Puerto Rico hit with flooding, widespread power outages from Hurricane Fiona

Hurricane Fiona knocked out power and water to up to one million people in Puerto Rico. President Biden issued an emergency declaration for the island making federal aid available for rescue efforts during and after the storm. Dr. Michelle Carlo of Direct Relief joined William Brangham to discuss the extent of the damage.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Queen Elizabeth II has been laid to rest after a day steeped in ancient tradition, pageantry and final farewells in London. We will have a full report on this historic day for the United Kingdom.

    But, first, we turn to Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona has knocked out power and water to up to one million people. Power is expected to be out for much of the island for at least several days. There has also been at least one death. Fiona made landfall today in the Dominican Republic and move northwest toward the Turks and Caicos.

    William Brangham reports on what it left behind.

  • William Brangham:

    Gusts of wind whipping by, streets drowning in water, and blackouts across Puerto Rico.

  • Person:

    It is approximately maybe 10 feet from hitting the bridge.

  • William Brangham:

    The over 30 inches of rain that has fallen by midday today has tested the island's resilience.

  • Person:

    This is crazy.

  • William Brangham:

    It's an eerie, familiar sight, almost exactly five years since Hurricane Maria left the island powerless for months.

    Today, the island's governor, Pedro Pierluisi, called Hurricane Fiona's damage catastrophic.

  • Gov. Pedro Pierluisi (D), Puerto Rico (through translator):

    In many areas that had never seen flooding, there has been an unprecedented accumulation of water. In fact, in many areas, it was greater than what we saw during Hurricane Maria.

  • William Brangham:

    In advance of the storm, residents bought small generators and nailed wooden covers over windows.

    After the rain started to hit, over 1,000 people had to be rescued from their homes, and more than 2,000 people spent the night in shelters. Other infrastructure, like this temporary bridge built after Maria, was no match for the floodwaters.

    President Biden issued an emergency declaration for the island, making federal aid available for rescue efforts during and after the storm. The president also spoke with Governor Pierluisi via phone today, promising continued federal support in the coming days.

    But Hurricane Fiona is not done yet. Early this morning, its winds hit the Dominican Republic, engulfing cities and homes there in water, all while it continues to pound Puerto Rico, leaving devastation in its wake.

    So, for more on this storm and the relief efforts under way, I'm joined by Dr. Michelle Carlo. She's the medical adviser for the organization Direct Relief of Puerto Rico.

    You're on the island right now. And I know getting around is very, very difficult. But can you give us a sense of just what you're hearing about the extent of the damage?

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo, Direct Relief:

    Sure. Thank you so much for having me.

    Unfortunately, Fiona, for Puerto Rico, in certain areas has exerted as much damage as, five years ago, Hurricane Maria did. We're hearing of historical flooding in certain municipalities that, due to the traditional path of storms, did not get hit as hard in the past, such as the southwestern area of Puerto Rico, the townships of Lajas, Cabo Rojo, Ponce are devastated, flooded.

    Roads are blocked due to destroyed bridges. So, unfortunately, the devastation is huge.

  • William Brangham:

    You're saying that these are places that don't traditionally get hit by the storms that do occasionally come through.

    So, did people perhaps not heed warnings to evacuate or perhaps didn't think, oh, it's not going to hit us?

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    I think that this storm, in particular, was an ever-changing story as it came closer to Puerto Rico.

    It — as recent as a day ago, we were expecting a tropical storm. And it wasn't until it hit the southern — southwestern tip of the island that we realized we would be getting Category 1 hurricane winds and this historical amount of rainfall that we hadn't seen in many, many years.

    To get a little bit of context, Maria, Category 5 hurricane in Puerto Rico, delivered about 30 inches of — 30 to 40 inches of rain in Puerto Rico. And we're closing in on a total of 30 inches when all is said and done with Category 1 Fiona. So I don't think it was a matter of people not heeding. I think we just didn't put it in context, because we're kind of used to these type of storms coming across all the time.

    And we hear Category 1, and, after Maria, we say, OK, Category 1, we can do this, we can handle it. And it certainly surprised us as to how much water damage is going to happen after the storm is finally gone, which it hasn't. We're still in a tropical storm advisory. We're still in shelter-in-place directives from the government.

  • William Brangham:

    I know that the rain is still coming down, perhaps not as intensely as it was just yesterday and earlier. What are — is your sense of the most immediate needs that people are requiring right now?

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    I think access.

    I think there are people that are isolated due to blocked roads, landslides, people that have been displaced from their homes. Salinas, one of the southern municipalities, have reported 2,000 people that have had to leave their homes.

    So I think access to whether it be essential food, water or medical services is the most important component of these next 24, 48 hours. And I believe it's ready to address that in the short and long term following the storm.

  • William Brangham:

    And what are you hearing as far as power outages? We know that Maria five years ago did incredible damage to the power grid there and there was considerable outages.

    Is power coming back on in certain places?

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    It has.

    As of yesterday around this time, 100 percent of Puerto Rico was without power. The government and the power company worked hard to reestablish power in critical areas, such as the medical center, where we call Centro Medico in Puerto Rico, which is the only tertiary hospital in the island.

    So that did get power back on in around midnight last night; 70 percent of Puerto Rico remains without power today, mostly dependent on generators. So there's still a lot of work to be done. There are 750,000 people in Puerto Rico that still have no water as well.

  • William Brangham:

    And we know that, without access to fresh drinking water, that's one of the most threatening things for human survivability.

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    That's correct.

    And not only that. There's now what we call the sequela, the medical sequela of not having access to clean water, which are communicable diseases, such as leptospirosis, which we did see after Maria. There was a report today warning the population not to drink water from — that may have been touched by the dirty rivers, et cetera.

    So it becomes a real crisis, not only immediately, but in the upcoming weeks.

  • William Brangham:

    And we know that we were just moments away from the five-year anniversary of Maria doing such incredible damage. And then this comes on top of it. It seems like the rebuilding is going to be an enormous job for weeks, months, years ahead.

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    Definitely.

    And I think it sheds — it highlights the importance of, when we think about rebuilding, we need to kind of do a little shifting paradigms in terms of preparedness, rather than — thinking of preparedness and resiliency, rather than just relief after the storms.

    And I hope, from this type of disaster, everybody learns the lesson that Direct Relief has learned in the past five years, to make it so that we are better prepared and can withstand things that we have no control over, which is how often and how severe future storms may be in the face of climate change, et cetera.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, that is Dr. Michelle Carlo, Direct Relief of Puerto Rico.

    Thank you so much for being here.

  • Dr. Michelle Carlo:

    Thank you for having me.

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