Hurricane Fiona battered Puerto Rico on Sunday, cutting power to the entire island while bringing destructive winds and life-threatening flash flooding. Conditions rapidly deteriorated even before the Category 1 storm made landfall Sunday afternoon, and the situation was not expected to improve much going into Monday.
Luma, the private consortium contracted by Puerto Rico to manage its electrical transmission and distribution system, said the deteriorating weather and strong winds were “extremely dangerous and impeding our ability to evaluate the entire situation.” Luma said it could take several days to restore power, and it asked customers for “patience.”
The storm made landfall along the southwestern coast of Puerto Rico near Punta Tocon at 3:20 p.m. local time, according to the National Hurricane Center. The center warned that both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic should expect “catastrophic flooding” from the slow-moving storm.
A hurricane warning was in effect for the entire U.S. territory, including the islands of Vieques and Culebra, and the eastern Dominican Republic. Tropical storm warnings cover the U.S. Virgin Islands and the north coast of the Dominican Republic west to Puerto Plata, regions that are also under a hurricane watch to account for Fiona’s possible intensification.
Emanuel Rodriguez, a meteorologist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said flooding had started in Puerto Rico and was expected to continue overnight through Monday morning. At least 10 rivers had flooded, Rodriguez said, and he advised people to stay away from rivers, streams and flood areas. He added that NOAA had received multiple reports of minor damage to fragile structures across the island.
Numerous locations had received rainfall in the double digits, with some totals near 20 inches as of Sunday afternoon. Flash-flood warnings blanketed the island as the National Hurricane Center increased projected storm totals to up to 30 inches by Monday morning.
President Biden approved Puerto Rico’s emergency declaration Sunday morning to free up federal resources to provide assistance in supporting local disaster-relief efforts.
All flights at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in San Juan were canceled Sunday, according to the airport authority. The airport urged passengers not to travel to the facility even if they had not received a cancellation notice from their airline.
The Puerto Rican government has set up a website for residents to receive updates and learn about additional resources.
Wind gusts in southern Puerto Rico reached 50 to over 100 mph on Sunday, compromising its beleaguered electrical grid. The strongest gust of 103 mph was clocked in Ponce, a city on the southern coast that is the second-most populous on the island after the capital, San Juan.
As Puerto Rico‘s governor was briefing the island ahead of Fiona‘s impact the lights went out. The governor has already said LUMA Energy - the private company in charge of transmission & distribution of electricity on the island - is on probation with him. pic.twitter.com/YVEnPPcnZp— David Begnaud (@DavidBegnaud) September 17, 2022
Puerto Rico has a long history of power grid crises and attempts to fix its system. Since Hurricane Maria left the island without power for months in 2017, residents have called on local and federal governments to improve natural disaster response and recovery efforts.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, the state-run utility provider, was awarded $9.4 billion for projects to “transform the island’s electrical system,” the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced in 2021. And this year, FEMA announced 15 new projects — totaling more than $107 million in funds — dedicated to making Puerto Rico’s power grid more reliable.
In a statement at the time, FEMA Federal Disaster Recovery Coordinator José Baquero said the projects would take time but that the agency was “focused on the goal of an unprecedented recovery.”
Fiona’s center passes Puerto Rico
After making landfall in extreme southwest Puerto Rico on Sunday, Fiona’s center passed back over the waters of the Mona Passage to its west. Late Sunday evening, the storm was positioned about midway between the west coast of Puerto Rico and the east coast of the Dominican Republic. It was headed northwest at 9 mph, with landfall in the Dominican Republic anticipated early Monday morning.
Even though the center had passed to its west, the storm was drawing a conveyor belt of torrential rain over Puerto Rico that was anticipated to last through much of the night.
Extreme rainfall and flash flooding
Hurricane #Fiona may produce 12 to 18 inches with a local maximum of 30 inches in Puerto Rico, particularly across the eastern and southern portions of the island. These rainfall amounts will produce catastrophic— National Hurricane Center (@NHC_Atlantic) September 18, 2022
life-threatening flash floods and urban flooding. pic.twitter.com/dy95w7bGGh
Some 12 to 18 inches of rain was predicted across Puerto Rico, with localized 30-inch totals. The heaviest totals will be found in eastern and southeastern Puerto Rico, where a persistent onshore flow east of Fiona’s center will tug ashore a nonstop stream of tropical moisture ripe for a serious deluge. The territory’s high terrain will also enhance torrential rainfall in the mountains.
Sharp rises in rivers have been noted across Puerto Rico — with some topping 10 feet in just a few hours. That will contribute to mudslides and landslides, especially in hilly or mountainous areas, that could prove dangerous or deadly. Travel was discouraged through at least Monday morning as the harsh conditions begin to subside southeast to northwest, although stagnant high water and some mudslide risk will remain.
As a Category 1 storm, Fiona was not expected to be a widespread, destructive wind event like Maria was in 2017, which was a Category 4. Even so, gusts of 40 to 60 mph inland and 70 to 100 mph along the southern coast, were enough to cut power to the island and cause damage to trees and some structures.
The size and strength of Fiona was not sufficient to produce more than a minor storm surge or a rise in ocean water above normally dry land, of a foot or two in most areas, but rip currents will remain a problem through the start of the workweek. There was a high risk of rip currents along Puerto Rico’s southern beaches, and a moderate risk on the north shore of the island. Rip currents will remain dangerous through Tuesday, and care should be taken to avoid the water.
What is next for Fiona
The center of Fiona was expected to cross the Mona Passage between western Puerto Rico and the eastern Dominican Republic early Monday. That could bring the eyewall close to Punta Cana during the predawn hours Monday. Four to 8 inches of rain, with localized totals up to a foot, are projected for the eastern Dominican Republic.
From there, Fiona’s evolution closely hinges on its path. If it continues hewing on the southern edge of the envelope of predictions, it may have a closer brush with the Dominican Republic’s mountains than models are simulating. That could disrupt the storm’s core circulation and prompt a reorganization that could temporarily weaken it. Conversely, if Fiona skirts the mountains to the east, it will remain intact and able to continue strengthening.
As Fiona has intensified, it has grown taller, meaning it can “feel” southerly winds at the high altitudes. That has been responsible for its slight northward turn in the past 12 hours, and these winds will continue tugging Fiona north over the next several days.
A tropical storm warning is up for Turks and Caicos as well as the southeastern Bahamas, although it is possible the storm’s heaviest rains and strongest winds will remain east of these islands.
Eventually, an approaching trough, or dip in the jet stream, will scoot eastward over the U.S. East Coast and out to sea, dragging Fiona with it. That is good news for mainland U.S. residents, but it could bring Fiona precariously close to Bermuda late Thursday into Friday as a high-end Category 2 hurricane approaching major hurricane status.
There is a chance the Canadian Maritimes and Newfoundland could be in line for eventual impacts toward next weekend, but it’s unclear how likely that will occur.
Jason Samenow and Arelis R. Hernández contributed to this report.
A previous version of this article misspelled the name of a municipality in Puerto Rico. It is Cabo Rojo, not Rojo Cabo.