Isaias causes floods, slides, then grows into hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) – Tropical Storm Isaias knocked out power and caused flooding and small landslides across Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic on Thursday, then strengthened into a hurricane late in the night while moving toward the Bahamas and United States (US) East Coast.

The storm’s rain turned several streets into fast-flowing rivers and toppled trees and some telephone and electrical cables in Puerto Rico, which is still recovering from previous hurricanes and earthquakes.

The National Guard rescued at least 35 people, including two newborns. Authorities in the northwest town of Rincon reported a woman missing after floodwaters swept her away when she tried to drive across a bridge.

Government workers in the Dominican Republic had used loudspeakers to urge people to evacuate ahead of the worst of the storm, while police arrested a handful of surfers in the capital of Santo Domingo accused of violating government storm warnings.

Especially hard hit was Puerto Rico’s southern region, which still shakes daily from aftershocks. Heavy rains inundated neighbourhoods weakened by the tremors, causing some recently abandoned homes to collapse.

A man and a child look at the open flood gates of the Carraizo dam after heavy rain from Tropical Storm Isaias overflowed the reservoir in Trujillo Alto, Puerto Rico. PHOTO: AFP

“Everyone is in a constant state of emergency,” said Marieli Grant with Mercy Corps.

By late Thursday, Isaias had maximum sustained winds of 80 mph, making it a Category 1 hurricane. It was centred about 70 miles east-southeast of Great Inagua Island in the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday, the US National Hurricane Centre said.

It was moving northwest at 18 mph, and its centre was forecast to move near the southeastern Bahamas during the night, be near the central Bahamas late yesterday and move near or over the northwest Bahamas and near South Florida today.

A hurricane warning was issued for the northwestern Bahamas, including Andros Island, New Providence, Eleuthera, Abacos Islands, Berry Islands, Grand Bahamas Island, and Bimini.

Tropical storm warnings were posted for the Turks and Caicos Islands and portions of the Dominican Republic, Haiti and the Bahamas. A tropical storm watch was in effect for the east coast of Florida from Ocean Reef to Sebastian Inlet.

The storm knocked out power to more than 400,000 clients across Puerto Rico, including hospitals that switched to generators, and left some 150,000 customers without water. Crews opened the gates of one dam that last month had such a low water level that officials cut service every other day for some 140,000 customers. Outages also were reported in the neighbouring US Virgin Islands.

Other damage including 14 per cent of cell towers down was reported elsewhere across Puerto Rico, where tens of thousands of people still use tarps as roofs over homes damaged by Hurricane Maria in September 2017.

“I didn’t think it was going to be this strong,” said José Pagán, a 22-year-old who lives in the eastern mountain town of Juncos and whose home was slightly flooded. “It’s a rather difficult experience because it reminds us of Maria.”

More than 50 people sought shelter in Puerto Rico, said Governor Wanda Vázquez, who urged those living near swollen rivers to find refuge. But many remained wary of shelter given a spike in COVID-19 cases on the island.

In the western town of Mayaguez, Alan Rivera, a 40-year-old engineer, told the AP that the street in front of his house turned into a flowing river – something that didn’t even happen during Hurricane Maria. He and his family planned to temporarily move in with his parents despite concerns about the coronavirus.

“We have to take the risk,” he said. “There’s no other alternative.”