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'Could not imagine': Puerto Ricans assess Hurricane Fiona devastation exactly 5 years after Maria

“My 88-year-old grandmother lives next door to me, and the thought that she is facing this again is difficult for me,” one Levittown resident said.
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Most people in Puerto Rico woke up Tuesday without access to power or water after Hurricane Fiona ravaged the island, a bleak reality that closely resembles what residents endured exactly five years ago with Hurricane Maria.

"I could not imagine any of this," Raquel Oliver Lopez, a resident of Levittown, a community in the municipality of Toa Baja, said in Spanish. "This is a tough feeling."

Up to 30 inches of rain have fallen in parts of Puerto Rico as a result of Hurricane Fiona, overflowing rivers and small streams. The persisting rains have resulted in landslides, destroying roads and leaving dozens of families stranded across many different towns, including Juncos, Bayamón, Coamo, Toa Alta and Caguas, among others.

“More significant rains are expected, further increasing the risk of landslides,” Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said in a news conference Tuesday.

Oliver Lopez’s family is among the many Puerto Ricans still without power or water as a result of Hurricane Fiona.

“My 88-year-old grandmother lives next door to me, and the thought that she is facing this again is difficult for me,” Oliver Lopez said, concerned about her grandmother’s health after she was recently discharged from a hospice.

Oliver Lopez's family was stricken by grief in 2017 when her husband’s 94-year-old grandmother, Abuela Paulina, was one of the at least 2,975 people who died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. territory in 100 years.

Many of Maria's deaths, including Abuela Paulina's, were caused by the lack of electricity of more than a year and the ensuing interruptions in medical and other services.

Currently, most of Puerto Rico’s nearly 1.5 million power customers remain without electricity after an islandwide blackout was reported Sunday about an hour before Hurricane Fiona’s eye neared Puerto Rico’s southwestern coast.

As of early Tuesday afternoon, about 300,000 customers had their electricity restored, which represents roughly 20% of all customers, according to Luma Energy, the company in charge of power transmission and distribution in Puerto Rico.

A Luma Energy spokesperson said in a news conference Tuesday that they hope to energize most of Puerto Rico by end of day Wednesday.

About 60% of all water service customers, over 760,000 customers, had not had service restored as of Tuesday morning, according to Puerto Rico’s Water and Sewage Authority.

Four deaths have been reported in the wake of Hurricane Fiona. Two men died in the aftermath of the hurricane: One was dragged by currents of an overflown river, and the other had a deadly accident with a generator. Two other people who died in shelters are believed to have died from natural causes; however, officials are waiting for the Institute of Forensic Sciences to confirm that.

In town of Salinas, flooding where it never flooded

Fiona's historic rainfall caused water levels to rise in areas that have never flooded. This was the case in the southern town of Salinas, which is among the most affected regions.

About 400 residents there had to be rescued and taken to shelters, the most of any town, following unexpected flooding.

More than 1,000 people across 25 towns were rescued and sheltered under similar circumstances, government officials said Monday.

On Tuesday, Mirielys Romero and other Salinas residents returned to their homes for the first time since they were flooded Sunday.

Romero said she was surprised to see the current damage since Hurricane Maria, which was a Category 4, did not bring as much devastation as Fiona, a Category 1 hurricane that brought more heavy rains than strong winds.

"I don’t know how to explain it yet. It’s so bad," Romero said.

Image: Hurricane Fiona Puerto Rico
A woman clears debris on her property flooded by Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Monday.Alejandro Granadillo / AP

Pierluisi said he will be requesting a major disaster declaration from President Joe Biden on Tuesday to access emergency individual public assistance for affected residents.

Biden declared a federal emergency on the island Sunday, allowing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to step in with response resources.

As part of FEMA's response, the agency will be reimbursing 75% of emergency response expenses incurred by the Puerto Rican government.

Pierluisi said Tuesday he will be asking FEMA to fully cover emergency response expenses for at least 30 days and then drop that reimbursement rate to 90%.

In the meantime, residents like Romero are left to grapple with yet another disaster and an uncertain recovery that's set to start soon after the emergency response phase ends.

"I think we’re just going to start or trying to clean, but I don’t know," she said.

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