Tropical Storm Isaias battered Puerto Rico on Thursday as it continued on a forecast track toward the U.S. East Coast, unleashing small landslides and causing widespread flooding and power outages on an island still recovering from previous hurricanes and earthquakes.
The storm’s maximum sustained winds of 60 mph 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.
“Of course I’m nervous,“ said Alejandra Garcia, who moved to Miami from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017. “All my family and friends are over there.”
Garcia told NBC 6 she was texting back and forth with her family on the island throughout the day, making sure they were safe as the storm passed.
“They’re already having a crisis with the pandemic,” said Garcia. “Some of them were like, we don’t got water. We don't got electricity. So I was a little bit worried.”
Especially hard hit was Puerto Rico's southern region, which still shakes daily from aftershocks. Heavy rains inundated neighborhoods weakened by the tremors, causing some recently abandoned homes to collapse.
“Everyone is in a constant state of emergency,” said Marieli Grant with Mercy Corps.
Isaias was centered about 250 miles southeast of the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday afternoon, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center. It was moving northwest at 20 mph, and its center was forecast to move near the southeastern Bahamas late Thursday, be near the central Bahamas late Friday and move near or over the northwest Bahamas and near South Florida on Saturday.
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 neighboring U.S. Virgin Islands.
Other damage including 14% 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.”
Garcia said her family on the island is safe, but the storm gave them flashbacks to the hurricane in 2017.
“They were all scared that the winds were really hard, strong, the rain was all over the place, so it was bringing them flashbacks," she said.
Isaias' latest track shows most of South Florida, except a portion of coastal Broward County, out of the "cone of concern" for the path of the storm. A Tropical Storm Watch was issued for the southeast coast of the state, as heavy rain, wind and flooding is possible for the weekend.
“I’m still not worried. I’m always watching the news, but at the same time I always have the PTSD,” said Garcia. “Like I always remember the winds. I always remember the rain. I always remember, especially the aftermath.”
More than 50 people sought shelter in Puerto Rico, said Gov. 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.”
U.S. President Donald Trump approved an emergency declaration in Puerto Rico as a result of the storm.
Isaias was expected to produce 4 to 8 inches of rain across Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic and northern Haiti, with isolated maximum totals of 10 inches.