Hurricane Dorian Spares Puerto Rico as Florida Prepares for Landfall

Posted August 28, 2019 11:40 p.m. EDT
Updated August 29, 2019 9:36 a.m. EDT

MIAMI — Hurricane Dorian struck Puerto Rico with a glancing blow Wednesday, bringing back difficult memories as the first big storm to threaten the island since Hurricane Maria tore through two years ago.

Dorian has been unpredictable, frustrating forecasters and paralyzing Puerto Ricans for days as they watched the storm track shift toward the island. At one point, it looked as if Dorian would cut an eerily parallel path to Maria’s destruction, albeit with far less intensity. Puerto Ricans lined up outside big-box stores to stock up on supplies and swamped a mental health hotline to get help with their anxiety.

“So many people are hysterical, and it’s because Maria was strong,” said Carmen Vargas, 54, a resident of rural Guaynabo, Puerto Rico, near San Juan, the capital, as she vividly recalled the 2017 storm. “Even though we know it’s not the same, the memories come back, and the wounds reopen.”

By Wednesday morning, the eye of the storm had veered toward the Virgin Islands, where Dorian’s drenching rain and whipping winds surprised residents who felt unprepared to face the Category 1 hurricane. By Wednesday evening, the storm was 90 miles (147 kilometers) north of San Juan and growing in strength. It is expected to strengthen into a Category 3 hurricane that could begin battering the east coast of Florida as early as the weekend.

Hurricane Dorian path Wednesday at 5

The period between mid-August through mid-October is the most active time of the Atlantic hurricane season.

“We’ve done this before,” said Mayor Lenny Curry of Jacksonville, Florida, a city that sustained heavy damage from flooding two years ago during Hurricane Irma. “We’ve been through this together. This is no time to panic.”

Officials in Puerto Rico, home to some 3.2 million people, felt relief that Dorian, which swiped the island municipality of Culebra, mostly spared the main island. Stronger winds would have further tested Puerto Rico’s revamped electrical grid, which collapsed after Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017 left the entire island without power.

“The electrical grid is held together with tape,” said Mayor María E. Meléndez of Ponce, on the south side of the island.

The grid remains fragile and prone to power losses. Some 30,000 people still have blue tarps, which were supposed to be temporary, as roofs. Hurricane Maria has been blamed for the deaths of an estimated 2,975 people.

On Wednesday, a man died in Bayamón, Puerto Rico, said Elmer Román, Puerto Rico’s secretary of public safety. The man, who was 80, fell from a ladder as he tried to reach his roof to clear drains ahead of the storm, El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper, reported.

A suicide prevention center that saw an extraordinary increase in demand after Maria reported a growing number of calls as Hurricane Dorian approached, said Suzanne Roig, who runs Puerto Rico’s Administration of Services for Mental Health and Addiction, which operates the center’s hotline. On Friday, the calls specifically referring to Maria numbered eight. On Tuesday, they rose to 282.

Hurricane Dorian Strengthens to Category 1 Storm

Callers said they could not imagine going through another storm like Maria, Roig said.

“Sometimes, they even cry,” she said. “They cry remembering the traumatic event. Some of them were alone during the other hurricane, and they feel they are going to be alone again. It’s fear.” Ahead of Dorian, Roig’s agency sent mental health specialists to all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities to assist local authorities. Teams also visited vulnerable residents and communities, encouraging them to focus on how they had strengthened their homes and personal emergency plans from two years ago — rather than to dwell on matters outside their control, such as the storm’s track and wind speed.

On radio and television, the specialists urged people to calmly prepare children for the possibility of losing power and to keep board games and cards handy to pass the time.

“We lived through a difficult experience, and we really have to use that as a lesson,” Roig said.

Without fail, Puerto Ricans interviewed Wednesday shared their stories from two years ago, which Dorian returned to the forefront of their minds.

Hurricane Dorian Strengthens to Category 1 Storm

“Part of my house is made of wood, and the zinc roof blew off, and it started to fill with water,” said Lourdes López, 44, a San Juan resident who went with her husband, Juan Ortega, 46, to fill gas containers at a gas station Wednesday morning. “For Maria we were home, and we were really scared.”

As Puerto Ricans worried about the storm, President Donald Trump continued his long-running verbal war with the island’s leaders. On Tuesday, Trump approved Puerto Rico’s request for an emergency declaration, authorizing federal coordination of relief efforts and assistance. But in a series of Twitter posts Wednesday, Trump assailed Puerto Rico as “one of the most corrupt places on earth.”

“Their political system is broken and their politicians are either Incompetent or Corrupt,” he wrote.

He singled out Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz of San Juan, with whom he sparred repeatedly after Hurricane Maria. She responded with a tweet of her own: “Maybe Trump will understand this time around THIS IS NOT ABOUT HIM; THIS IS NOT ABOUT POLITICS; THIS IS ABOUT SAVING LIVES.”

Dorian proved to be maddeningly difficult to forecast, as often happens with compact, disorganized storms.

Puerto Rico Faces Direct Hit from Tropical Storm Dorian

Mountains in the Caribbean island nation of St. Lucia broke up the storm’s center Tuesday, and when it formed again, it had moved 30 miles north. Dorian’s path had shifted from the west side of Puerto Rico to just off the eastern coast, said Mike Brennan, branch chief of the Hurricane Specialist Unit at the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

“That changed the whole trajectory of the track,” Brennan said.

Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. of the U.S. Virgin Islands issued a territorywide curfew for its 105,000 residents until Thursday morning, and Trump declared an emergency there, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to provide equipment and resources for relief efforts.

Electricity went out throughout the islands, where nearly 3,000 homes were still in need of repair after the 2017 hurricanes, said Stacey Plaskett, the Virgin Islands’ delegate to Congress. The Virgin Islands Water and Power Authority said Wednesday evening that crews were assessing the electrical grid to see if Dorian had caused damage. The agency said service in much of the territory remained on during the storm, and that power was already being restored in parts of St. Thomas that experienced outages.

“Although this is not a large hurricane, we’re in such a compromised position as it is,” Plaskett said from Christiansted, on St. Croix, where she described seeing swaying trees, dark skies and rain. She said many people had stayed inside since the morning. They recalled what they were doing around this time two years ago, amid the devastation from Irma and Maria.

The islands’ two largest hospitals — on St. Thomas and St. Croix — were operating with half of their buildings damaged, Plaskett said. On St. Croix, she said, only one operating room was open.

“We’re in a very fragile kind of state,” she said.

Lorie Leonard, a manager at the Bolongo Bay Beach Resort on St. Thomas, said she and other staffers had scrambled to get 62 guests to their rooms as the hurricane approached.

At the resort, palm trees toppled near the pool and branches fell on cars. Fans crashed to the restaurant’s floor. And water flooded the hotel and washed away much of the shorefront’s sand.

“It’s a mess,” Leonard said. “It was a lot of destruction in a very short period of time.” Plaskett said she had driven around St. Croix on Wednesday and seen many residents who were anxious about the storm because the 2017 hurricanes had been so traumatic. She said several were staying with friends or relatives because their own homes were damaged.

Some of the private schools on the island had been scheduled to open for the academic year Wednesday, but the storm prompted them to postpone opening. Officials had already been concerned about whether the schools were ready to open and now may need to reevaluate them after the weather settles down.

Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida declared an emergency Wednesday afternoon for counties in the storm’s path even though landfall was not expected until Monday morning. The lack of clarity on Dorian’s route forced precaution along Florida’s East Coast everywhere from Miami to Jacksonville.

“Because of the uncertainty in the track of this storm, every resident along the East Coast needs to be ready,” Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement. In St. Cloud, Florida, and Camden County, Georgia, officials began distributing sandbags. In Orange County, Florida, firefighters added metal shutters to their stations. And in Cocoa, Florida, city crews cleaned out storm drains.

For now, Mayor Carlos A. Gimenez of Miami-Dade County asked residents to watch and wait. A Rolling Stones concert planned for the holiday weekend remained on schedule.

“There’s no reason to cancel anything at this point,” Gimenez said. “We don’t know exactly where this storm is going. We don’t know what the impacts are going to be.”