Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hurricane Dorian strengthens as it borders Puerto Rico

By on August 28, 2019

National Hurricane Center: Tropical storm conditions expected ‘this afternoon and tonight’

SAN JUAN — Dorian became a hurricane near St. Thomas and the U.S. Virgin Islands Wednesday as it approached Puerto Rico. President Donald Trump declared an emergency Tuesday night and ordered federal assistance.

Hurricane conditions were “ongoing over portions of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and could still occur over Vieques, Culebra, and the British Virgin Islands during the next several hours,” the National Hurricane Center (NHC) said at 5 p.m. Wednesday, adding, “These winds should subside tonight. Tropical storm conditions are expected in Puerto Rico this afternoon and tonight.”

At 5 p.m. Wednesday, the eye of Hurricane Dorian was located near latitude 18.8 North, longitude 65.5 West, and moving toward the northwest near 14 mph (22 km/h).

“On this track, Dorian should continue to move near or over the U.S. and British Virgin Islands during the next several hours and then move over the Atlantic well east of the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday and Friday.

“Maximum sustained winds have increased to near 80 mph (130 km/h) with higher gusts. Dorian is forecast to strengthen and become a powerful hurricane during the next few days over the Atlantic waters. Hurricane-force winds extend outward up to 15 miles (30 km) from the center and tropical-storm-force winds extend outward up to 80 miles (130 km),” the NHC advisory reads.

Some 4 to 6 inches of rain and isolated amounts of up to 8 inches are expected in Puerto Rico. This rainfall may cause life-threatening flash floods, the NHC warned.

“I want to inform to the people that we have signed an executive order declaring an emergency,” Gov. Wanda Vázquez announced Monday night. 

Gov. Wanda Vázquez (Courtesy)

The executive order states that all agency heads must be prepared and have all available resources to help citizens if an emergency were to happen, the governor said.

Vázquez signed an executive order Wednesday, establishing a 24-hour “dry law,” and suspended Thursday’s classes and work for non-essential public employees.

Puerto Rico was hit nearly two years ago by Hurricane Maria, which battered the island with sustained 155 mph winds, knocking out the entire power grid and leaving more than $120 billion worth of damages.

Puerto Rico Bureau of Emergency Management and Disaster Administration Commissioner Carlos Acevedo said Monday that “the reality is that we are more prepared than we were for Maria.”

At a news conference at the Emergency Management Bureau Offices on PR-1 in San Juan, Vázquez said the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (Prepa) has an inventory of some 23,000 utility poles, 120,000 street lights and 7,400 voltage transformers. The utility also has three 80-megawatt (MW) generators at the Palo Saco power complex in San Juan.

Prepa Executive Director José Ortiz denied reports that half of the electrical system’s generating units are out of commission, saying that only some were not working due to either maintenance or are being converted to run on natural gas. He said, in fact, that the system has a 1,000 MW higher capacity than when Hurricane Maria struck.

Ortiz noted that Prepa’s transmission system, which feeds power from plants to the rest of the island, is more robust because it was rebuilt to higher standards. He acknowledged, though, that the utility’s distribution system, which includes lines connecting the system to homes and businesses, is more fragile and will take years to fully repair. He attributed the periodic brownouts and blackouts to this weak link in the system.

He said, however, that in the event of a storm affecting the island, Prepa already has enough supplies and manpower to get the system up and running in a few days.

“The distribution system is much easier to repair because you don’t need heavy equipment such as helicopters needed for high voltage lines,” he said, noting that utility supplies have been increased six-fold since Maria.

The public utility also has agreements with 33 stateside power companies to assist the island in getting its power grid back up, said Ortiz, noting that personnel from the New York Power Authority were already on the island. He said that Prepa brigades are being “concentrated” in the island’s southwest in anticipation that Dorian will affect this region the most.

Meanwhile, Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (Prasa) Executive President Elí Díaz Atienza said the utility, along with the island’s hospitals, has access to some 300 generators provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The public utility also has enough trucks to supply water to areas where service is cut off.

“We have a more solid system that will be up and running in less time,” he said.

Prasa will stop its water-rationing plan in the town of Salinas so residents can prepare.

“Not only have we coordinated with Federal Emergency Management Agency, but the private sector has also incorporated to help,” Vázquez said.

The official list of shelters is available at the Puerto Rico Housing Department website and officials said the 30,000 people still living under only tarps covering their homes since the 2017 hurricane season are some of the thousands that will stay at a nearby shelters. There are about 360 Housing Department shelters, 232 of which are primary, 103 alternate and 25 temporary shelters, for a combined capacity of some 48,500 people. Some of these shelters have solar panels installed.

Some 256 public schools are serving as shelters with sufficient food to feed 30,000 people for 17 days. 

Meanwhile, in a TV interview with Noticentro channel 4, Irrigation & Electrical Workers Union (Utier by its Spanish acronym) President Ángel Jaramillo said the biggest concern was the lack of human resources, a shortage of powerline workers and equipment. He said Prepa storages have more equipment than before but more manpower is needed. Jaramillo said the island’s central generating units were out of service because “of complete intentional abandonment.”

The labor leader said that  San Juan Central’s units 5 and 6 were operating but 7, 8 and 9 were out service. In Palo Seco, unit 3 was operating while 1, 2 and 4 were out of service. Central Aguirre’s unit 2 is out of service but unit 1 was operating. Costa Sur units 3 and 4 have been out of service for “several years” and unit 5 is out of service but unit 6 is working. Eighty percent of smaller units across Puerto Rico such as those in Vega Baja, Ceiba and Humacao are out of service, Jaramillo added.

“The situation worsens more each day and more so now because of the lack of personnel at the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority,” Jaramillo said.

Earlier Monday, at a press conference at the La Fortaleza governor’s mansion, Chief of Staff Zoé Laboy said that for the first time in Puerto Rico, FEMA is collaborating with local officials before an “atmospheric event” takes place.

She said that on Sunday night she spoke with Nicholas Pottebaum, who serves as special assistant to President Trump and as deputy director of Intergovernmental Affairs, and he told her the White House is “in the spirit” of helping Puerto Rico. 

“And that they want to send the help we may need from the different government agencies…,” Laboy said. “And, I must add that FEMA is waiting for the arrival of 500 workers to help us in all of this.”

Rain still a concern

Transportation and Public Works Secretary Carlos Contreras and Health Secretary Rafael Rodríguez on expressed concern Monday about how close Dorian could pass near or south of island Wednesday.

“There are over a thousand landslides that were being worked on and that required some design processes and funds,” Contreras told reporters at La Fortaleza after meeting with Vázquez. “They were worked on the beginning because of the urgency, but there are plenty left that require the approval of the FEMA.”

The Health chief, meanwhile, worried about the island’s power grid as some sectors could be left without service.

“We are concerned about rain and that sometimes some wind gusts could take the power out,” Rodríguez said. “We have solved the communications issue and the vaccinations issue because we have solar refrigerators. As for the electricity, we have generators and the ability to store diesel that we didn’t have before the hurricane (Maria).”

Rodríguez noted that he had already communicated with U.S. Health Department officials to coordinate resources. 

“Materials and equipment have been made available to us to have shelters ready; we have activated the private sector to help us with the elderly and the bedridden. We have sufficient medical supplies. We have this whole organization that we didn’t have before,” Rodríguez added.

Contreras and Rodríguez participated in a meeting with the governor and other agency heads to discuss their respective plans to handle an emergency in the wake of a catastrophic event.

People hit the streets Sunday and Monday, filling up their cars with gasoline, stocking up on water, canned food and medicines, among other essential items.

Public schools will close ar 1 p.m. Tuesday to prepare for the possible passage of the storm, while public workers will be apprised by Tuesday on whether they have work on Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Department of Consumers Affairs has frozen prices on essential items so that citizens who need to make last-minute purchases are not affected, Vázquez said.

—Caribbean Business contributed to this report.