Americas

Almost two years after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico may face crucial test from Dorian

Almost two years after Hurricane Maria upended life in Puerto Rico, killing thousands and knocking out power in some areas for almost a year, the island is bracing for another trial by wind and rain.

Tropical Storm Dorian gained strength overnight and is now expected to sweep over eastern Puerto Rico Wednesday afternoon, dumping 4-6 inches of rain on parts of the island and carrying sustained winds of 60 mph.

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Although the U.S. territory has made great strides since getting raked by Irma and Maria in 2017, the slow pace of insurance payments and federal aid means many areas are still recovering from the storms.

Puerto Rico’s Housing Administration says anywhere from 25,000 to 30,000 people still don’t have permanent roofs after Maria. And some cities and towns, particularly in the central highlands, are rebuilding roads that washed out two years ago.

The storm will be just the latest challenge for Vázquez, who took office Aug. 2, after former Gov. Ricardo Rosselló quit amid massive protests that erupted when it emerged that he’d participated in a tasteless and offensive chat group and some of his cabinet officials were arrested on corruption charges.

Vázquez has been reassuring jittery islanders that the territory is in much better shape than it was before Maria — particularly its power and telecommunications grids.

After Maria slammed the island as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Sept. 20, 2017, the entirety of the island’s 3.2 million residents were without power for months, and some areas didn’t have electricity for almost a full year. The prolonged collapse of the power grid drove up the mortality rate, and the government now estimates almost 3,000 people lost their lives as a result of the storm.

Vázquez said the island’s AEE power company has more than 120,000 light bulbs, more than 7,400 transformers and more than 23,000 spare posts on reserve. In addition, it has agreements with 33 companies from the mainland to provide emergency personnel and equipment after the storm passes.

Few of those provisions existed before Maria, Vázquez said. While the AEE only had reserves of $22 million when Maria hit, it now has a war chest of $141 million, she said.

The telecommunications grid has also been upgraded. Since 2017, more than 1,000 miles of additional fiber optic cable have been laid and there are three times as many generators dedicated to keeping communications online, Vázquez said.

“After Maria we learned our lesson very well,” Vázquez said late Tuesday. “All of our agencies are ready and we’re much more prepared than when Hurricane Maria attacked our island.”

The storm’s trajectory seemed to catch President Donald Trump by surprise.

“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico,” he wrote on Twitter Tuesday. “Will it ever end?”

Trump also repeated a claim that Congress had approved $92 billion for Puerto Rico’s recovery after Maria. Experts say, however, that number is closer to $41 billion and that, almost two years after the storm, less than half of it has been disbursed.

“As if it wasn’t enough with all the trauma that Puerto Rico has experienced after Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump continues to lie about the money that was appropriated to the island,” the communications director of the Florida Democratic Party, Luisana Pérez, said in a statement. “The president should be reminded that Puerto Rico not only did not receive all the money assigned but that the recovery of the island was slow due to the inefficiency of his administration.”

Vázquez said she had been in touch with officials from Homeland Security, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the White House and all were being cooperative and expressing support for the island.

Dorian was initially forecast to pass south of Puerto Rico, but as it weakened and became disorganized over the Windward Islands late Tuesday, a new eye formed farther north — putting it on trajectory to hit much of Puerto Rico’s southwest.

During a flyover late Tuesday, “the hurricane hunter found another center [had] developed well to the north,” said Roberto García, meteorologist-in-chief of Puerto Rico’s National Weather Service. “And that changes everything.”

On Wednesday, the National Hurricane Center said the storm had gained strength and is expected to bring up to six inches of rain to Puerto Rico and the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. Life-threatening flash floods, surf and rip current conditions will be possible.

A tropical storm watch is in effect for Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands and part of the Dominican Republic. A hurricane conditions are possible in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

García said the storm was small but could dump 4-6 inches of rain across the island, and up to 8 inches in some areas, creating risks of flash flooding. It’s also expected to bring winds of about 60 miles per hour, with stronger gusts.

The storm is expected to hit parts of Dominican Republic Wednesday night, before moving toward South Florida over the weekend.

Shopping centers on the streets of the capital were crowded late Tuesday as people stocked up on water, batteries and bags of rice. Classes have been canceled across the island Wednesday and authorities plan to use more than 350 school buildings as emergency shelters if needed.

Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory of 3.2 million people, had been struggling through a deep economic crisis long before the 2017 storm season. The island is more than $70 billion in debt, and has seen an exodus to the mainland. Since 2016, the island’s budget has been controlled by a federally appointed oversight committee.

The island’s financial weakness was one of the reasons it was so ill prepared for Maria and has taken so long to recover.

Jenniffer González, Puerto Rico’s non-voting member of the U.S. House of Representatives and the chairwoman of Puerto Rico’s Republican Party, has said that Washington’s perception that the outgoing Rosselló administration was inept and corrupt has kept aid from flowing to the island quickly.

This story has been updated to reflect the latest statements from the National Hurricane Center and correct the spelling of the name of the communications director of the Florida Democratic Party.

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