Puerto Rico battles blackout and lack of safe water in wake of Hurricane Fiona | Puerto Rico

Most of Puerto Rico was still without power or safe drinking water on Monday, with remnants of a category 1 hurricane that struck there a day earlier forecast to bring more heavy rain and life-threatening flooding.

Hundreds of people are trapped in emergency shelters across the Caribbean island, with major roads underwater and reports of numerous collapsed bridges. Crops have been washed away while flash floods, landslides and fallen trees have blocked roads, swept away vehicles and caused widespread damage to infrastructure.

Two-thirds of the island’s almost 800,000 homes and businesses have no water after Hurricane Fiona caused a total blackout on Sunday and swollen rivers contaminated the filtration system. The storm was causing havoc in the Dominican Republic by early Monday.

Lights went out across Puerto Rico just after 1pm on Sunday, leaving only those households and businesses with rooftop solar or functioning generators with power. Critically ill patients had to be moved from the island’s main cancer hospital in the capital, San Juan, after the backup generator failed due to voltage fluctuations – an issue that has led to regular blackouts over the past year.

Authorities on Monday confirmed the death of one person, whose name hasn’t been released, after a generator exploded in Arecibo, a small city on the north coast.

Electricity had been restored to only 10% or so of customers by Monday morning as anger grew towards Luma, the private US-Canadian consortium that took over transmission and distribution in June 2021.

“Today we woke up full of pain, suffering and destruction of our homes, a product of the merciless abuse of our Mother Earth,” said Nelson Santos Torres, from Salinas. “Our communities are covered in water and mud. Those responsible for these evils are the merchants of death and the parasitic elite.”

A full assessment of the damage to the power lines will not take place until the rain and winds subside, but residents are bracing themselves for several days without electricity.

Fiona triggered painful memories for Puerto Ricans exactly five years after hurricanes Irma and Maria made landfall two weeks apart and destroyed much of the island’s electricity transmission and distribution infrastructure, leading to the longest blackout in US history.

About 3,000 people died in the aftermath as homes, businesses and healthcare facilities were left without power for months.

Yet the energy system remained in disarray as Fiona crashed onshore, despite the Federal Emergency Management Agency (Fema) having approved an unprecedented $16bn to reconstruct the island’s energy system and for hazard mitigation. None has been allocated to distributed rooftop solar – a decentralised energy alternative which grassroot activists and environmental experts argue would be cheaper, cleaner and more resilient.

A man walks on a road flooded by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico.
A man walks on a road flooded by Hurricane Fiona in Cayey, Puerto Rico. Photograph: Stephanie Rojas/AP

“Rooftop solar would provide lifesaving resilience,” said the environmental lawyer and campaigner Ruth Santiago of Queremos Sol, a grassroots movement to move the island away from a centralized energy grid to rooftop solar. “The Puerto Rican government and Fema have not learned anything. They are rebuilding exactly the same system that gets knocked down again and again. People are scared and traumatised.”

Puerto Rico is a tropical archipelago and US territory located a thousand miles or so south-east of Miami. The main island is mostly mountains surrounded by narrow coastal plains where most of the 3 million habitants reside in towns and cities. Over the past two decades, Puerto Rico – along with Haiti and Myanmar – has been among three territories most affected by extreme weather such as storms, floods, heatwaves and droughts, according to the Germanwatch Climate Risk Index.

Storms get more intense more quickly as a result of higher atmospheric and ocean temperatures, making it harder for communities to prepare and adapt.

Much of the existing energy infrastructure – plants, transmitter towers, poles and cables – is in flood-prone areas or at risk of sea level rise, storm surges and tsunamis, as well as strong winds and earthquake damage.

Fiona, which was upgraded from a tropical storm to category 1 hurricane on Sunday morning, is the first major hurricane of the 2022 season. The Joe Biden White House has declared a federal emergency for Puerto Rico, mobilising aid and resources to the island which is officially bankrupt.

Heavy rain and high winds then began damaging the Dominican Republic, and Fiona is expected to strengthen as it moves towards the Turks and Caicos Islands and Bermuda.

The eye of Fiona made landfall in the Dominican Republic near Boca Yuma about 3.30am local time, according to forecasters. It became the first hurricane to directly hit the country since Jeanne left severe damage in the east of the republic in September 2018.

The Dominican Republic shares the Caribbean island of Hispanola with Haiti.
In its eastern part, Fiona brought down trees, power lines and advertisements in the towns of Punta Cana, La Romana and El Seibo during the early hours of Monday. Relief groups said there were no immediate reports of injuries.

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