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Storm Dorian closing in on Puerto Rico at near hurricane force

Landslides, widespread flooding and power outages could hit Puerto Rico.

People arrive to a private harbor to move boats away for protection ahead of the arrival of Tropical Storm Dorian (Ramon Espinosa/AP)
People arrive to a private harbor to move boats away for protection ahead of the arrival of Tropical Storm Dorian (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

By Danica Coto, Associated Press Reporter

Puerto Rico is facing its first major test of emergency preparedness since the 2017 devastation of Hurricane Maria as Tropical Storm Dorian neared the US territory at near-hurricane force.

The storm was expected to move near the US and British Virgin Islands, with landslides, widespread flooding and power outages possible in Puerto Rico.

The US National Hurricane Centre issued a hurricane warning for the Puerto Rican islands of Vieques and Culebra, the US Virgin Islands and the British Virgin Islands.

Dorian prompted US president Donald Trump to declare an emergency on Tuesday night and order federal assistance for local authorities.

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Tropical Storm Dorian is nearing the US and British Virgin Islands at near-hurricane force (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

“It’s possible it could turn into a hurricane before it reaches Puerto Rico,” said Roberto García, director of US National Weather Service San Juan, during a press conference on Wednesday.

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

“This is not written in stone. It could change in the next minutes, hours,” he said.

At 11am EDT (4pm BST) on Wednesday, Dorian was located about 25 miles southeast of St Croix, US Virgin Islands.

The US National Hurricane Centre said it had strengthened slightly, with maximum sustained winds of 70 mph while moving northwest at 13 mph.

The Hurricane Centre said the storm could grow into a dangerous Category 3 storm as it pushes northwest in the general direction of Florida.

The storm was expected to dump four to six inches of rain with isolated amounts of eight inches.

It is a forecast that worries many in Puerto Rico because blue tarps still cover some 30,000 homes nearly two years after Hurricane Maria.

The island’s 3.2 million inhabitants also depend on an unstable power grid that remains prone to outages since it was destroyed by Maria, a Category 4 storm.

Ramonita Torres, 74, lives by herself in the impoverished, flood-prone neighbourhood of Las Monjas in the capital of San Juan.

She was still trying to rebuild the home she nearly lost after Maria but was not able to secure the pieces of zinc that now serve as her roof.

“There’s no money for that,” she said.

Mr Trump sent a tweet assuring that “We are tracking closely tropical storm Dorian as it heads, as usual, to Puerto Rico. FEMA and all others are ready, and will do a great job.”

He added a jab at Puerto Rican officials who have accused the government of a slow and inadequate response to Hurricane Maria: “When they do, let them know it, and give them a big Thank You – Not like last time. That includes from the incompetent Mayor of San Juan!”

The mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, tweeted that Trump needs to “calm down get out of the way and make way for those of us who are actually doing the work on the ground”, adding that maybe he “will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES.”

Dorian earlier caused power outages and downed trees in Barbados and St Lucia.

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.

Jose 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 mph.

However, he stressed the agency has the needed inventory, including more than 120,000 lights, 23,000 poles and 7,400 transformers.

But Freddyson Martinez, 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.

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 Vazquez urged those living in flood-prone areas or under a blue tarp to move into one of the island’s 360 shelters.

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

“We learned our lesson quite well after Maria,” Ms Vazquez said. “We are going to be much better prepared.”

PA

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