“Thousands Could Die” – Puerto Rico Scrambles To Evacuate River Valley As Dam Fails

Days after Hurricane Maria passed over the island and made its way west toward the Dominican Republican, Puerto Rico is still struggling with the initial response to the storm – rescuing people stranded in remote villages, and moving thousands into government shelters. Meanwhile the island's first responders are making due without electricity, gas or cell phone service after the storm dealt a knockout blow to its infrastructure.

In what was perhaps the most destructive blow to the island’s aging infrastructure, the NWS warned Friday that the Guajataca Dam in northwest Puerto Rico would soon fail, prompting the agency to issue a flash flood emergency warning for Isabela and Quebradillas municipalities. Now, authorities are scrambling to evacuate the residents of the river valley below the dam before their communities are entirely submurged. If the authorities don't act quickly, "thousands could die" one official in charge of the rescue response said.

According to federal reservoir data, the lake behind the dam, Lago de Guajataca, rose more than three feet between Tuesday and Wednesday, when the storm was still directly over the island. More recent data were unavailable. With floodwaters gushing into the Guajataca river valley, Reuters reports that emergency officials were scrambling Friday and Saturday to evacuate its nearly 70,000 residents before their villages have been completely submerged.

Video published by CBS shows waters gushing over the top of the 90-year-old dam, sending a wall of water racing into the valley below.

The National Weather Service warned of "imminent failure" and urged residents in the area to "move to higher ground now."

The evacuation of the valley is perhaps the most high-stakes rescue effort of the past week, according to  Abner Gomez, executive director of Puerto Rico's emergency management agency. Gomez said Friday that the dam's floodgates suffered mechanical damage during the storm, which made it impossible for authorities to open and let out normal water currents.

He added that "there is no way to fix it" right now considering the conditions and said if the dam tops over or fails structurally, "thousands of people could die."

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which operates the dam, says that the failure is already causing flash flooding downstream. The dam lies across the Guajataca River to form a reservoir that can hold roughly 11 billion gallons of water.

According to Weather.com, local media have reported that residents of one small community near the dam are refusing to evacuate, forcing authorities to invoke a law that allows responders to evacuate children and the elderly in an emergency.

The latest crisis comes as the death toll on Puerto Rico rose to 21 on Friday, when authorities said eight people had died in Tao Baha 30 miles from San Juan, where more than 4,000 people have been rescued from floodwaters.

Meanwhile, some shelters are running out of food and other essential supplies, creating a situation that the island’s governor, Ricard Rossello, described as a “humanitarian emergency.”

Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico early Wednesday as a powerful Category 4 hurricane with 155 mph winds - the first Category 4 to hit the island since 1932. The storm wiped out the island's power grid and dumped 20 to 30 inches of rain in 24 hours, with some areas seeing as much as 40 inches. The storm could leave most of the island without power for weeks – or possibly up to six months in some areas.
 

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