakes that have hit the region since late 2019, with several schools still shuttered and debris to be removed.
More than 100 people had sought shelter across the island by Saturday night, the majority of them in the southern coastal city of Guayanilla.
With Fiona due just two days before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, a deadly Category 4 storm that hit on September 20, 2017, anxiety levels ran high across the island. People boarded up windows and stocked up on food and water.
“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, ‘What is going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs might we face?’” said Danny Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan but planned to weather the storm with his parents and family in the western town of Mayaguez.
He said the atmosphere was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others made sure they were well stocked before the storm hit.
“After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some extent,” he said.
Many Puerto Ricans also were concerned about power cuts, with Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, warning of “widespread service interruptions”.
Puerto Rico’s power grid was razed by Hurricane Maria and remains frail, with reconstruction starting only recently. Power cuts are a daily occurrence, and there have been fires at power plants in recent months.
Puerto Rico’s governor, Pedro Pierluisi, said he was ready to declare a state of emergency if needed and activated the National Guard as the Atlantic hurricane season’s sixth named storm approached.
“What worries me most is the rain,” said Ernesto Morales, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in San Juan.
Fiona was predicted to drop 130 to 250mm of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, with as much as 510mm in isolated spots.
It was forecast to swipe past the Dominican Republic on Monday and then northern Haiti and the Turks and Caicos Islands with the threat of heavy rain. It could threaten the far southern end of the Bahamas on Tuesday.
A hurricane warning was posted for the Dominican Republic’s eastern coast from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo.