(TNS) - Days after Hurricane Maria cratered homes and shredded power lines, officials in Puerto Rico on Friday continued rescue efforts, while warning that death tolls would likely increase as flooding continues to affect large portions of the island.
The National Weather Service said the Guajataca Dam, on the western side of the island, was failing Friday afternoon and that evacuations were underway. The weather service said the failure is causing flash flooding downstream on the Rio Guajataca, where several rural communities are situated.
Overall, at least six people were killed in the U.S. territory as a result of Maria, said Hector M. Pesquera, secretary of the Puerto Rico Department of Public Safety.
In Utuado, a town about 65 miles west of San Juan, three people died in a landslide. And three people were killed as a result of floods and falling debris in the suburbs of San Juan.
“These are fatalities we know of,” Pesquera said. “We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven’t been able to confirm.”
For several days, Maria has pummeled the Caribbean, leaving a deadly trail and recovery efforts that will last several months.
On Friday, Maria began to pass northeast of the Turks and Caicos as a Category 3 storm. A hurricane warning remained in effect for those islands as well as for the southeastern Bahamas. The storm is expected to veer into the open Atlantic Ocean and pose no threat to the U.S. mainland.
Prior to the storm’s arrival here Wednesday, it had already killed at least 15 on the island of Dominica. Two more were killed on the island of Guadeloupe, one in the U.S. Virgin Islands.
While the eye of Maria has passed Puerto Rico, heavy rains continue to blanket portions of the island.
With most radio, television and cellphone towers down, communication remains difficult, if not impossible, on parts of the island. Officials have imposed an overnight curfew through Saturday.
In San Juan, the airport was expected to open Friday, but many other businesses remained shuttered. Roads were blocked by flooding and downed trees. Whole blocks were still submerged. The island was already facing an economic crisis before the storm, and many victims expected the recovery to be slow, especially the electrical grid.
U.S. utility crews from the mainland were headed to Puerto Rico to help restore power. The U.S. military sent staff members and aircraft to assist with search and rescue.
In a statement, Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, said “over 95 percent of Puerto Rico’s wireless cell sites are currently out of service.”
“Unfortunately, getting Puerto Rico’s communications networks up and running will be a challenging process, particularly given the power outages throughout the island,” he said.
Nearly 3,200 U.S. government staffers overseen by the Federal Emergency Management Agency were already in Puerto Rico ahead of the storm’s arrival on Wednesday, helping with recovery efforts in the Caribbean after Hurricane Irma hammered the region last week.
Maria skirted the U.S. Virgin Island of St. Croix, cutting electricity and cellphone service. About 600 people took cover in emergency shelters and the government imposed a curfew, Virgin Islands Gov. Kenneth Mapp said.
Mapp said the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Medical Center in St. Croix had been breached, and patients were being evacuated to the U.S. mainland. He praised residents for sheltering ahead of the storm.
“Given the amount of roofs blown off and scattered debris, you hunkered down and you hunkered down well,” he said.
“It’s going to be a long road to recovery,” Mapp said during a Thursday briefing.
Maria was still a Category 3 hurricane Friday, its remnants expected to bring as much as 40 inches of rain to Puerto Rico, where an islandwide flash flood watch remained in effect Friday.
With winds of up to 125 mph, the hurricane was traveling northeast of Grand Turk Island in the Turks and Caicos early Friday, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was forecast to bring storm surges of up to 12 feet to the southeastern Bahamas as well as the Turks and Caicos, where eight to 16 inches of rain was expected, which could cause flash floods and mudslides. The storm is forecast to gradually weaken during the next two days as it heads north in the Atlantic, the hurricane center said.
The hurricane’s swells were expected to impact the southeastern U.S. coast Friday, the hurricane center said, and could cause dangerous surf and life-threatening rip currents along the coast for several days.
It has been an active hurricane season. Hurricane Irma, a record-breaking powerful storm, killed at least 84 people in the Caribbean and the U.S., and arrived on the heels of Hurricane Harvey, which killed more than 80 people in Texas last month.
(Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Juan and Lee from Los Angeles.)
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