“To save lives”. Faced with the ferocity that hurricane Maria -category 5 with sustained winds of 160 miles per hour (mph) - is moving towards Puerto Rico, the government insists that the priority is to save lives.
Still dealing with the after effects of Hurricane Irma, which passed tens of miles above the north coast of the Island, Maria has activated all the alarms again, showing a more troubling picture.
"It is catastrophic in every way, winds, rain and storm surge. We are talking about an extremely dangerous event, "warned the director of the National Weather Service in San Juan, Roberto Garcia.
Last night, Maria was moving west-northwest at a speed of 9 mph, according to the 11 pm National Hurricane Center bulletin.
Along with winds of 160 mph and even higher gusts, Maria was predicted to bring 12 to 18 inches of rain, and up to 25 inches for isolated areas in Puerto Rico. Storm surge is estimated from 6 to 9 feet, with large breaking waves that could reach 25 feet.
"Citizens have to act, and they have to act now. We can not expect a miracle to change its trajectory. Forecasts have a high degree of reliability, "said the meteorologist.
Government urges to evacuate dangerous areas
Governor Ricardo Rosselló Nevares, urged people to seek for a safe place to prevent loss of human lives.
"An event like this has never happened before. Maria is predicted to be the worst atmospheric event in a century in Puerto Rico and, if we do not take precautions, we will have loss of lives that we could have avoided, "said the governor during a press conference at the headquarters of the State Agency for Emergency and Disaster Management .
Rosselló said that, yesterday afternoon, residents had already begun to move in five communities which are threatened due their location in flood-prone areas. These are: Juana Matos, in Cataño; Playita, in Salinas; Amelia, in Guaynabo; Islote, in Arecibo, and Palo Seco, in Toa Baja.
Yesterday afternoon, the authorization of 499 shelters, 49 more than those who opened their doors to the near passage of Hurricane Irma was announced.
"The main goal is to save lives. If you are in a flood area, your life is in danger. If you live in a wooden home, your life is in danger, "the governor told the citizens.
After declaring the state of emergency, Rosselló Nevares asked citizens to reflect on what the force of the hurricane-force winds and rains implied.
Two weeks ago, during the passage of Hurricane Irma on Puerto Rico, bursts were recorded with speed of 70 to 74 mph in the most affected areas of the northwest coast. In the case of the island municipality of Culebra, gusts could be recorded up to 114 mph.
Only with that record, 27 municipalities in Puerto Rico have already been declared disaster areas. Still with customers without power, homeless citizens and houses without walls, trees lying on power lines and debris accumulated along the roads, Puerto Rico has not recovered from the impact of Irma, that barely touched the Island, and now is bracing to face the dangerous route predicted for Hurricane Maria.
At the request of the Puerto Rican government, US President Donald Trump has already authorized a new emergency declaration before the arrival Maria.
The director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Puerto Rico, Alejandro de la Campa, indicated that he requested more equipment from the US Department of Defense.
"We are asking for more ships, and the aircraft carrier (available for the emergency) has moved to be in a safe area ... And ships with helicopters that we will use in case of evacuation or search and rescue are still in the area, "said the official.
He assured that Puerto Rico will have continuous FEMA assistance and federal funds will be available for reconstruction and mitigation work after the event, as well as additional resources - water and generators - medical equipment and support staff.
A threat to the power generation
Due to the fragility of the infrastructure of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the governor recognized that Puerto Rico is expected to be without power after the passage of Maria.
"No one in Puerto Rico should expect to have power on the days following María. The time it will take us to fix (the damage caused by the hurricane) remains to be seen, "he said.
Ricardo Ramos, executive director of PREPA refrained from giving projections on how long people could be without power, but, as an example, he noted that the total recovery of the system after the passage of Hurricane Hugo in 1989 took about six months.
Yesterday, PREPA employees continued their reconnection work, along with the emergency preparations before this new atmospheric event.
According to official information, 1.4 million customers or 96% had already been reconnected. Of the remaining 4%, the majority -46,401 users – were in San Juan metropolitan area.
However, the fragility of the distribution system, threatened by lack of maintenance and fallen trees, is not the only concern that is lurking in the public corporation today.
The government anticipates that Hurricane Maria's blow will also be fiercer than Irma's, because the hurricane's eye in the southeastern part of the Island, where most of the power plants are located, could strike a heavy blow.
"Much of the power generation is in the south and it is in flood-prone areas ... This represents the greatest potential impact," said governor told at a press conference.
The Costa Sur Plant in Guayanilla and the Aguirre Thermoelectric Power Plant inSalinas are two of the generators that are located to the south. While private corporations Eco Eléctrica and Applied Energy Systems (AES) are in Peñuelas and Guayama, respectively. Both supply energy to PREPA.
"In terms of transmission, we are vulnerable. The system is vulnerable, " recognized Ramos. "If the Irma´s impact left something positive it was the elimination of vegetation that has already collapsed. However, the magnitude of this hurricane indicated that, in this case, there will be greater damage to the infrastructure. Towers did not fall with Irma and that may happen this time, "he said.
He recalled that during the afternoon - with the help of FEMA – emergency brigades of the New York Power Authority and the Long Island Power Authority will arrive on the Island, they were to be activated with the passage of Hurricane Irma.
He added that the number of brigades to be requested will be determined based on the reported damages.
Water will depend on power
Elí Díaz, executive director of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority (PRASA), recalled that water service is directly related to the power service.
"If there is damage to large generators, there will be no power generation, therefore, our facilities will not have power to operate," said the engineer.
The official said that there are 1,300 generators approximately, which were given preventive maintenance since the beginning of the hurricane season, but they are not enough for their 4,000 facilities, including pumping stations.
"That's merely 30%, so it's impossible to determine the impact," he added.
By yesterday afternoon, they managed to prepare 110 tanker trucks - more than twice of those used during Irma - and they are already managing imports from the port of Jacksonville in agreement with private companies.
He also said that ,since last Sunday, the levels of the Carraízo and La Plata dams have been gradually dropped to about three meters in order to prevent them from having to open the emergency flood gates.
Only 9,756 users, or 0.76%, were without potable water.
Díaz highlighted the work with PREPA, which during the emergency caused by Irma gave priority to the restoration of water service.
Reporter Alex Figueroa Cancel collaborated with this story.