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Puerto Ricans Assess Hurricane Fiona Devastation 5 Years After Maria

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Most people in Puerto Rico woke up Tuesday without access to power or water after Hurricane Fiona devastated the island, a bleak reality very similar to what residents went through exactly five years ago with Hurricane Maria.

“I couldn’t imagine it,” Raquel Oliver Lopez, a resident of Levittown, a community in the Toa Baja Municipality, said in Spanish. “This is a heavy feeling.”

Parts of Puerto Rico have received up to 30 centimeters of rain as a result of Hurricane Fiona, flooding rivers and small streams. The ongoing rains have caused landslides, destroyed roads and left dozens of families stranded in many different cities, including Juncos, Bayamón, Coamo, Toa Alta and Caguas.

“More rain is expected, further increasing the risk of landslides,” Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi said at a news conference on Tuesday.

Oliver Lopez’s family is among the many Puerto Ricans who are still without power or water due to Hurricane Fiona.

“My 88-year-old grandmother lives next door to me, and the thought of having to go through this again is hard on me,” said Oliver Lopez, concerned about her grandmother’s health after she was recently released from hospice.

Oliver Lopez’s family was grief-stricken in 2017 when her husband’s 94-year-old grandmother, Abuela Paulina, was one of at least 2,975 people killed in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deadliest natural disaster on U.S. soil in 100 years.

Many of Maria’s deaths, including Abuela Paulina’s, were caused by a lack of electricity for more than a year and the resulting interruptions to medical and other services.

Currently, most of Puerto Rico’s nearly 1.5 million power customers are without electricity after an island-wide power outage was reported on Sunday, about an hour before the eye of Hurricane Fiona approached Puerto Rico’s southwest coast.

From early Tuesday afternoon, approximately 300,000 customers have recovered their electricityrepresenting about 20% of all customers, according to Luma Energy, the company responsible for energy transmission and distribution in Puerto Rico.

A Luma Energy spokesperson said at a news conference on Tuesday that they hope to power most of Puerto Rico by the end of Wednesday.

About 60% of all water service customers, more than 760,000 customershad not recovered by Tuesday morning, according to the Water and Sewage Authority of Puerto Rico.

Four deaths have been reported in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Two men died in the aftermath of the hurricane: one was swept away by the currents of a flooded river, and the other suffered a fatal accident involving a generator. Two other people who died in shelters are said to have died of natural causes; However, officials are waiting for the Institute of Forensic Sciences to confirm that.

In the town of Salinas, floods where it never flooded

Fiona’s historic rainfall caused water levels to rise in areas that have never been flooded. This was the case in the southern city of Salinas, one of the worst affected regions.

About 400 residents there had to be rescued and taken to shelters, the largest part of any city, after flash floods.

More than 1,000 people in 25 cities were rescued and protected under similar conditions, government officials said Monday.

On Tuesday, Mirielys Romero and other residents of Salinas returned to their homes for the first time since submerged on Sunday.

Romero said he was surprised at the current damage, as Hurricane Maria, which was a Category 4, didn’t wreak as much destruction as Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane that caused more heavy rainfall than high winds.

“I don’t know how to explain it yet. It’s so bad,” said Romero.

Image: Hurricane Fiona Puerto Rico
A woman is cleaning up debris on her property that was flooded by Hurricane Fiona in Puerto Rico’s Salinas on Monday.Alejandro Granadillo / AP

Pierluisi said he will request a declaration of a major disaster from President Joe Biden on Tuesday to access individual emergency aid for affected residents.

Biden declared a federal emergency on the island on Sunday, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to intervene with response resources.

As part of FEMA’s response, the agency will reimburse 75% of the emergency costs incurred by the Puerto Rican government.

Pierluisi said Tuesday that he will ask FEMA to fully cover emergency aid costs for at least 30 days and then reduce that reimbursement rate to 90%.

In the meantime, residents like Romero face yet another disaster and an uncertain recovery that will begin shortly after the end of the relief phase.

“I think we’re just going to start or try to clean, but I don’t know,” she said.

Follow NBC Latino On facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Gabe Gutierrez and Diane Morales contributed.


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