Over the course of the weekend on September 18, the United States territories of Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands suffered the direct effects of what started as Tropical Storm Fiona, which then strengthened into a hurricane. Both territories were pummeled with significant levels of rain that took a toll on already-weakened infrastructure across the islands.
On the fifth anniversary of Hurricane María’s path through the region, the islands must now endure another recovery process.
US Virgin Islands register minimal destruction
Registering winds of up to 47 mph, and rainfall of up to six inches in St. Croix, the US Virgin Islands were spared from the worst of Fiona’s power, due to the fact that the storm strengthened after it had passed through the territory’s immediate area. The rain persisted through Sunday, but to residents’ surprise, electric power stayed on for most in the territory according to The Virgin Islands Consortium. The USVI Water and Power Authority attributed its performance to several strategies it has put into place, including installing new equipment to reduce the number of customers affected by outages and proactively maintaining the infrastructure.
While some outages were reported, and services ranging from ports to schools were canceled in the wake of the storm passing, life was quickly returning to normal in the territory.
Puerto Rico experiences catastrophic flooding worse than Maria
Unlike its neighboring territory to the east, Puerto Rico was not as lucky with Fiona. Flooding across the main islands reached catastrophic levels, with some areas registering as much as 35 inches of rain. Some citizens have described the destruction from Fiona as being worse than that of Hurricane María.
The entire territory was without power once the storm reached the area, this after residents had been experiencing constant outages over the past year. In addition, nearly 70% of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority’s customer base had lost access to drinking water.
In the immediate aftermath, four fatal victims had been registered, with 2,146 individuals seeking refuge in public shelters. Nearly 1,000 people had to be rescued or evacuated by the Puerto Rico National Guard, with the figure rising as people found themselves stranded. Estimates also pointed to 90% of plantain and banana crops across the southern and western portions of the main island being destroyed.
The devastation that wrecked roads and left many isolated without access to transportation once again garnered national and international attention. David Begnaud reprised his role covering the aftermath of a major disaster in Puerto Rico, with his reporting leading the CBS Mornings broadcast.
As rains began to subside, a frenzy to begin recovery efforts started, with most attention focusing on the restoration of electric power. Puerto Rico’s government set up a website to report on the status of services on the territory, with only 300,000 out of nearly 1,500,000 million LUMA Energy customers having power as of publishing time. Problems with filtration and the lack of power also contributed to 60% of PRASA customers lacking access to water in their homes.
One bright spot during this atmospheric event was that only 7% of cell sites went out of service, in contrast to the experience after Hurricane María when widespread outages left most of the population without any access to reliable communication for weeks.
Federal response underway
President Joe Biden (D) addressed the ongoing emergency, approving an emergency declaration and speaking with Governor Pedro Pierluisi (NPP, D). President Biden described the surge of Federal support to the island, where more than 300 Federal personnel are already working to assist with response and recovery. In the coming days, as damage assessments are conducted, the President said that number of support personnel will increase substantially.
Governor Pierluisi expressed his appreciation for the partnership and support that he is receiving already from the Biden Administration. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Deanne Criswell will travel to Puerto Rico to meet with state and local officials and impacted citizens and assess urgent needs that the President has directed FEMA to meet.