Skittish Puerto Ricans braced Sunday as Fiona intensified into a hurricane, nearly five years to the day after a blockbuster system ravaged the island and left thousands dead.
Fiona could lash the southern coast with life-threatening flooding and mudslides, forecasters warned.
“It’s time to take action and be concerned,” said Nino Correa, Puerto Rico’s emergency management commissioner.
Puerto Rico was already feeling Fiona’s effects early Sunday and conditions would only deteriorate, Accuweather said.
Fiona was located about 50 miles south of Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Sunday morning and had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, the National Hurricane Center said. The storm was moving west-northwest at 8 mph.
The center of the storm was expected to move close to or over Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, on Sunday afternoon or evening, the hurricane center said, before nearing the northern coast of the Dominican Republic Sunday night and Monday.
“Torrential rains and mudslides are expected across Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic,” the hurricane center said.
After its path through the Caribbean and Bahamas, Fiona could move on a track toward Bermuda, Accuweather said.
“Additional strengthening is forecast … before reaching the southern or southwestern coast of Puerto Rico” on Sunday, the center said.
Hurricane warnings were in effect Sunday for Puerto Rico and parts of the coast of the Dominican Republic.
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Fiona was expected to drop 12 to 16 inches of rain over eastern and southern Puerto Rico, and as much as 25 inches in isolated spots, forecasters said.
The storm could pound cities and towns along the southern coast that are still recovering from a series of powerful earthquakes that struck in 2019.
“These rains will produce life-threatening flash flooding and urban flooding across Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic, along with mudslides and landslides in areas of higher terrain,” the hurricane center warned.
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Fiona will not be the mammoth system Hurricane Maria was when it made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Sept. 20, 2017, but it still posed a serious threat, Accuweather said.
Maria was devastating to the island, leading to at least 3,000 deaths. Thousands of homes, roads and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt. The government has completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that not a single project has begun, the Associated Press reported.
“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?’” resident Danny Hernández said.
Hernandez, who works in the capital of San Juan, said he planned to ride out the storm with family in the western town of Mayaguez.
Residents stocking up at grocery stores were nervous, Hernandez said. “After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some extent,” he said.
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Hurricane Maria obliterated Puerto Rico’s power grid. The grid is still very fragile and in the process of reconstruction; outages are frequent.
Ahead of Fiona, Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution, warned of “widespread service interruptions.” As of Sunday morning, more than 320,000 customers were without power.
The potential for a direct impact on the U.S. mainland has lessened since last week, Accuweather said, but the storm could whip up dangerous surf and strong rip currents along the East Coast later this week.
The Atlantic hurricane season has gotten off to a slow start. For the first time in 25 years, no hurricane had formed by August, and no storm has directly affected the U.S. The first hurricane of an Atlantic season typically develops by Aug. 11, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
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The season officially began June 1 and runs through Nov. 30. The peak of the season is usually around Sept. 17.
Contributing: Doyle Rice, the Associated Press