Tropical Storm Dorian expected to strengthen, pass Puerto Rico; landslides, widespread flooding and power outages expected

  • Tropical Storm Dorian threatened Puerto Rico with a direct hit, as forecasters said it made a last-minute shift in its path and could reach near-hurricane strength in its approach to the US territory.

  • The storm is expected to pass over or near western and central Puerto Rico, with landslides, widespread flooding and power outages possible.

  • President Donald Trump declared an emergency on Tuesday night and ordered federal assistance for local authorities.

San Juan: Tropical Storm Dorian threatened Puerto Rico with a direct hit on Wednesday, as forecasters said it made a last-minute shift in its path and could reach near-hurricane strength in its approach to the US territory.

The storm is expected to pass over or near western and central Puerto Rico, with landslides, widespread flooding and power outages possible. President Donald Trump declared an emergency on Tuesday night and ordered federal assistance for local authorities.

"Practically the entire island will be under sustained tropical-storm-force winds," said Roberto García, director of US National Weather Service San Juan, during a press conference late on Tuesday.

However, he said the forecast could change overnight, adding that late shifts occur with storms such as Dorian that do not have a well-defined centre.

 Tropical Storm Dorian expected to strengthen, pass Puerto Rico; landslides, widespread flooding and power outages expected

Storm clouds gather as Tropical Storm Dorian moves toward St. Michael Parish, Barbados. AP

Dorian was located about 275 miles (440 kilometres) southeast of Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday night. The US National Hurricane Center said it had maximum sustained winds of 50 mph (85 kilometres per hour) and was forecast to strengthen during the next 24 hours as it moves west-northwest at 13 metres per hour (20 kilometres per hour).

The storm is expected to dump 4 to 6 inches (10 to 15 centimetres) of rain with isolated amounts of 8 inches (20 centimetres).

The change in the storm's course concerned many across the US territory, where some 30,000 homes still have blue tarps as roofs nearly two years after Hurricane Maria. The island's 3.2 million inhabitants still depend on a shaky power grid that has remained prone to outages since it was destroyed by the Category 4 storm.

Jorge Ortiz, a 50-year-old construction worker, was taking no chances. Wiping the sweat from his brow, Ortiz climbed up a shaky ladder under a punishing morning sun and tied down pieces of zinc that now serve as his roof because Hurricane Maria ripped the second floor off his house when it hit on 20 September 2017.

He was forced to rebuild everything himself and finished just three months ago with no assistance from the local or federal government.

"They told me I didn't qualify because it was a total loss," he said, shaking his head as he added that he was wary. "I'm worried that despite all this sacrifice, I'll lose it again."

The US National Hurricane Center issued a hurricane watch for Puerto Rico and a tropical storm warning for Puerto Rico, Vieques, Culebra and the US Virgin Islands. A tropical storm watch was in force for the Dominican Republic from Samaná to Puerto Plata.

Dorian already caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St. Lucia, and a still-uncertain long-term track showed the storm near Florida over the weekend.

Although top government officials in Puerto Rico said they were prepared for the storm and had sufficient equipment, a couple of mayors, including those in the western region, said they did not have enough generators or shelters that were properly set up.

Jesús Laracuente, a 52-year-old construction worker who lives in the impoverished neighbourhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan, also had doubts about government preparations.

"The people here are prepared. We already learned our lesson," he said, referring to Maria. "What despairs us is knowing that the slightest breeze will leave us without power. It's the government that fails us."

José Ortiz, executive director of Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority, acknowledged that the distribution system still has weak areas and could "suffer" under winds of 50 to 60 metres per hour. However, he stressed the agency has the needed inventory, including more than 120,000 lights, 23,000 poles and 7,400 transformers.

But Freddyson Martínez, vice president of a power workers' union, told The Associated Press that while the electric grid has improved in some areas, he worries about a lack of power line workers and post-Maria patches which feature lines affixed to palm trees.

"Those are problems that are still being corrected to this day," he said. "These are the realities we have to face with this storm."

The island's transportation secretary acknowledged that crews are still rebuilding roads damaged or blocked by Maria, more than 1,000 of which remain blocked by that storm's landslides.

Puerto Rico governor Wanda Vázquez urged those living in flood-prone areas or under a blue tarp to move into one of the island's 360 shelters on Tuesday night. Housing Secretary Fernando Gil has said some 9,000 to 13,000 homes with blue tarp roofs are located in the region that Dorian is expected to affect the most.

Officials also said public schools and government offices would remain closed through at least Thursday.

"We learned our lesson quite well after Maria," Vázquez said. "We are going to be much better prepared."

Dorian was expected to move near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas on Thursday night or Friday.

Meanwhile, Tropical Storm Erin formed well off the US East Coast on Tuesday night, and the National Hurricane Service said the storm is forecast to move northward over the open Atlantic with no threat to land.

It was about 690 miles (1,110 kilometres) west of Bermuda and 300 miles (482 kilometres) southeast of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, with maximum sustained winds of 40 metres per hour.

Updated Date: Aug 28, 2019 13:52:37 IST