Puerto Rico evacuates area near crumbling dam, asks for aid

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Many people living near a crumbling dam in storm-battered Puerto Rico have evacuated, Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday, as he asked for more government aid to avert a humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria.

Much of the Caribbean island, a U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million, is still without electricity five days after Maria struck with ferocious winds and torrential rains, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in nearly a century.

There have been growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest, where cracks were seen on Friday in the 88-year-old earthen structure.

Rossello said he was working on the assumption that the 120-foot (35-meter) dam would collapse.

“I’d rather be wrong on that front than doing nothing and having that fail and costing people lives,” he said in an interview with CNN. “Most of the people in the near vicinity have evacuated.”

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

It was unclear if the governor was saying that most of the 70,000 valley inhabitants had left the area, or only the several hundred people living in the small towns closest to the dam. About 320 people from those towns have moved to safety, according to local media.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the immense task facing disaster relief authorities after Maria, which was the second major hurricane to strike the Caribbean this month. The storm killed at least 29 people in the region, at least 10 of those in Puerto Rico, which was already battling an economic crisis.

Rossello said that before the storms struck, he had been embarking on an aggressive fiscal agenda that included more than $1.5 billion in cuts.

“This is a game changer,” he told CNN. “This is a completely different set of circumstances. This needs to be taken into consideration otherwise there will be a humanitarian crisis.”

‘UNPRECEDENTED PUSH’

Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), and Tom Bossert, senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security, met with Rossello on Monday.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters in Washington that the administration was engaged in a fact-finding process to figure out how much help Puerto Rico needs.

“The federal response has been anything but slow,” Sanders said at the daily briefing. “In fact, there’s been an unprecedented push through of billions of dollars in federal assistance that the administration has fought for.”

Many structures on Puerto Rico, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded, with clean drinking water hard to find in some areas. Few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

The storm has also put a big strain on PREPA, the island’s electricity utility, which declared bankruptcy in July after accumulating a $9 billion debt and years of underinvestment.

From preliminary FEMA reports, it is estimated that 55 percent of transmission towers may be down, and that more than 90 percent of the distribution system could have been destroyed.

More than 91 percent of Puerto Rico’s cellphone sites are also out of service, the Federal Communications Commission said.

There are more than 10,000 federal staff, including more than 700 people from FEMA, doing recovery work in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, according to FEMA.

The National Weather Service warned of further flash floods in the west of the island on Monday as thunderstorms moved in.

Maria would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm on Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 2 p.m. EDT (1800 GMT) on Monday, the center said, it was about 300 miles (480 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, heading slowly north.

The storm was unlikely to hit the continental United States directly, but the NHC said large swells were affecting the U.S. East Coast. A tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast and officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks that went into effect at 5 a.m. EDT (0900 GMT) on Monday.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen, Scott DiSavino, Stephanie Kelly and Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu and Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Frances Kerry and Lisa Shumaker)

Hundreds leave homes near dangerously crumbling Puerto Rico dam

Local residents look at the flooded houses close to the dam of the Guajataca lake. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN (Reuters) – Most people living near a crumbling dam in storm-battered Puerto Rico have been moved to safety, Governor Ricardo Rossello said on Monday, as he urged the U.S. Congress to fund an aid package to avert a humanitarian crisis after Hurricane Maria.

Most of the Caribbean island, a U.S. territory with a population of 3.4 million, is still without electricity five days after Maria swept ashore with ferocious winds and torrential rains, the most powerful hurricane to hit Puerto Rico for nearly a century.

There have been growing concerns for some 70,000 people who live in the river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the island’s northwest, where cracks were seen appearing on Friday in the 88-year-old earthen structure.

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Rossello said he was working on the assumption that the dam would collapse. “I’d rather be wrong on that front than doing nothing and having that fail and costing people lives,” he said in an interview with CNN.

“Some of the dam has fallen apart and now we’re making sure that we can assess if the other part is going to fall down as well. … Most of the people in the near vicinity have evacuated.”

It was unclear if the governor was saying that most of the 70,000 valley inhabitants had left the area, or only the several hundred people living in the small towns closest to the dam. About 320 people from those towns have moved to safety, according to local media.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the difficulties facing disaster relief authorities after Maria, which was the second major hurricane to strike Caribbean this month and which killed at least 29 people in the region.

At least 10 of those who died were in Puerto Rico, including several people who drowned or were hit by flying debris, and three elderly sisters who died in a mudslide.

Many structures on the island, including hospitals, remain badly damaged and flooded. Clean drinking water is hard to find in some areas. Very few planes have been able to land or take off from damaged airports.

After Maria caused widespread flooding, the National Weather Service warned of further flash floods in some western parts of the island on Monday as thunderstorms moved in.

The hurricane hit at a time when Puerto Rico was already battling economic crisis. [nL2N1M31LR]

Rossello said on Monday that before the storms struck he had been embarking on an aggressive fiscal agenda that included more than $1.5 billion in cuts.

“This is a game changer,” the governor told CNN. “This is a completely different set of circumstances. This needs to be taken into consideration otherwise there will be a humanitarian crisis.”

In Washington, U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan said Congress was working with President Donald Trump’s administration to make sure the necessary assistance reaches Puerto Rico.

“Our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico remain in our prayers as we make sure they have what they need,” Ryan said in a statement.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.

Local residents react while they look at the water flowing over the road at the dam of the Guajataca lake.
REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Maria continued to weaken and would likely be downgraded from a hurricane to a tropical storm by Tuesday night, the National Hurricane Center said. As of 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT) on Monday, it was about 315 miles (505 km) south-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, heading slowly north, the center said.

The storm was unlikely to hit the continental United States directly, but a tropical storm warning was in effect for much of the North Carolina coast. Officials issued a mandatory evacuation order for visitors to Ocracoke Island in the Outer Banks, beginning at 5 a.m. ET (0900 GMT) on Monday.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut; Additional reporting by Jonathan Allen and Peter Szekely in New York and Doina Chiacu in Washington; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Frances Kerry)

 

Travelers swamp Puerto Rico’s main airport; dam on verge of collapse

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hundreds of stranded travelers filled the sweltering halls of San Juan International Airport on Monday anxious to know when they could leave and reconnect with families after Hurricane Maria devastated power and communications across the island.

Fearful of checking out of hotels in case they could not get on the few flights available, worried passengers waited in long lines at Puerto Rico’s main airport, struggling to get through to loved ones and airlines alike.

“Everything is hearsay at the moment because there is no communication,” said 31-year-old Rene Kessler, a medical student from Baltimore, Maryland, preparing to spend the night in the airport ahead of what he hoped would be a flight back to the United States.

Puerto Rican officials have confirmed at least 10 storm-related fatalities on the island, and the hurricane was blamed for at least 19 other deaths across the Caribbean, the bulk of them on the devastated island nation of Dominica.

A microcosm of the battered island, the San Juan airport is a top priority in efforts by Puerto Rico’s cash-strapped government to repair the vast damage caused by Maria. Experts say the work will take months and likely run into tens of billions of dollars.

Closed for days following the storm, the airport is a major test of Puerto Rico’s ability to transport people and supplies and overcome the communications vacuum that has plagued the island since the storm.

María has also turned Puerto Rico, a haven for Caribbean islanders left homeless by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, into a disaster zone with virtually no power that many are now desperate to escape.

A dam on the island has weakened by heavy rains from Hurricane Maria was in danger of failing, posing a flood threat to thousands of homes downstream.

Some 70,000 people who inhabit a river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern corner of the island have been under evacuation since Friday after authorities warned the structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the extreme difficulties facing disaster relief authorities in the aftermath of Maria, which has claimed at least 29 lives across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello urged residents of the area to evacuate after surveying damage to the dam over the weekend, telling reporters that a fissure in the structure “has become a significant rupture.”

The National Weather Service in San Juan, the island’s capital, on Monday continued a flood warning for western Puerto Rico.

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction through the island after plowing ashore early on Wednesday.

 

‘WE LOST EVERYTHING’

“We lost our house, it was completely flooded,” said resident Carmen Gloria Lamb, a resident near the rain-swollen Guajataca. “We lost everything. Cars, clothes, everything.”

Severe flooding, structural damage to homes and the loss of all electricity, except from backup generators, were three of the most pressing problems facing Puerto Ricans, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said during a tour of the island. New York is home to many of Puerto Rican descent.

“It’s a terrible immediate situation that requires assistance from the federal government, not just financial assistance,” he said on CNN on Saturday.

Even the island’s medical facilities have been left in precarious shape, with many hospitals flooded, strewn with rubble and running critically low on diesel fuel needed to keep generators operating. Evacuation to the U.S. mainland is the only option for some patients.

The storm has caused an estimated $45 billion of damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

 

(Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Sandra Maler and Jeffrey Benkoe)

 

Failing dam creates new crisis on Puerto Rico amid flooding from Hurricane Maria

Locals walk by a street affected by an overflow of the Soco River in El Seibo, Dominican Republic, September 22, 2017. REUTERS/Ricardo Rojas

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Emergency officials in Puerto Rico raced on Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam in the island’s northwest, which is on the verge of collapse under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The potential calamity was unfolding as Puerto Ricans struggled without electricity to clean up and dig out from the devastation left days earlier by Maria, which has killed at least 25 people across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Some 70,000 people live in a cluster of communities under evacuation downstream from the earthen dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference on Friday.

Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to bulletins issued by the National Weather Service from its office in San Juan, the capital of the U.S. island territory.

Christina Villalba, an official for the island’s emergency management agency, said there was little doubt the dam was about to break.

“It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it could be in the next few days, but it’s very likely it will be soon,” she told Reuters by telephone on Friday night. She said authorities aimed to complete evacuations within hours.

Governor Ricardo Rossello went to the municipality of Isabela on Friday night and told mayor Carlos Delgado that an evacuation there was urgent, his office said in a statement.

Rossello said the rains sparked by Maria had cracked the dam and could cause fatal flooding.

Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate all necessary areas, Rossello said.

People had begun leaving nearby areas, but one small community was refusing and Rossello instructed the police to step in under a law that mandated them to remove the local population in an emergency, the statement said.

Villalba could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organize the evacuation.

PATH OF DESTRUCTION

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. The island remained entirely without electricity, except for emergency generators, two days later.

Telephone service was also unreliable.

Roofs were ripped from many homes and the landscape was littered with tangles of rubble, uprooted trees and fallen power lines. Torrential downpours from the storm sent several rivers to record flood levels.

Officials confirmed on Friday at least six storm-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants – three from landslides in Utuado, in the island’s mountainous center, two drownings in Toa Baja, west of San Juan, and a person near San Juan who was struck by a piece of wind-blown lumber.

Earlier news reports had put the island’s death toll as high as 15.

“We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven’t been able to confirm,” said Hector Pesquera, the government’s secretary of public safety.

DEBT CRISIS

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as the island was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history.

The storm was expected to tally $45 billion in damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on Dominica, an island nation of 71,000 inhabitants. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Two people died when the storm roared past the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to media outlet El Jaya.

Maria churned past the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday, then skirted away from the Bahamas, sparing both from the brunt of the storm, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

It still had sustained winds of up to 120 miles per hour (195 km/h) on Saturday, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to weaken gradually over the next two days as it turned more sharply to the north.

Storm swells driven by Maria were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the U.S mainland on Friday, the NHC said, although it was too soon to determine what, if any, other direct effects it would have.

Maria passed close by the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, early on Wednesday, knocking out electricity and most mobile phone service.

It hit about two weeks after Hurricane Irma pounded two other U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. John. The islands’ governor, Kenneth Mapp, said it was possible that St. Thomas and St. Croix might reopen to some cruise liner traffic in a month.

Irma, one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, killed more than 80 people in the Caribbean and the United States. It followed Harvey, which also killed more than 80 people when it struck Texas in late August and caused flooding in Houston.

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Additional reporting by Jorge Pineda in Santo Domingo, Nick Brown in Houston, Devika Krishna Kumar and Daniel Wallis and Jennifer Ablan in New York and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Writing by Scott Malone and Steve Gorman; Editing by Andrew Bolton)

Storm Maria pitches Puerto Rico barrio into sunken ‘Venice’

Storm Maria pitches Puerto Rico barrio into sunken 'Venice'

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

CATANO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Wading through highways swamped by turbid waters that sloshed over scattered, sunken belongings, residents of this Puerto Rican barrio flooded by Hurricane Maria have begun emerging from their shattered homes.

Lying southwest of the capital San Juan, the Juana Matos neighborhood in Catano municipality took a huge hit from Maria after the storm slammed winds of up to 155 mph (249 kmh) into Puerto Rico early on Wednesday, destroying or damaging an estimated 80 percent of housing in the working-class barrio.

The storm, the second Category 5 hurricane to batter the Caribbean this month, claimed at least 32 lives across the region, including 15 in Puerto Rico, and shut down power and communications across the island of 3.4 million people.

By Thursday, Maria’s floodwaters had turned the heart of the predominantly wood-built Juana Matos barrio into a series of waterways more suited to boats than walking.

“It’s like we’re in Venice,” said 69-year-old steel worker Joaquin Rebollo, looking out across a broad channel that is normally teeming with cars. “It was a really bad experience, really bad. I almost died of fright.”

Pitching the roof off his home and dozens of others in the area, Maria began to work through the wiring around the house as darkness descended across the island.

“It was like (Maria) was chewing the cables,” he said, vividly making as if to bite through power lines with his teeth.

Opposite him, residents trudged up to their knees in waters covering what was the main highway connecting Catano with the municipality of Bayamon further south.

Rebollo and many neighbors left their homes in the hope the flooding that rose to four feet in some areas would recede.

Houses locked for the storm were stripped of roofs or walls. Stranded cars stood half-sunk in driveways and satellite dishes tilted towards the sky to receive signals that had gone.

“I peeked my head out during the storm and felt the wind – and saw the wood, the roof, and the windows in the air,” said Domingo Avilez, 47, who took cover inside a small cement stock room beneath his mother’s house when Maria struck.

By the end, the stock room was the only room left.

Local officials estimate upwards of 2,000 people live in Juana Matos, and many too old or unwilling to evacuate watched from upper floors as the floodwaters turned streets into stagnant canals that seeped through their homes.

“Well, we’re alive,” said 75-year-old grandfather Angel Santos from the debris-strewn second floor of his wooden home.

“These are the works of God, so there’s nothing you can do,” Santos said, reflecting the faith evident among many Puerto Ricans hit by Maria just days after Hurricane Irma left.

Even those on the edge of the flood-prone barrio in homes high enough to avoid shipping huge quantities of water suffered brutal incursions.

Magdalena Oliveras, a 52-year-old housewife, showed the twisted metal blinds of her two-meter high washroom window she said had been mangled by a deluge from a nearby building.

Lidia Espinal, 57, a longtime Juana Matos resident from the Dominican Republic, suffered a double blow on Wednesday morning before phone lines went down with a call from her homeland to say her younger brother had suffered a fatal heart attack.

But Maria’s presence meant she could not travel back.

“I lost everything in my house, the good things, the roof, the windows. The stove is full of water,” she said. “But the death of my brother taught me that we can’t hold on to material things. Because life does not come back.”

A dog stands next to fallen trees and damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Salinas, Puerto Rico September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

A dog stands next to fallen trees and damaged houses after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Salinas, Puerto Rico September 21, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

(Editing by Michael Perry)

Maria drenches Dominican Republic after hammering Puerto Rico

A man looks for valuables in the damaged house of a relative after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

By Dave Graham and Robin Respaut

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria lashed parts of the Dominican Republic with heavy rain and high winds and headed northwest in the Caribbean on Thursday after making a direct hit on Puerto Rico that caused severe flooding and cut power to the entire island.

Maria has killed at least 10 people as it raged through the Caribbean, the second major hurricane to do so this month.

Maria was carrying sustained winds of up to 115 miles per hour (185 km per hour) as it moved away from the Dominican Republic on a track that would take it near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night and Friday, the U.S. National Hurricane Canter said in an 8 a.m. ET (1200 GMT) advisory.

Maria was ranked a Category 4 storm, near the top of the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with winds of up to 155 mph (250 kph), when it made landfall on Puerto Rico on Wednesday as the strongest storm to hit the U.S. territory in nearly 90 years.

It ripped apart homes, snapped power lines and turned roads into raging debris-laden rivers as it cut across the island of 3.4 million people.

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garci

Damaged electrical installations are seen after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria en Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

In Old San Juan, Plaza de Colon, one of the grand squares adorning the colonial heart of the capital, was choked with broken branches and trees felled by the storm. Pigeons paced the square looking for scraps, their plumage threadbare.

Aiden Short, 28, a debris management worker from London, said he had headed to the British Virgin Islands to help clean up the devastation of Hurricane Irma when Maria trapped him in San Juan.

“I was supposed to have come as a professional, but now I’ve just had to weather the storm,” Short said. “But now it looks like I might be useful here.”

All of Puerto Rico was under a flash flood warning early on Thursday as the tail end of the storm could bring another 4 to 8 inches (10-20 cm) of rain on Thursday, bringing the storm’s total to 35 inches (89 cm) in parts of the island, the NHC said.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said there was one death reported so far, a man struck by a piece of lumber hurled by high winds.

“It’s nothing short of a major disaster,” he said in a CNN interview, adding it might take months for the island’s electricity to be completely restored. He imposed a dusk-to-dawn curfew that runs through Saturday.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017.

Damages are seen in a supermarket after the area was hit by Hurricane Maria in Guayama, Puerto Rico September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

MORE EXPECTED TO SEEK SHELTER

The government did not yet have an estimate of how many homes and businesses were destroyed by the storm. But authorities expected to see more people go to shelters on Thursday as they realized how badly their homes were hit, said Pedro Cerame, a spokesman for Rossello.

Thousands went to government shelters during the storm.

The island’s recovery could be complicated by its financial woes as it faces the largest municipal debt crisis in U.S. history. Both its government and the public utility have filed for bankruptcy protection amid disputes with creditors.

Maria was about 95 miles (150 kms) north of Punta Cana, on the east coast of the Dominican Republic on Thursday morning, the NHC said.

Punta Cana, a popular tourist area, was hit with wind gusts of 58 mph (93 kph) and Maria was forecast to bring storm surges, when hurricanes push ocean water dangerously over normal levels, of up to 6 feet (1.83 m) in the Dominican Republic, it said.

Maria was forecast to move north in the Atlantic Ocean over the weekend. It currently looked unlikely to hit the continental United States.

It was a rare Category 5 storm when it struck Dominica on Monday night, damaging about 95 percent of the roofs on the island of 73,000 people, one of the poorest in the Caribbean, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.

Passing early Wednesday just west of St. Croix, home to about 55,000 people, Maria damaged an estimated 65 percent to 70 percent of the island’s buildings, said Holland Redfield, who served six terms in the U.S. Virgin Islands senate.

President Donald Trump declared a major disaster in the U.S. Virgin Islands and ordered federal aid to supplement recovery efforts, the White House said.

The U.S. and British Virgin Islands were also hit this month by Hurricane Irma, which ranked as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record. It left a trail of destruction in several Caribbean islands and Florida, killing at least 84 people.

 

(Reporting by Dave Graham and Robin Respaut in San Juan; Writing by Jon Herskovitz and Scott Malone; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

 

Maria becomes major hurricane, powers through Caribbean

Hurricane Maria is shown in the Atlantic Ocean about 85 miles east of Martinique in this September 17, 2017 NASA handout satellite photo. NASA/Handout via REUTERS

By Robert Sandiford

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados (Reuters) – Hurricane Maria picked up strength and roared toward the Leeward Islands on Monday on a track that could whip several eastern Caribbean islands with their second major storm this month.

Maria grew into a Category 3 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale, with maximum sustained winds of 120 miles per hour (195 km per hour). It was located about 60 miles (95 km) east of Martinique, the U.S. National Hurricane Center said at 11 a.m. ET (1500 GMT).

It was headed west-northwest at about 10 mph (17 kph) on a track that would put it over the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico by Wednesday.

Maria was expected to be the second major hurricane this year to hit the Leeward Islands, which were hammered by Hurricane Irma earlier this month, the center said.

Streets were flooded in some residential parts of the island of Barbados, which had been experiencing heavy rain since Sunday as the storm approached.

Maria was expected to bring storm surges – seawater driven ashore by wind – of up to 6 feet to 9 feet (1.8-2.7 m), the NHC said. Parts of the central and southern Leeward Islands could see as much as 20 inches (51 cm) of rain, it said.

Hurricane and tropical storm warnings and watches were in effect for a string of islands in the area, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Antigua and Barbuda and the French-Dutch island of Saint Martin.

Several of those islands were devastated earlier this month when Hurricane Irma rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes ever recorded, killing more than 80 people on the islands and the U.S. mainland.

The deck of a U.S. Navy landing craft is crowded with Army soldiers and their belongings as they are evacuated in advance of Hurricane Maria, off St. Thomas shore, U.S. Virgin Islands September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

The deck of a U.S. Navy landing craft is crowded with Army soldiers and their belongings as they are evacuated in advance of Hurricane Maria, off St. Thomas shore, U.S. Virgin Islands September 17, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory which Irma grazed as it headed toward Cuba and Florida, opened shelters and began to dismantle construction cranes that could be vulnerable to high winds as it prepared for Maria.

“It is time to seek refuge with a family member, friend, or move to a state shelter because rescuers will not go out and risk their lives once winds reach 50 miles per hour,” Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló told reporters on Monday.

Some 450 shelters were open, including one in San Juan that is already housing people evacuated by nearby islands hit by Irma, the government said.

More than 1,700 residents of Barbuda were evacuated to neighboring Antigua after Irma damaged nearly every building there.

Further north, forecasters were also tracking Category 1 Hurricane Jose, which was carrying 75-mph (120-kph) winds and was located about 265 miles (430 km) east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The eye of that storm was forecast to remain off the east coast of the United States for the next few days, bringing dangerous surf and rip currents to beaches from Delaware through Massachusetts.

 

(Additional reporting by Tracy Rucinski in Chicago; Writing by Scott Malone; Editing by Frances Kerry)

 

Houston residents, officials stew over Harvey storm-trash removal

FILE PHOTO: Flood-damaged contents from people's homes line the street following the aftermath of tropical storm Harvey in Wharton, Texas, U.S., September 6, 2017. REUTERS/Mike Blake/File Photo

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Disposing of the mounds of debris lining Houston streets three weeks after Hurricane Harvey flooding damaged about 126,000 homes is riling residents and officials in the nation’s fourth largest city.

The sheer volume of work is overwhelming initial efforts, say residents, resulting in pleas from officials for the state and private contractors to contribute vehicles. Houston also is offering to increase its fees for emergency trash removal to bring in more waste disposal trucks.

“We have been asking for more trucks for weeks,” said Greg Travis, a Houston city councilor whose hard-hit west Houston district had just two trucks operating one day this week. There is no schedule of collections nor estimate when one would be available, he said.

Houston’s trash haulers are working side-by-side with a disaster contractor’s crews from San Antonio and Austin, Texas. The city’s size, about 627 square miles (1623.92 square kilometers), is larger than Los Angeles or New York.

Across Texas, the debris left behind by the storm could reach 200 million cubic yards – enough to fill up a football stadium almost 125 times, Texas Governor Greg Abbott estimated on Thursday. Harvey’s path up the Texas coast killed as many as 82 people, flooding homes and businesses with up to 51 inches of rain.

“We have no idea when it’s going to be picked up,” said Houston resident David Greely, 51. “It’s overwhelming.”

DRC Emergency Services LLC, the city’s contractor for emergency trash removal, has about 300 trucks operating in Houston and surrounding areas, according to President John Sullivan.

“We’ll reach 500 trucks in the next few days,” he said.

Houston is renegotiating its contract to expedite the work, Alan Bernstein, a spokesman for Mayor Sylvester Turner, said on Friday.

An 8.9 percent temporary property-tax increase proposed this week by the mayor would pay for damage to city property and for costs not covered by the United States. Turner estimated the cost of debris removal is $200 million.

Contract renegotiations are common during disasters, according to DRC’s Sullivan.

“There has been price adjustments for debris contractors across Texas for Harvey recovery, not just Houston,” he said.

Some well-to-do neighborhoods have begun considering paying for private trash haulers to pick up the debris.

“I don’t know if I’m on the city’s list for trash cleanup,” said Eric Olafson, 62, who added his neighbors are discussing paying private contractors to remove their debris.

(Reporting by Bryan Sims; Editing by Gary McWilliams and Diane Craft)

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

Shocked residents return to Irma-ravaged Florida Keys

By Andy Sullivan

ISLAMORADA, Fla. (Reuters) – Evacuees from Hurricane Irma were early on Wednesday returning to the Florida Keys, where sunrise will give them a first glimpse of devastation that has left countless homes and businesses in ruins.

Categorized as one of the most powerful Atlantic storms on record, Irma claimed more than 60 lives, officials said.

At least 18 people died in Florida and destruction was widespread in the Keys, where Irma made initial U.S. landfall on Sunday to become the second major hurricane to strike the mainland this season.

A resort island chain that stretches from the tip of the state into the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys are connected by a bridges and causeways along a narrow route of nearly 100 miles (160 km).

“I don’t have a house. I don’t have a job. I have nothing,” said Mercedes Lopez, 50, whose family fled north from the Keys town of Marathon on Friday and rode out the storm at an Orlando hotel, only to learn their home was destroyed, along with the gasoline station where she worked.

“We came here, leaving everything at home, and we go back to nothing,” Lopez said. Four families from Marathon including hers planned to venture back on Wednesday to salvage what they can.

The Keys had been largely evacuated by the time Irma barreled ashore as a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of up to 130 mph (215 km/hour).

Initial damage assessments found 25 percent of homes there were destroyed and 65 percent suffered major damage, Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Brock Long said.

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

A boy walks amongst debris on the beach after Hurricane Irma passed the area in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Wattie

‘SAILBOAT IN OUR BACKYARD’

Authorities allowed re-entry to the islands of Key Largo, Tavernier and Islamorada for residents and business owners on Tuesday. The extent of the devastation took many of the first returnees by surprise.

“I expected some fence lines to be down and some debris,” said Orlando Morejon, 51, a trauma surgeon from Miami as he hacked away at a tree blocking his Islamorada driveway. “We were not expecting to find someone else’s sailboat in our backyard.”

A boil water notice was in effect for the Keys late on Tuesday, while its airports remained closed to commercial flights.

Several major airports in Florida that had halted passenger operations resumed with limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest in the United States.

All 42 bridges in Monroe County, which includes the Keys, were deemed safe and one of two washed out sections of U.S. 1 Roadway was now navigable, the county said on its Twitter account.

At the end of Islamorada, roughly the halfway point of the Keys, police at a checkpoint turned around returning residents seeking to travel farther south and waved through utility crews, law enforcement and healthcare workers.

Authorities said they were barring re-entry to the remainder of the Keys to allow more time to restore electricity, water, fuel and medical service. U.S. officials have said some 10,000 Keys residents stayed put when the storm hit and may ultimately need to be evacuated.

Across Florida and nearby states, some 5.8 million homes and businesses were late on Tuesday estimated to be still without power, down from a peak of 7.4 million on Monday.

Florida’s largest utility, Florida Power & Light Co [NEEPWR.UL], said western parts of Florida might be without electricity until Sept. 22.

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

A man cheers just as power is restored to his house after Hurricane Irma struck the Little Haiti neighborhood of Miami, Florida, U.S., September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The state’s largest city, Jacksonville, in its northeastern corner, was still recovering from heavy flooding on Wednesday.

While damage across Florida was severe, it paled in comparison with devastation wrought by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, which accounted for the bulk of the hurricane’s fatalities.

It destroyed about one-third of the buildings on the Dutch-governed portion of the eastern Caribbean island of St. Martin, the Dutch Red Cross said on Tuesday.

Irma was a post-tropical cyclone late on Tuesday as it drifted north as it brought rain to the Mississippi Valley, the National Hurricane Center said.

It hit the United States soon after Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and causing some $180 billion in damage, mostly from flooding.

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

Pastor Louicesse Dorsaint stands with his wife Maria Dorsaint in front of their church, Haitian United Evangelical Mission, which was damaged by flooding from Hurricane Irma in Immokalee, Florida, U.S. September 12, 2017 REUTERS/Stephen Yang

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Florida; Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami; Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles; Letitia Stein in Detroit; Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina; Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; and Svea Herbst-Bayliss and Scott DiSavino in New York; editing by John Stonestreet)

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

Officials urge patience as Florida towns re-open after Irma

By Andy Sullivan and Robin Respaut

FLORIDA CITY/MARCO ISLAND, Fla. (Reuters) – Florida began allowing some residents to return to their homes hammered by Hurricane Irma on Tuesday, but officials warned that it would take a long time to repair the damage wrought by high winds and pounding surf, particularly in the Keys archipelago.

Irma, which had rampaged through the Caribbean as one of the most powerful Atlantic hurricanes on record, was downgraded to a tropical depression on Monday. It will likely dissipate from Tuesday evening, the National Hurricane Center said.

At its peak it prompted the evacuation of 6.5 million people, the largest evacuation in modern U.S. history.

Local authorities told around 90,000 residents of Miami Beach and from some parts of the Florida Keys they could go home but warned it may be prudent not to remain there.

“This is going to be a frustrating event. It’s going to take some time to let people back into their homes particularly in the Florida Keys,” Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, told a morning press conference.

He noted that FEMA was continuing to rescue people stranded by flooding around Jacksonville, in the state’s northeast.

After leaving a trail of destruction on several Caribbean islands, killing nearly 40 people, Irma caused record flooding in parts of Florida. Only one Florida fatality has been confirmed so far, but a local official said there had been more deaths.

Irma became the second major hurricane to make landfall in the United States in a little more than two weeks when it roared ashore on Key Cudjoe as a powerful Category 4 storm on Sunday. It followed Hurricane Harvey, which plowed into Houston late last month, killing about 60 and wreaking some $180 billion in damage, largely through flooding.

About 2-1/2 months remain in the official Atlantic hurricane season. The National Hurricane Center is monitoring another hurricane, Jose, which is spinning in the Caribbean, currently about 700 miles (1,130 km) from the mainland.

MILITARY AID

The U.S. aircraft carrier Abraham Lincoln has arrived off Florida’s east coast and two amphibious assault ships will arrive on Tuesday to help in the Keys. The military will distribute food and help evacuate 10,000 residents who did not leave before the storm.

Monroe County Commissioner Heather Carruthers said Monday that people had been killed in the Keys, where nearly 80,000 permanent residents live, apart from one already known fatality. She did not have a count on how many.

“We are finding some remains,” she said in an interview with CNN. Video footage of the islands showed homes torn apart by sustained winds of up to 130 mph (210 kph).

Several major airports in Florida that halted passenger operations due to Irma began limited service on Tuesday, including Miami International, one of the busiest U.S. airports.

The scope of damage in Florida and neighboring states paled in comparison with the devastation left by Irma in parts of the Caribbean, where it razed islands and killed nearly 40.

RECORD FLOODS

The center of Irma moved into Alabama on Tuesday and will head into western Tennessee by Tuesday evening with maximum sustained winds of 25 mph.

In South Carolina, the Charleston Harbor area saw major flooding on Monday with water about 3 feet (1 meter) above flood stage and minor flooding is forecast for Tuesday, the National Weather Service said.

Miami Beach will allow residents to return home from 8 a.m. (1200 GMT), its mayor said. More evacuation orders are likely to be lifted on Tuesday.

Monroe County opened road access on Tuesday morning for residents and business owners from Key Largo, the main island at the upper end of the chain, as well as the towns of Tavernier and Islamorada farther to the south, fire officials said.

No timetable was given for reopening the remainder of the Keys.

MOST OF FLORIDA WITHOUT ELECTRICITY

Insured property losses in Florida from Irma are expected to run from $20 billion to $40 billion, catastrophe modeling firm AIR Worldwide estimated.

Utilities reported some 7.4 million homes and businesses were without electricity in Florida and neighboring states and said it could take weeks to fully restore service.

Between 2,000 and 3,000 utility workers from out of state, sent to inspect and repair power lines, were staying in Broward County in cramped conditions at BB&T Center, home to the National Hockey League’s Florida Panthers, said Gus Beyersdorf, 40, of De Pere, Wisconsin.

“Each one of us has a cot, a single foot apart,” Beyersdorf said on Monday afternoon. “I slept in the truck last night just to get a break from it.”

At least one other possibly storm-related fatal car crash was reported on Sunday in Orange County, Florida. On Monday, two people were killed by falling trees in two Atlanta suburbs, according to local authorities.

(Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta in Orlando, Fla., Bernie Woodall, Ben Gruber and Zachary Fagenson in Miami, Dan Whitcomb in Los Angeles, Letitia Stein in Detroit, Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas, Colleen Jenkins in Winston-Salem, N.C., Harriet McLeod in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., Scott DiSavino in New York and Marc Frank in Havana; Writing by Scott Malone and Jon Herskovitz; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Chizu Nomiyama)