Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria.
The drama unfolded as the US island territory, working without electricity, struggled to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean.
The 1920’s era earthen dam on the Guajataca River in northwest Puerto Rico cracked on Friday, prompting the government to issue an order for 70,000 people in downstream towns to evacuate.
The local office of the National Weather Service warned Friday evening of an “imminent dam break.”
A Puerto Rican government official who refused to be named confirmed Saturday that evacuations that began Friday evening were continuing.
He said the dam had cracked under the weight of so much flooding, sending water gushing through and prompting fears of flash flooding.
On Friday, public safety chief Hector Pesquera had cited a different cause for the initial dam failure, according to the newspaper El Vocero. Pesquera said a drain which normally releases water from the dam in a controlled fashion had broken, sending it gushing out in torrents.
Puerto Rico was already battling dangerous floods elsewhere on the island because of Hurricane Maria, which hit before dawn Wednesday as part of its furious tear across the Caribbean.
Governor Ricardo Rossello visited Isabela, an area near the dam, late Friday and urged people to get out. The government is also sending in buses to take people to higher ground.
As the island is without power but for emergency generators, and without telecommunications, the governor’s entourage left a satellite phone with the mayor of Isabela so he can talk to crews manning the dam.
Rossello has called Maria the most devastating storm to hit the island in a century.
So far, a preliminary assessment said 13 people had died as a result of the storm, he told CNN Friday.
In its latest update at 1500 GMT, the US National Hurricane Center said Maria was moving northwest and located 320 miles (515 km) east of Nassau in the Bahamas.
So far, at least 33 people have been confirmed dead as a result of Hurricane Maria, including 15 in Dominica, three in Haiti and two in Guadeloupe.
After speaking with Puerto Rico’s governor on Thursday night, US President Donald Trump promised to speed up relief efforts.
Of the 13 victims in Puerto Rico, eight died in the northern town of Toa Baja, one of the worst-hit areas which were ravaged by winds of more than 125 miles per hour (200 kilometres per hour) and then hit by flooding when the island’s largest river, La Plata, burst its banks. The winds have eased a bit since then but not much.
Many residents did not evacuate in time, while others say they never heard the warning sirens.
Others could be seen returning home after several days away to begin the arduous process of clearing their homes of the heavy mud left by the floodwaters in order to start the process of rebuilding.
Marisol Rosario, a 55-year-old housewife who fled with her husband, said the violent winds forced her to flee without taking their dog.
“I thought I would find him dead, but he managed to climb on top of the furniture and survive,” she said tearfully.
Aid ships trying to dock
Across the island, streets were littered with debris from the storm, with toppled trees, street signs and power cables strewn everywhere.
The torrential rain also turned some roads into muddy brown rivers, impassable to all but the largest of vehicles.
Puerto Rico’s electricity network has been crippled by the storm and engineers say it could take months for power to be fully restored.
US federal emergency chief Brock Long said ships carrying millions of meals and bottles of water were trying to dock, as the island’s ports are slowly reopened.
Before reaching Puerto Rico, the storm devastated the small island nation of Dominica.
And after striking Puerto Rico, the storm headed west toward the Dominican Republic where it damaged nearly 5,000 homes, forcing the evacuation of more than 18,000 people, the president’s office said.