SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Puerto Rican officials rushed to evacuate tens of thousands of people downstream of a failing dam and said they could not reach more than half the towns in the U.S. territory as the scale of the disaster wrought by Hurricane Maria started to become clear Friday.
Government spokesman Carlos Bermudez said officials had no communication with 40 of the 78 municipalities on the island more than two days after the Category 4 storm crossed the island, toppling power lines and cellphone towers and sending floodwaters cascading through city streets.
Officials said 1,360 of the island's 1,600 cellphone towers had been downed, along with 85 percent of aboveground and underground phone and Internet cables. With roads blocked and phones dead, officials said the situation may be worse than they know.
"We haven't seen the extent of the damage," Gov. Ricardo Rossello told reporters in the capital.
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Photos by The Associated Press
Photos by The Associated Press
More than 15 inches of rain fell on the mountains surrounding the Guajataca Dam in northwest Puerto Rico after Maria left the island Wednesday afternoon, swelling the reservoir behind the nearly 90-year-old dam.
Authorities launched an evacuation of the 70,000 people living downstream, sending buses to move people away and sending frantic warnings on Twitter that went unseen by many in the blacked-out coastal area.
"This is an extremely dangerous situation," the National Weather Service wrote, capitalizing several words. "All the areas around the Guajataca River must evacuate now. Your lives are in danger."
The 345-yard dam holds back a man-made lake covering about 2 square miles and was built around 1928.
An engineer inspecting the dam reported a "contained breach" that officials quickly realized was a crack that could be the first sign of total failure of the dam, said Anthony Reynes, a meteorologist with the weather service.
"There's no clue as to how long or how this can evolve. That is why the authorities are moving so fast because they also have the challenges of all the debris. It is a really, really dire situation," Reynes said. "They are trying to mobilize all the resources they can, but it's not easy. We really don't know how long it would take for this failure to become a full break of the dam."
Maj. Gen. Derek Rydholm, deputy to the chief of the Air Force Reserve, said at the Pentagon that it was impossible to say when communication and power will be restored. He said mobile communications systems are being flown in but acknowledged "it's going to take a while" before people in Puerto Rico will be able to communicate with their families outside the island.
Until Friday, he said, "there was no real understanding at all of the gravity of the situation."
Across the island, more than 15,000 people are in shelters, including about 2,000 rescued from the north coastal town of Toa Baja, including several who were stranded on roofs.
Rossello couldn't say when power might be restored.
"Some transmission structures collapsed," he said, adding that there was no severe damage to electric plants.
He said he was distributing 250 satellite phones from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to mayors across the island to re-establish contact.
Secretary of State Luis Marin said he expects gasoline supplies to be at 80 percent of capacity because the port in the southeastern town of Yabucoa that receives fuel shipments received minor damage.
Hourslong lines formed at the few gas stations that reopened Friday while residents feared power could be out for weeks -- or even months -- and wondered how they would cope.
Some of the island's 3.4 million people planned to head to the U.S. to temporarily escape the desolation. Additional rain -- up to 6 inches -- is expected through today.
The death toll in Puerto Rico stood at six but was likely to rise.
In Utuado, a town about 65 miles west of San Juan, three people died in a landslide. And three people were killed as a result of floods and falling debris in the suburbs of San Juan.
"These are fatalities we know of," said Hector Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety. "We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven't been able to confirm."
At least 27 lives in all have been lost around the Caribbean, including at least 15 on hard-hit Dominica. Haiti reported three deaths; Guadeloupe, two; and the Dominican Republic, one.
By Friday afternoon, Maria was passing about 295 miles east of the central Bahamas with top sustained winds of 125 mph. The storm is not expected to pose a threat to the U.S. mainland.
In San Juan, the airport was expected to open Friday, but many other businesses remained shuttered. Roads were blocked by flooding and downed trees. Whole blocks were still submerged.
Israel Molina, 68, found that Maria had ripped away roofing from his Israel Mini Market.
"I'm from here. I believe we have to step up to the task. If everyone leaves, what are we going to do? With all the pros and the cons, I will stay here," he said, and then paused. "I might have a different response tomorrow."
The territory's electric grid was in sorry shape long before Maria struck. The territory's $73 billion debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.
TRUMP PLANS VISIT
As a U.S. commonwealth, Puerto Rico has a nonvoting member of the House and no U.S. senators. But a network of Democrats and Republicans who have roots on the island, own property there or represent states and districts with large voting blocs with Puerto Rican heritage tend to use their sway in support of the commonwealth.
"Puerto Rico doesn't have a senator, so we've always treated it as a place we care about a lot," said Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. Florida is home to more than 1 million Puerto Ricans.
About 80,000 Puerto Rico residents moved to the mainland United States last year, part of an exodus driven by the island's devastated economy. Most of them relocated to Florida.
President Donald Trump on Thursday declared a major disaster across at least 55 Puerto Rico municipalities and plans to visit in the coming days, Rubio and others familiar with his plans said.
Rep. Nydia Velazquez, D-N.Y., whose Brooklyn-area district has a significant Puerto Rican constituency and who is awaiting news about family members on the island; Rubio; and others were also hoping to visit the island soon to assess the damage and report back to colleagues.
Aides to top congressional leaders said they have not yet received requests for federal relief from the administration.
Over the next several months, Velazquez said, "the combination of the financial crisis, the health-care crisis and now these two natural disasters, it's a recipe for a lot of people to feel that they're hopeless and they need to come to the [mainland] United States."
Velasquez warned that if legislation addressing the economic problems isn't coupled with federal hurricane relief, "we're going to have an unprecedented number of people who will continue to leave the island."
New York plans to send about 240 National Guardsmen and state troopers to assist Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. The state is also sending drinking water, ready-to-eat meals, electrical generators and other supplies.
Carlos Mercader, a Washington-based spokesman for Rossello, said officials are unable to make basic estimates of the potential costs, but "we know it's going to be in the billions."
Information for this article was contributed by Danica Coto of The Associated Press; by Molly Hennessy-Fiske and Kurtis Lee of the Los Angeles Times; and by Ed O'Keefe of The Washington Post.
National Guard soldiers evacuate residents Friday in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.
A Section on 09/23/2017
Print Headline: Islanders flee dam in danger