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Parts of Puerto Rico inaccessible days after Hurricane Fiona

CAGUAS, Puerto Rico – Hurricane Fiona has left dozens of families stranded in Puerto Rico after destroying roads and bridges, with authorities still struggling to reach people four days after the storm hit US territory, causing historic floods.

For now, government officials are working with religious groups, nonprofits and others braving landslides, thick mud and broken asphalt on foot to provide food, water and medicine to those in need, but they are under pressure to clear a path so vehicles can enter isolated areas soon.

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

Living in one of those areas is Manuel Veguilla, who hasn’t been able to leave his neighborhood in the northern mountain town of Caguas since Fiona arrived on Sunday.

Damaged bridges and roads make it impossible to access certain areas.

“We are all isolated,” he said, adding he was worried about elderly neighbours, including his older brother, who does not have the strength to make the long walk it takes to reach the nearest community.

Veguilla heard city officials could clear a lane on Thursday, but he doubted that would happen as he said large boulders covered a nearby bridge and the 10-foot gap below.

Neighbors shared food and water dropped off by nonprofit groups, and an elderly woman’s son was able to walk home basic supplies on Wednesday, he said.

Veguilla said that following Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm that struck five years ago and killed nearly 3,000 people, he and others used picks and shovels to clean up trash. But Fiona was different, triggering huge landslides.

Landslides produced by Fiona caused damage in Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Fiona caused more damage in Puerto Rico than in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

“I can’t throw these stones over my shoulder,” he said.

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

Fiona triggered an island-wide blackout when it hit the southwestern region of Puerto Rico, which was already trying to recover from a series of strong earthquakes in recent years. Some 70% of 1.47 million customers were without power three days after the storm amid an extreme heat alert issued by the National Weather Service. Some 40% of customers, more than half a million, had no water service.

The US Federal Emergency Management Agency sent hundreds more people to help local authorities as the federal government approved a major disaster declaration and announced a public health emergency on the island.

Neither local nor federal authorities have provided damage estimates as Puerto Rico struggles to recover from the storm, which dropped up to 30 inches of rain in some areas. More than 1,000 people remained in shelters.

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

Hundreds of FEMA personnel have been sent to Puerto Rico to help assist people without power or water.
Hundreds of FEMA personnel have been sent to Puerto Rico to help assist people without power or water.

After Puerto Rico, Fiona hit the Dominican Republic, then swept through the Turks and Caicos Islands as it developed into a Category 4 storm. Authorities reported relatively light damage and no fatalities, although the eye of the storm passed Tuesday near Grand Turk, the capital island of the small British territory.

“God has been good to us and kept us safe during this time when we could have had a much worse outcome,” Vice Governor Anya Williams said.

Fiona was expected to pass near Bermuda early Friday and then hit far eastern Canada early Saturday, the US National Hurricane Center said.

The center said Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 130mph on Wednesday evening. It was centered about 550 miles southwest of Bermuda, heading north at 10 mph. It was expected to pass close to Bermuda early Friday.

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