Puerto Rico was without power as nightfall approached Sunday amid catastrophic flooding, hurricane-force winds, and the destruction of at least one bridge, five years nearly to the day after Hurricane Maria devastated the island.
Hurricane Fiona made landfall at 3:20 p.m. and quickly caused upheaval, with government officials saying they were prepared to evacuate residents of hard-hit areas.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said at a news conference Sunday that the tropical cyclone came “directly for the island.” Later, in a statement, he said that the eye of the storm was headed away, but that the storm’s impacts would continue through at least Monday.
Nearly 1.5 million utility customers were left without power, thanks to winds estimated at 85 mph, well above minimum hurricane force. The National Hurricane Center said Puerto Rico could see 12 to 18 inches of rain, with 30 inches possible in some areas.
Pierluisi said that the storm had dumped 9 to 13 inches of rain in a five-hour span.
“These rains will produce life-threatening and catastrophic flash and urban flooding across Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic, along with mudslides and landslides in areas of higher terrain,” the hurricane center said in an early evening advisory.
Earlier, Pierluisi tried to assure Puerto Ricans that the government was prepared for the worst, with necessary protocols in place, he said in a statement.
First responders were actively responding to emergencies where citizens’ lives were in danger, he said.
The number of customers without power was 1,468,223, according to poweroutage.us.
Island utility LUMA Energy said in its own statement that it might need several days to restore power, given the dangerous conditions on the island Sunday night and the widespread nature of the outage.
It said the energy grid suffered multiple outages along transmission lines, which contributed to the island-wide blackout.
The struggle for electricity recalled the bitter memory of Hurricane Maria, one of the worst storms to ever hit Puerto Rico and the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. territory in 100 years.
The storm, which was blamed for 2,975 fatalities, struck Sept. 20, 2017, and quickly exposed the island’s grid as deteriorating.
The resulting blackout, which lasted nearly 11 months, became the world’s second-longest.
In the afternoon, what appeared to be a vehicle bridge in the town of Utuado, in the mountainous Cordillera Central region, was washed away by storm water, according to multiple videos obtained by NBC News.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said Sunday that two members of Pennsylvania Task Force 1 Urban Search & Rescue were expected to travel to Puerto Rico with a federal incident support team.
He said the first responders were prepared to be in Puerto Rico for as long as two weeks.
Earlier, President Joe Biden declared a federal emergency for the island. This freed federal emergency response efforts to assist local rescuers, and it makes available Federal Emergency Management Agency cash and assistance for Puerto Ricans impacted by Fiona.
Forecasters called for much of the same wind and rain for nearly two days.
A hurricane warning was in effect for Puerto Rico and the eastern coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Caucedo to Cabo Frances Viejo, the National Hurricane Center said earlier on Sunday.
It means residents could expect hurricane conditions, with sustained surface winds of at least 74 mph, in the next 24 hours, the center said. “Preparations to protect life and property should be rushed to completion,” it said.
A 48-hour hurricane watch was in effect for the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, from Cabo Frances Viejo to Puerto Plata.
Fiona was expected to move northwest, near the northern coast of the Dominican Republic, taking its 85 mph winds with it, the National Hurricane Center said.
Fiona was then expected to move near or to the east of Turks and Caicos on Tuesday.
Winds could get even stronger over the next two days, according to the National Hurricane Center, which added that the hurricane was also expected to bring torrential rains, flash flooding, mudslides to the Dominican Republic.
The British and U.S. Virgin Islands, Turks and Caicos, and the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic could see 3 to 8 inches of rain as the storm approached.
Pierluisi announced on Twitter on Sunday that classes in the island’s public schools would be canceled on Monday, as would work in government agencies, other than first responders and essential personnel.
The governor also said on Twitter on Sunday that people in flood-prone areas should evacuate, and that 118 shelters are open.
Pierluisi said $550 million in emergency funds were available to deal with the hurricane’s aftermath along with enough food to feed 200,000 people for 20 days three times a day.
The governor previously said the heavy rains anticipated are dangerous because the island’s soil is already saturated.
One hurricane-related death was reported in the French territory of Guadeloupe, where more than 20 people were rescued amid heavy wind and rain that left 13,000 customers without power.
Regional prefect Alexandre Rochatte told reporters Saturday that the body was found on the side of a road after floods washed away a home in the capital of Basse-Terre.
Josh Cradduck, Michelle Acevedo, Courtney Brogle, Alec Hernandez, Bryan Gallion and Ali Gostanian contributed.