Failing dam deepens the post-hurricane crisis in powerless Puerto Rico

The evacuation of tens of thousands of residents who live near a failing dam in northwest Puerto Rico continued Saturday, as fears of more deaths gripped the U.S. territory, days after Hurricane Maria tore across the island.

Officials warned that the Guajataca Dam, about 70 miles west of San Juan, was in “imminent” danger of failure. The dam, built around 1928, supplies drinking and irrigation water to residents of towns in the municipalities of Isabela and Quebradillas. The National Weather Service issued a flash-flood warning for towns downstream from the dam because of its possible failure.

Nowhere was safe. In the capital of San Juan, flash-flooding alerts continued. The Carnival Cruise ship Fascination docked Saturday in Old San Juan with 2,000 passengers, but only those from Puerto Rico — about 800 — were allowed to disembark; the rest continued on to Miami. Those who left the ship had to figure out how to get home, having departed last Sunday for a weeklong cruise cut short by the storm.

Marjorie Rivera, a disabled U.S. Army veteran and mother of five, left the ship with her husband and three daughters using a walker. They had parked nearby and hoped to make it back to their home in southern Puerto Rico to check on her other two girls before dark.

The storm didn’t impact the ship, she said, but they received reports about damage in Puerto Rico and stopped near Antigua on the way back, where they saw widespread devastation that only heightened their concern.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello participated in an aerial tour of the Guajataca Dam on Saturday to assess its stability.

“We could directly see damage” to the dam, he said on Twitter, urging residents to “vacate the area as soon as possible.”

So far, the Puerto Rico government has confirmed six deaths — three from mudslides, three from flooding and falling debris — as a result of Maria. Officials, however, have warned that the death toll is likely to increase. At least 27 people around the Caribbean were killed, including at least 15 on hard-hit Dominica.

Several days after Maria made landfall here as a Category 4 storm, much of Puerto Rico remained without power and was unable to communicate with those beyond the island.

In a statement, the Federal Communications Commission said 95% of cell phone sites are out of service.

“It appears as though there has been little if any improvement to communications networks in Puerto Rico since the hurricane departed,” the agency said.

Nearly 3,700 federal staffers are in Puerto Rico to help with recovery efforts. They already were on the island before the storm's arrival on Wednesday, helping with recovery efforts after Hurricane Irma hammered the Caribbean days earlier. Additional resources — food, water, cots — were being flown into the San Juan airport, which opened late Friday. Most of the flights arriving and departing were military relief flights, though some commercial service has resumed.

On Saturday, Navy officials said the amphibious assault ship Kearsarge was supporting ongoing relief efforts in Puerto Rico. More than a dozen tilt-rotor aircraft and helicopters are departing from the vessel to conduct search-and-rescue missions and aerial assessments of the damage.

“The Navy-Marine Corps team is well-suited for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief,” Rear Adm. Jeffrey Hughes said in a statement. “We have the capabilities to address this problem from the land, the sea and the air.”

In San Juan, some of the few stores that opened imposed special conditions. At the Walgreens in Old San Juan, police posted at the entrance allowed customers to enter one at a time, and employees escorted them through the store, limiting them to two bottles of water each.

Bob Pederson was attempting to mop up outside his Old San Juan sports bar Saturday, which was still boarded up but had a generator humming.

It took Pederson, 42, six hours to find gas earlier in the day, after waiting in line and discovering the station was rationing, allowing only $10 worth per person.

“I’m selling what I can,” he said of his restaurant. “I have the generator running mostly for the freezer, but the people need to eat.”

He drove around the island Friday and described what he saw as “total devastation,” with water still chest-high in some neighborhoods. Lines for food and water were already long.

Pederson’s condominium complex, not far from the sports bar, has a generator, but it’s running out of diesel fuel and elderly residents were unwilling to shut it off, counting on the government to bring them more.

He worried what would happen when they run out. He expects the government will reserve dwindling supplies for hospitals and other emergency services.

“When you start regulating, people get desperate. And desperation brings the animal out in people,” he said. “It’s about survival.”

molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

Twitter: @mollyhf

​​​​​​kurtis.lee@latimes.com

Twitter: @kurtisalee

Hennessy-Fiske reported from San Juan and Lee from Los Angeles.

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UPDATES:

6:35 p.m.: This article was updated with additional details.

This article was originally published at 10:25 a.m.

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