SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Fiona strengthened into a Category 4 storm Wednesday after lashing the Turks and Caicos Islands and was forecast to squeeze past Bermuda later this week.
The storm was blamed for causing at least four direct deaths in its march through the Caribbean, where it unleashed torrential rain in Puerto Rico, leaving a majority without power or water as hundreds of thousands of people scraped mud out of their homes following what authorities described as “historic” flooding.
Power company officials initially said it would take a couple of days for electricity to be fully restored, but then appeared to backtrack late Tuesday night.
“Hurricane Fiona has severely impacted electrical infrastructure and generation facilities throughout the island. We want to make it very clear that efforts to restore and reenergize continue and are being affected by severe flooding, impassable roads, downed trees, deteriorating equipment, and downed lines,” said Luma, the company that operates power transmission and distribution.
The hum of generators could be heard across the U.S. territory as people became increasingly exasperated, with some still trying to recover from Hurricane Maria, which made landfall as a Category 4 storm five years ago, killing an estimated 2,975 people in its aftermath.
Luis Noguera, who was helping clear a landslide in the central mountain town of Cayey, said Maria left him without power for a year.
“We paid an electrician out of our own pocket to connect us,” he recalled, adding that he doesn’t think the government will be of much help again after Fiona.
Long lines were reported at several gas stations across Puerto Rico, and some pulled off a main highway to collect water from a stream.
“We thought we had a bad experience with Maria, but this was worse,” said Gerardo Rodríguez, who lives in the southern coastal town of Salinas.
Parts of the island had received more than 25 inches (64 centimeters) of rain and more had fallen on Tuesday.
By late Tuesday, authorities said they had restored power to nearly 300,000 of the island’s 1.47 million customers, while water service was cut to more than 760,000 customers — two thirds of the total on the island.
The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency traveled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the agency announced it was sending hundreds of additional personnel to boost local response efforts.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the island and deployed a couple of teams to the island.
In the Turks and Caicos Islands, officials reported minimal damage and no deaths despite the storm’s eye passing close to Grand Turk, the small British territory’s capital island, on Tuesday morning.
Th government had imposed a curfew and urged people to flee flood-prone areas.
“Turks and Caicos had a phenomenal experience over the past 24 hours,” said Deputy Gov. Anya Williams. “It certainly came with its share of challenges.”
Early Wednesday morning, Fiona was centered about 170 miles (275 kilometers) north-northwest of Grand Turk Island, with hurricane-force winds extending up to 30 miles (45 kilometers) from the center. It had maximum sustained winds of 130 mph (215 kph) and was moving north at eight mph (13 kph), according to the National Hurricane Center, which said the storm was likely to strengthen into a Category 4 hurricane as it approaches Bermuda on Friday.
The storm killed a man in the French overseas department of Guadeloupe, another man in Puerto Rico who was swept away by a swollen river and two people in the Dominican Republic: one killed by a falling tree and the other by a falling electric post.
Alejandro Granadillo contributed to this report.