SAN JUAN – Authorities ordered on Friday the evacuation of two towns in northwestern Puerto Rico after the detection of a breach in a dam damaged by Hurricane Maria.
Sources close to state water company AAA told EFE that the US National Guard was aiding in the evacuation of some 70,000 people who would be at risk if the nearly century-old Guajataca dam were to give way.
Buses were being used to get residents out of Isabela and Quebradilla “as quickly as possible,” the Puerto Rico office of the US National Weather Service said, describing the situation as “extremely dangerous.”
The reservoir was already nearly 1 meter (3.2 ft.) above normal levels before Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Wednesday.
The Guajataca crisis only added to the strain as Puerto Rico started the task of recovering from the storm, which left at least a dozen people dead, cut off several municipalities from communication services and caused severe water, food and fuel shortages.
Two days after Maria made landfall in southeastern Puerto Rico as a Category 4 hurricane and then carved a southeast-to-northwest path of destruction, the situation on the United States commonwealth remained dire.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello’s government has confirmed seven deaths and says that the total number of fatalities is at least 12.
The director of Puerto Rico’s AEMEAD emergency and disaster management agency, Abner Gomez, traveled Friday to the north-central municipality of Toa Baja (site of two confirmed deaths) to confirm eight more possible fatalities.
The immediate priority was to ensure that ports were ready to receive aid and that diesel-powered electric generators arrived at telecommunications towers distributed across the island to re-establish contact between the capital, San Juan, and other municipalities.
The inability to communicate with some areas of the island remained a serious problem, with authorities still unaware of the conditions and needs of numerous interior and mountainous municipalities that were hardest hit by Maria.
Rossello on Friday urged people to remain in their homes, warning that the danger had not passed and that continued torrential rains would bring more flooding in the coming days.
The National Guard and the Puerto Rico Police were working on the ground to re-establish communication with all municipalities through a satellite system.
The hurricane completely demolished houses made of wood and other flimsy structures that are common in areas of the interior and left thousands of people homeless, although it is still too early to assess the full magnitude of the damage.
The US Federal Emergency Management Agency has barges and planes that are stationed near Puerto Rico and expected to be deployed soon to kick off the massive aid effort.
A FEMA helicopter, meanwhile, was flying over Puerto Rico on Friday to assess the situation in the island’s most remote areas.
During a tour of San Juan’s main roads, EFE was able to confirm the high level of anxiety among people urgently looking for food, water and fuel.
The desperate search for fuel caused a huge traffic jam on Ponce de Leon Avenue, one of San Juan’s main thoroughfares, as one gas station was preparing to open.
Amid the heightened tensions, members of US security agencies were on the ground in the capital, rifles in hand, to prevent looting and disorder.
The governor has instituted a nighttime curfew, at least until Saturday, although EFE confirmed that it was not being heeded in some parts of the capital.
EFE observed people breaking down the doors of shops in some areas of the capital in a desperate search for food, while reports came in during the day of looting of non-essential goods in eastern towns such as Luquillo, Fajardo and Humacao.
Some family-run establishments have partially reopened for business, while supermarkets are expected to open their doors in the coming hours.
The hurricane devastated Puerto Rico’s power grid, leaving the entire island in the dark and dealing a further blow to the US commonwealth’s bankrupt electric company.
Hospitals, government offices and hotels have been running on generator power, but they will be unable to do so once those diesel-powered units stop working due to a lack of fuel, which is expected to run out shortly.
Puerto Rico, an island that has been in recession for a decade and filed for a form of bankruptcy protection in May, is desperately awaiting economic assistance.
US President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration on Wednesday that makes 54 of the island’s 78 municipalities eligible for federal aid.