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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 December 2018

Puerto Rico dam on verge of collapse as 70,000 ordered to evacuate

Christina Villalba, an official for the island's emergency management agency, said there was little doubt the dam was about to break under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria

National Guard personnel offer evacuation to a Toa Ville resident on September 22, 2017 amid fears the Rio La Plata Dam was about to collapse after the heavy rains brought by Hurricane Maria. Carlos Giusti / AP
National Guard personnel offer evacuation to a Toa Ville resident on September 22, 2017 amid fears the Rio La Plata Dam was about to collapse after the heavy rains brought by Hurricane Maria. Carlos Giusti / AP

Emergency officials in Puerto Rico raced on Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam in the island's north-west, which is on the verge of collapse under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

The potential calamity was unfolding as Puerto Ricans struggled without electricity to clean up the devastation left days earlier by Maria, which has killed at least 25 people across the Caribbean.

Some 70,000 people live in a cluster of communities under evacuation downstream from the earthen Rio La Plata dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference on Friday.

Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to bulletins issued by the National Weather Service from its office in San Juan, the capital of the US island territory.

Christina Villalba, an official for the island's emergency management agency, said there was little doubt the dam was about to break.

"It could be tonight, it could be tomorrow, it could be in the next few days, but it’s very likely it will be soon," she said on Friday night, adding that authorities aimed to complete evacuations within hours.

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Governor Ricardo Rossello went to the municipality of Isabela on Friday night and told mayor Carlos Delgado that an evacuation there was urgent, his office said.

The governor said the rains sparked by Maria had cracked the dam and could cause fatal flooding.

Puerto Rico's national guard had been mobilised to help the police evacuate all necessary areas, he added.

People had begun leaving nearby areas, but one small community was refusing and governor Rossello instructed the police to step in under a law that mandated them to remove the local population in an emergency.

Ms Villalba, meanwhile, could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organise the evacuation.

The evacuation came as government spokesman Carlos Bermudez said officials could not reach 40 of the 78 municipalities on the island.

Officials said 1,360 of the island's 1,600 mobile phone towers had been downed, Associated Press reported, and 85 per cent of above-ground and underground phone and internet cables were knocked out. With roads blocked and phones dead, the officials said the situation may be worse than they know.

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. The island remained entirely without electricity on Friday, except for emergency generators.

Roofs were ripped from many homes and the landscape was littered with tangles of rubble, uprooted trees and fallen power lines. Torrential downpours from the storm sent several rivers to record flood levels.

Officials confirmed on Friday at least six storm-related fatalities in Puerto Rico, an island of 3.4 million inhabitants — three from landslides in Utuado, in the island's mountainous centre, two drownings in Toa Baja, west of San Juan, and a person near San Juan who was struck by a piece of wind-blown lumber.

Earlier news reports had put the island's death toll as high as 15.

"We know of other potential fatalities through unofficial channels that we haven't been able to confirm," said Hector Pesquera, the government's secretary of public safety.

Maria struck Puerto Rico as a Category 4 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale as the island was already facing the largest municipal debt crisis in US history.

The storm was expected to tally US$45 billion (Dh165.4bn) in damage and lost economic activity across the Caribbean, with at least $30bn of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeller at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, 14 deaths were reported on Dominica, an island nation of 71,000 inhabitants. Two people were killed in the French territory of Guadeloupe and one in the US Virgin Islands.

Two people died when the storm roared past the Dominican Republic on Thursday, according to media outlet El Jaya.

Maria churned past the Turks and Caicos Islands on Friday, then skirted away from the Bahamas, sparing both from the brunt of the storm, according to the US National Hurricane Centre.

The storm still had sustained winds of up to 195 kilometres per hour on Saturday, making it a Category 3 hurricane, but was expected to weaken gradually over the next two days as it turned more sharply to the north.

Storm swells driven by Maria were expected to reach the southeastern coast of the US mainland on Friday, the NHC said, although it was too soon to determine what, if any, other direct effects it would have.