Hurricane

‘This is a biggie’: Puerto Rico prepares for first Cat 5 hurricane in nearly 90 years

Two men share a laugh as they and other residents of Old San Juan take advantage of the open hurricane shelter at City Hall in advance of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico on Tuesday.
Two men share a laugh as they and other residents of Old San Juan take advantage of the open hurricane shelter at City Hall in advance of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

The relieved sigh Puerto Ricans heaved after Hurricane Irma’s menacing eye just missed them two weeks ago has long been forgotten now that Hurricane Maria, Irma’s wicked cousin, has everyone on the Caribbean island holding their breath.

Maria is coming straight for them.

“Today, I’m afraid. This is a biggie,” said 79-year-old Barbara Royce, a 40-year Puerto Rican resident of San Juan’s Toa Baja neighborhood. “This one’s coming, and we can’t get away.”

National Hurricane Center forecasters warned of a “potentially catastrophic” Category 5 storm, with 165 mph winds Tuesday. President Donald Trump declared a preemptive state of emergency. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked “for America’s prayers.”

But true to laid-back Caribbean form, Puerto Ricans didn’t quite panic.

Under gray skies, shoppers streamed into a Walmart Supercenter in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce early Tuesday afternoon, grabbing last-minute supplies from shelves empty of water. But they also sat down for leisurely hot lunches at the store’s cafeteria. Workers continued to stock fresh bananas.

The only bona-fide frenzy took place when employees wheeled in a pallet of battery-operated fans, so recently arrived that they didn’t yet bear price stickers — and so coveted that a gaggle of employees stood guard around the cache. A rush of people lined up — it seemed as if every customer left clutching at least one, for $20 a pop — but there was a catch.

“There are no batteries,” 26-year-old Juan Carlos Contreras, fan in hand, said with a shrug.

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Walmart shoppers stand in line to purchase battery-operated fans in advance of Hurricane Maria in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Maria, which went from an unnamed storm into a Category 5 over the course of a stunning 24 hours on Monday, ravaged Dominica and took aim at the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, which has not taken a direct Cat 5 hit since 1928.

Maria is expected to cross Puerto Rico from southeast to northwest starting Wednesday morning. Up to nine feet of storm surge and 25 inches of rainfall are forecast in some areas, with dangerous flash floods and mudslides possible until as late as Saturday.

Of particular concern is that Maria’s southeast landfall will take out the island’s most crucial power plants, plunging Puerto Rico into darkness. For how long, nobody can say: up to six months, utility administrators estimated before Irma.

“We have not experienced an event of this magnitude in our modern history,” said Rosselló, who spent much of the day urging residents on radio and cable news to get out of flimsy homes, now.

“PREPARE FOR THE WORST,” warned the Primera Hora newspaper. “EXTREMELY DANGEROUS,” El Vocero declared.

Yet residents of vulnerable flood zones seemed slow to decamp to emergency shelters.

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Families share a game of cards as they and other residents of Old San Juan take advantage of the open hurricane shelter at City Hall in advance of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico on Tuesday. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

At 7 p.m., the government said 3,288 evacuees — and 105 pets — had checked into the island’s 500 facilities, which can house more than 66,000.

Inside Old San Juan’s colonial City Hall, where metal shutters covered arching second-floor windows, rows of black cots greeted residents of La Perla, a low-lying neighborhood of thinly roofed shacks along the capital’s coastline shaken by Irma. Four men played dominoes in a table setup in an airy courtyard. Another table offered worn board games: Memory, Chinese Checkers, Connect 4.

“All we’re missing is a TV!” Felix Roig said, only halfway in jest.

Emilia Cortez, 80, said she also sought refuge in City Hall during Irma.

“My house doesn’t hold up,” she said. “But it will hold up, because God is great.”

Down the street, the sound of drills interrupted an eerily silent day as workmen hastily slapped plywood on storefronts. Some windows sported ineffective duct tape. Others were covered with what appeared to be thick cardboard. Many went entirely unprotected.

Puerto Ricans’ sunny attitude appeared to rub off on tourists, who were among the only people mingling with an impressive swarm of pigeons in a deserted Plaza de Armas. Bachata music blared from a small café where owners were busy tying down property.

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Mario Baniaga, left, and Daniel Hernandez board up windows for a client's storefront in advance of Hurricane Maria at the historic Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday. CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Tristan McDivitt, 34, from Los Angeles, landed in San Juan on Monday for a two-week trip after getting lashed by Irma in the Dominican Republic. On Tuesday, he found supermarket shelves bare of milk and cold cuts. His Airbnb host recommended buying water, peanut butter, crackers and tuna.

“Since it’s an old city, they must have had a lot of experience,” McDivitt said. “When the water goes, that’s bad. It didn’t go for Irma. So, as long as there’s water …”

“I didn’t even know a storm was coming until a coworker sent me a Facebook message yesterday,” said Nathalie Rojas, 28, of Houston, who arrived Friday for a beach vacation with her two sons.

Last month, they were stuck at home for six days by flood waters from Tropical Storm Harvey.

“I was like, everybody’s so calm!” she said of Puerto Ricans’ Maria warnings. “I had no idea.”

Her hotel offered her extra towels and trash bags, and Rojas felt reassured because her room has no windows.

“At least we got to go to the beaches.”

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