Buses carted tens of thousands of people in northwest Puerto Rico away from their homes Friday after a dam appeared to be failing, the latest catastrophe for the hurricane-battered island.
The mass evacuations — about 70,000 people live in the municipalities of Isabela and Quebradillas — follow severe winds and flooding brought by Hurricane Maria. Officials have already called the storm the worst of the past century for Puerto Rico.
Much of the island remains without power. The National Weather Service in San Juan said that residents of Isabela and Quebradillas are being evacuated because the nearby Guajataca Dam was failing.
Details remained sketchy about the evacuation with communications hampered after the storm. The dam, completed in 1927 and last inspected in October 2013, is maintained by the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, according to a 2016 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is a hydroelectric dam 120 feet high holding water from the Guajataca River in Teranova County.
The 345-yard dam holds back a man-made lake covering about 2 square miles, U.S. government records show.
All across the battered island, residents feared power could be out for weeks — or even months — and wondered how they would cope. Some of the island’s 3.4 million residents planned to head to the U.S. to temporarily escape the desolation. At least in the short term, though, the soggy misery will continue: additional rain — up to 6 inches — is expected through Saturday.
In San Juan, Neida Febus wandered around her neighborhood with bowls of cooked rice, ground meat and avocado, offering food to anyone in need. The damage was so extensive, the 64-year-old retiree said, that she didn’t think the power would be turned back on until Christmas.
“This storm crushed us from one end of the island to the other,” she said.
By Friday afternoon, Maria was passing northeast of the Turks and Caicos with winds of 125 mph (205 kph). A hurricane warning remained in effect for those islands as well as the southeastern Bahamas. The storm is not expected to pose a threat to the U.S. mainland.
Meanwhile, the loss of power left residents hunting for gas canisters for cooking, collecting rainwater or steeling themselves mentally for the hardships to come in the tropical heat.
“You cannot live here without power,” said Hector Llanos, a 78-year-old retired New York police officer who planned to leave Saturday for the U.S. mainland to live there temporarily.
Diana Jaquez, one of the owners of the Coquette hair salon in the Santurce area, assessed damage from the storm with her husband Friday as their children played nearby. She said she hadn’t decided whether to leave the island.
“Business has dropped a lot,” she said. “People have other priorities than looking good.”
Outside her store, more than 100 people stood in line waiting to get money out of an ATM machine and hoping there would still be some cash left when their turn came.
“We knew this was going to happen given the vulnerable infrastructure,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would open an air bridge from the mainland on Friday, with three to four military planes flying to the island every day carrying water, food, generators and temporary shelters.