A crack that could burst a western Puerto Rico dam will not require the emergency evacuation of about 70,000 people, the island’s government said Saturday, backtracking on an alarming estimate made Friday over fear that three towns could be washed away by the Guajacata River.
Only a handful of neighborhoods in two towns immediately adjacent to the river need to be cleared out, affecting just 350 people. Most live in Isabela, a coastal town west of where Maria, a ferocious Category 4 storm, exited Puerto Rico on Wednesday night.
Behind Friday’s panic was the discovery that an unrepaired 34-inch crack attributed to erosion might not withstand the dam’s unprecedented level of high waters.
“The fissure has turned into a significant rupture,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said Saturday, after his administration admitted Friday’s evacuation estimate had been made in error. “It could break at any moment.”
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The 70,000 number came from adding the populations of Isabela, Quebradillas and neighboring San Sebastián. In reality, only six Quebradillas houses –—home to about 25 people — had been ordered to leave, according to Miguel Abrams, the town’s emergency manager. And most were bunking with family and friends: Only three people had arrived at a local shelter.
Still, a dam break could destroy the Route 2 bridge connecting Quebradillas to Isabela, and threaten the towns’ potable water supply.
“We’re hoping that, by the grace of God, nothing happens,” Quebradillas Mayor Heriberto Vélez said.
More people had sought shelter in Isabela, a coastal town where Maria left palm trees strewn like bowling pins. Police and soldiers went door to door Friday evening in the Llanados, Poncito and San Antonio de la Tuna neighborhoods, using a megaphone to get people out.
The rush left little time for residents to gather belongings they had barely unpacked after returning home from Maria.
“I didn’t bring anything! But I went back today to get clothes,” said Sandra González, 36, one of 230 people staying at Francisco Mendoza High School. Fifty-six people have been there since before Maria arrived; the rest arrived Friday night, with no indication of when they might go back home.
As it turned out, Maria’s threat continued long after it stopped blowing through the devastated island.
“I didn’t leave because of the storm,” González said. “Now I have to leave because of the river.”
The shelter’s youngest evacuee: 8-day-old Luis Alfredo Rodríguez, whose parents were able to keep him home only for a day or so after leaving the hospital. They then moved into a friend’s house to ride out Maria.
“We haven’t had a happy day since he was born,” lamented one of the newborn’s grandmothers, 70-year-old Solia Romero. Both had decamped to the high school, along with Luis Alfredo’s parents, pushing together green cots in a darkened second-floor classroom.
They echoed other evacuees who questioned whether their homes faced any real risk.
“After 40 years?” asked an incredulous Geraldo Rodríguez, the baby’s father. “That water is really going to cross over the woods?”
While the dam crisis drew much of the government’s attention, the rest of the island remained in a critical state of emergency.
“Our focus continues to be to save lives and ensure public safety in the hope that we can reach some stability,” said Rosselló, who set up an emergency command at the San Juan convention center. He shortened a daily curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. but warned that violators would be subject to six months in jail.
His administration still could not say what resources were necessary at hospitals. Centro Médico in Río Piedras was designated to receive key cases; a Río Piedras cancer center will take traumas. Puerto Rico has confirmed nine deaths blamed on Maria; 11,000 people — and 400 pets — remain in 178 shelters across the island.
The island’s energy infrastructure has collapsed, with some power corridors nonexistent, the government said, though a key plant in Salinas, in southern Puerto Rico, survived relatively unscathed. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is bringing in six high-capacity generators. As of 6 a.m. Saturday, 1.6 million gallons of drinking water had arrived, with more on the way.
The San Juan Bay port opened for delivery of fuel and emergency supplies, but no ships will be allowed to dock at night due to damaged navigational infrastructure. Barges were ready to bring aid to the eastern Puerto Rico island municipalities of Vieques and Culebra, though the Coast Guard had yet to clear their ports for use.
The San Juan airport began to land flights Saturday, according to the government, though commercial flights have been widely canceled for days. Regional airports in Aguadilla, Ceiba and Ponce were taking emergency and military flights only. The lone radio station broadcasting across the island, WAPA, was running low on diesel for its generators.
Two major distributors, Total Petroleum and Puma Energy, began supplying gas and diesel Saturday, though only about a quarter of gas stations were operational.
“We don’t have a problem with fuel: We have a problem with distribution,” said Michael Pierluisi, head of Puerto Rico’s consumer affairs department.
In Quebradillas, emergency managers were still mostly cut off from the rest of the island. A single radio kept the town connected to the biggest nearby city, Arecibo, and to the capital, San Juan. Town leaders drove to San Juan on Saturday to request water cisterns, diesel and a satellite phone.
Near the town’s emergency operations center, locals stood for hours in the heat outside a gas station, hoping to buy a maximum $10 per person in fuel. A pizza joint across the street, Leo’s, was doing brisk business selling pies with bubbling cheese — and warm sodas.
“We don’t even know if the truck is coming,” said Annette Pérez, a 54-year-old postal worker from Bridgeport, Connecticut, who had been visiting her mother on the island when Maria made landfall. She’d been waiting in line for five hours Saturday.
Pérez said she had trekked Friday to Aguadilla airport to inquire about her return flight. She waded through a flooded terminal and found no employees or recovery efforts under way.
“My husband and three kids are home” in Connecticut with no news of her since the storm hit, she said. “My heart is split in two. How can I leave my mother in a dangerous situation?”
In Arecibo, near where Maria’s eye plowed through, a gaggle of family, friends and employees clad in gloves emptied the muddy remains of a Gulf gas station destroyed by seven feet of water from the Arecibo River. Of particular concern: The gas station also housed a pharmacy.
“The medical recipe book is gone. The office is gone. Medical equipment is gone,” said employee Nelson Rodríguez, 29, his pants and shirt speckled with gunk. The mud was still so fresh it dripped off plywood and trash bags and detritus like melted chocolate.
Owner Ivis González said she salvaged the medicine she could and transported it to a second pharmacy she owns. Filling prescriptions was more complicated; a computer listing her customers’ orders was safe, but people were showing up asking for medicine even if they had never shopped at her pharmacy before.
“If they bring me their prescription bottle, I can sell them something,” she said. “If they have a record, I can refill them for a month.
“We need help.”
Martínez reported from San Juan.