VIEQUES, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Dorian appeared to spare Puerto Rico on Wednesday, weaving an erratic path that sideswiped the archipelago and pounded the U.S. Virgin Islands with rain, but didn’t ravage the U.S. territories that are still recovering from Hurricane Maria’s destruction from 2017.
The Category 1 storm, which was headed out into the Atlantic Ocean late Wednesday, was on its way to becoming the first major hurricane to threaten the East Coast of the United States this season, with forecasters predicting a direct hit on Florida, perhaps on Labor Day, when the storm is expected to have reached Category 3 status.
Puerto Rico dodged a worst-case-scenario direct hit after growing from a tropical storm earlier in the day, but some residents lost power amid winds that topped 75 mph, and some areas flooded as intense rainfall pelted thousands of homes that still don’t have adequate roofing to keep families and properties dry.
“This is not Maria,” said Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced at an afternoon news conference in San Juan as she updated residents on the shifting track of a storm that has defied prediction.
The threat of a major storm this week served as a catalyst for a faster, more efficient rollout of emergency preparedness plans and resources by a local government wary of repeating the mistakes of the past — and hoping to win back the public trust lost in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Hundreds of power utility worker brigades were staged ahead of time in strategic locations. Massive amounts of supplies were stocked and ready. Scores of public schools became shelters full of cots and food.
But vulnerabilities persist in the U.S. territory, where memories of death and destruction remain raw and where promised federal funds aimed at mitigating catastrophe still have not arrived. Local communities have now established their own protocols for protecting themselves — and each other — in the wake of feeling abandoned by Puerto Rico and federal officials during Maria.
When Dorian’s projected path unexpectedly swerved northward late Tuesday, Puerto Rico’s eastern islands of Culebra and Vieques fell squarely in the cone of uncertainty, triggering fears that the struggling communities would once again be cut off from the big island, where resources are concentrated.
Mark Martin Bras, operations captain for the local nonprofit ViequesLove, said community members on the small island just off the big island’s east coast created a communication network using 32 radios to keep everyone informed of storm conditions in real time. With donations and support from nonprofit organizations on the U.S. mainland, they bought the technology and trained volunteers, connecting them to other residents, church leaders, emergency responders and businesses.
As Dorian swirled nearer, volunteers were activated. They learned the local shelter was without a working generator and pulled together resources to bring a new source of power to those who sought refuge.
“These are private citizens working to make sure we feel more protected than we were during Maria,” Martin Bras said. “We dodged a bullet but we are not where we need to be in Vieques. The local state government still hasn’t answered questions about water, power and transportation that are critical to being prepared for the next one.”
Pastor Urayoan Silva of the local Fe Que Transforma congregation has for years been serving the local Vieques community, where the cost of living is higher and maritime transportation to the main island is unreliable. His church established a food bank and supplies clothes to families in the center of the island. But after Hurricanes Maria and Irma, Silva realized the group needed to enhance its operation to help protect people from the next storm.
The church took over an abandoned school and, with help from outside donors and the community, rebuilt it into a recovery center and supply warehouse powered by solar energy. Every barrio now has a leader with a radio to stay connected and access to a water filtration system should the electric system that supplies power to local water pumps fail.
“If a hurricane comes, I have instant access to information to know how my community is doing,” Silva said.
On the main island of Puerto Rico, Dorian turned into a rain event, allowing island officials to breathe a sigh of relief. They told residents they would remain alert, but the power grid appeared to withstand Dorian’s gusts and remained largely operational throughout Wednesday. Officials said that schools and government offices will be open Thursday.
“We have to be cautious and not let our guard down,” said FEMA’s federal coordinating officer, Nick Russo, who monitored the slowing storm through the night amid concerns the hurricane was intensifying as it heads toward Florida. FEMA officials said they are watching and waiting to see if they can start demobilizing in Puerto Rico and shift teams to the Sunshine State.
Before and during the storm’s trek through the Caribbean, President Trump took to Twitter to criticize Puerto Rico as “one of the most corrupt places on earth,” encouraging locals to thank FEMA “unlike last time” and taunting San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.
“Congress approved Billions of Dollars last time, more than anyplace else has ever gotten …” the president said. “And by the way, I’m the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico!”
Trump’s comments were met with little attention from the governor’s mansion, where Vázquez Garced has been communicating with administration officials in recent weeks. But Cruz responded by telling CNN that the president has a “vanity complex” and is attempting to distract the public from his administration’s diversion of FEMA funding toward border security.
“This is not about him,” Cruz wrote on Twitter. “This is not about politics. This is about saving lives.”
Puerto Rico’s resident commissioner, Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón, who has a voice but no vote in Congress, responded to the president’s comments, saying hurricanes obviously are not the island’s fault.
“This is a moment for everyone to stand up and help our fellow Americans suffering from a natural disaster,” said González-Colón, who is a Republican and is expected to run for governor of Puerto Rico in 2020 as the candidate for the island’s statehood party. “Thank you for quickly dispatching personnel and declaring a state of emergency in Puerto Rico.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for more than two dozen counties due to “the threat posed by Hurricane Dorian.” Jared Moskowitz, director of the Florida Division of Emergency Management, said in a statement that every resident along the state’s east coast — from Miami to Jacksonville — should be prepared and monitor forecasts because “the track of this storm has been changing and can continue to change rapidly.”
Back in Puerto Rico, municipalities in the southeast and northeast such as Toa Baja, Canóvanas and Naguabo are still susceptible to dangerous flooding from bloated lakes and rivers. Many of those communities were targeted for federally funded resiliency projects to build and reinforce levees and systems that would help mitigate the worst effects of the flooding on roads and neighborhoods, said Deepak Lamba-Nieves, lead researcher with the San Juan-based think tank Center for a New Economy.
Congress imposed new restrictions and requirements on some disaster aid funding earlier this summer after two top-ranking members of the previous Puerto Rican administration were charged in a public corruption investigation involving federal funds. That, coupled with other delays in the disbursement of the bulk of $42 billion in appropriated aid, has stalled Puerto Rico’s reconstruction.
The local government, whose finances are managed by a federally appointed fiscal oversight board, does not have the resources to tackle such projects on its own in many cases, experts say. The oversight board authorized $260 million in aggregate funds from a reserve account for Puerto Rico’s emergency-related expenses late Wednesday.
“These communities are in dire situations, and the government has done little to solve their structural and geographically based problems,” Lamba-Nieves said. “The combination of flood zones and poverty in these places is a recipe for future disaster.”
With more than two months left in the Atlantic hurricane season, Puerto Rico could still face another emergency.
Dorian was a “great dry run,” said longtime Vieques resident and community leader Paul Lutton. “Hopefully we will learn things from it that will make us better prepared for a big one.”
Gordon is a freelance journalist based in Vieques, and Jackson is a freelance journalist based in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hernández reported from Washington.