Florida and the southeastern United States might not fare as well; Dorian is expected to hit the U.S. mainland, probably on Labor Day. Meteorologists expect the hurricane to intensify as it spins northwest over the warm ocean waters, and it could become a Category 4 storm as it nears the Florida coast, with winds greater than 130 mph. But the storm’s path is uncertain, potentially targeting anywhere from Miami to Jacksonville and points farther north, prompting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) to expand an emergency declaration to all 67 counties across the state.
Hurricane Dorian: Florida on guard for potential major hurricane strike
Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) also declared an emergency for the state’s coastal counties, where state officials are primarily concerned about flooding in communities such as Savannah.
“It’s too early to tell, and that’s part of the struggle,” said Lisa Rodriguez-Presley, external affairs supervisor for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. “We are preparing for all kinds of contingencies. … The storm has slowed and given us time to get ready.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency is moving quickly to wrap up operations in Puerto Rico and pivot to the states where life-threatening storm surge, hurricane-force winds and blinding rain could begin to pound the U.S. coastline by Sunday night into Monday morning.
While the southeastern states worry about what might be coming, the U.S. territories in the Caribbean are worried about what might have been — government officials say they aren’t sure they’re ready should a major hurricane make a direct hit, especially because the islands have not fully recovered from Maria.
In the Virgin Islands, Gov. Albert Bryan (D) surveyed the damage in St. John and St. Thomas, where Dorian swept through with 80 mph winds that downed power lines and cut off electricity to thousands of customers. Residents recorded video footage of intense rain, flooding and terrifying gusts.
Government officials said that by first light, public works crews were clearing roads and utility workers were repairing power lines. The government was investigating one report of a death of an elderly resident but it appeared she might have succumbed to natural causes.
Four inches of rain in Puerto Rico on Thursday from Dorian’s tail triggered flooding in the southeast and center of the big island. Fewer than 1,000 customers lost power because of the storm, not much different from a normal day given Puerto Rico’s fragile power grid, officials said. At least one person was reported dead after a fall during the storm, but government officials have not confirmed details.
Normalcy resumed on Thursday and by midmorning, Gov. Wanda Vásquez-Garced released a copy of Puerto Rico’s first emergency plan drafted after Maria, identifying crucial failures in the island government’s ability to respond to a disaster.
Hurricane Maria and its aftermath displaced and killed thousands of residents, collapsed telecommunications and the power grid, destroyed about 70,000 homes, and resulted in an estimated $90 billion in overall damage. Congress has appropriated nearly half that much in disaster aid, but a little more than $14 billion has been spent in Puerto Rico.
Puerto Rico’s electric and communication infrastructure is an “extreme vulnerability” for the U.S. commonwealth and its government’s “excessive bureaucratic and regulatory procedure” hampered the response and recovery, the emergency plan said.
FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, Nick Russo, said Puerto Rico’s geographical location poses one of the greatest challenges in quickly moving resources from the mainland United States to the island. Disaster response, he said, is time-sensitive, and the agency is working with local governments to eliminate some of those hurdles.
“We get smarter each time,” Russo said. “We add to the plan and get better.”
Jerry Kirkland, an emergency manager in Naguabo — a low-income coastal community in southeastern Puerto Rico — said communication is always a problem between the state and municipal governments. Although coordination between local governments improved during Dorian, he said specific needs never reached the upper levels of the command structure.
Naguabo has one municipal hospital that serves residents in neighboring rural areas but the generator that powers it in an emergency is failing. Kirkland said he and his staff have for months been asking for help in the cash-strapped municipality. Without a new backup power source, thousands of people will lose access to medical care in a disaster.
Puerto Rico’s municipal governments are the first responders in an emergency, but they lack the resources and access to heavy equipment that could come from federal or state sources, local officials said. Even larger cities such as Ponce, in the south, struggle to mobilize debris-clearing teams and rescue operations efficiently. It is a persistent problem for the U.S. territory, which has been in a recession for more than a decade and lost control over its finances when Congress appointed a federal fiscal oversight board in 2016.
“We have the responsibility but not the resources,” said Ponce Mayor Mayita Meléndez.