Officials raced to evacuate tens of thousands of people living downstream from an endangered dam in Puerto Rico on Saturday as the island grappled with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The National Weather Service warned the failure of Guajataca Dam in northwest Puerto Rico was “imminent” and could lead to “life-threatening” flash flooding for some 70,000 people that could be affected if it collapsed.
“We don’t know the details,” Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said in Friday night’s press conference. “This is not the moment to dwell on them — it’s the time to get people out.”
“The floods were coming at an unprecedented rate,” Rossello said. “It got to the point that it was going to overflow and the doors would open.”
Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to the National Weather Service, and Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate all necessary areas.
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 told Reuters by telephone on Friday night.
Villalba could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organize the evacuation.
If the Guajataca Dam at the northern end of Lake Guajataca breaches, the National Weather Center said there was the possibility of “extremely dangerous” flash flooding downstream on the Rio Guajataca River.
The National Weather Service says a full breach would result in large peak flows that would reach the coast in under 12 hours. The center is urging people living in the area of the flash flood warning in the northwest to seek higher ground immediately.
“This is an extremely dangerous and life-threatening situation,” the center said late on Friday. “Do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area subject to flooding or under an evacuation order.”
The dam, which was built in 1929, is used for public water and irrigation water supply, and the reservoir has a water storage capacity of 11 billion gallons.
Hurricane Maria, the strongest storm to hit Puerto Rico since 1928, had maximum sustained winds of 155 mph when it made landfall as a Category 4 storm on Thursday.
The monster storm ripped roofs off buildings and flooded homes, leading to power outages that could last for months.
Rossello has said seven people have died as the result of the storm in Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria also claimed lives in the neighboring islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica, which suffered major destruction.
At 5 a.m. ET on Saturday, Maria was moving away from the Bahamas and into the open waters of the western Atlantic as a Category 3 storm. As it moves north, it’s expected to cause surf swells that will increase along portions of the south-eastern coast of the United States and Bermuda. (NBC)