SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – Emergency officials in Puerto Rico raced on Saturday to evacuate tens of thousands of people from a river valley below a dam in the island’s northwest, which is on the verge of collapse under the weight of flooding in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
The potential calamity was unfolding as Puerto Ricans struggled without electricity to clean up and dig out from the devastation left days earlier by Maria, which has killed at least 25 people across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.
Some 70,000 people live in a cluster of communities under evacuation downstream from the earthen dam on the rain-swollen Guajataca River, Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello said in a late-afternoon news conference on Friday.
Residents of the area were being ferried to higher ground in buses, according to bulletins issued by the National Weather Service from its office in San Juan, the capital of the U.S. island territory.
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. She said authorities aimed to complete evacuations within hours.
Governor Ricardo Rossello went to the municipality of Isabela on Friday night and told mayor Carlos Delgado that an evacuation there was urgent, his office said in a statement.
Rossello said the rains sparked by Maria had cracked the dam and could cause fatal flooding.
Puerto Rico’s national guard had been mobilized to help the police evacuate all necessary areas, Rossello said.
People had begun leaving nearby areas, but one small community was refusing and Rossello instructed the police to step in under a law that mandated them to remove the local population in an emergency, the statement said.
Villalba could not say how many people had already been evacuated, or how authorities were communicating with residents to organize the evacuation.
PATH OF DESTRUCTION
Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful storm to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction on Wednesday. The island remained entirely without electricity, except for emergency generators, two days later.
Telephone service was also unreliable.