Weakened dam looms as latest threat to Puerto Rico after hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – A dam in Puerto Rico weakened by heavy rains from Hurricane Maria was in danger of failing on Sunday, posing a flood threat to thousands of homes downstream as the storm-battered U.S. island territory struggled through a fifth day with virtually no electricity.

Some 70,000 people who inhabit a river valley below the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern corner of the island have been under evacuation orders since Friday afternoon, when authorities first warned that the earthen structure was in danger of imminent collapse.

The fear of a potentially catastrophic dam break added to the pandemonium facing disaster relief authorities in the aftermath of Maria, which has claimed at least 29 lives across the Caribbean, according to officials and media reports.

Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello personally urged residents of the area to heed evacuation orders after surveying damage to the dam on Saturday, telling reporters that a fissure in the structure “has become a significant rupture.”

The dam, which stands about 120 feet (37 meters) tall, was built in 1929 and supplies the surrounding region with hydropower, drinking water and irrigation supplies.

The National Weather Service in San Juan, the island’s capital, extended a flash flood watch for communities along the rain-swollen Guajataca River below the dam through midday Sunday.

If the dam were to fail, flooding would be life-threatening, the Weather Service warned. “Stay away or be swept away,” it said.

Maria, the second major hurricane to savage the Caribbean this month and the most powerful to strike Puerto Rico in nearly a century, carved a path of destruction through the island after plowing ashore early on Wednesday.

Arriving as a Category 4 storm on the Saffir-Simpson wind scale, with top winds of up to 155 mph (249.5 kph), Maria ripped roofs from buildings, turned roads into gushing debris-strewn rivers and knocked out power across the entire island, home to 3.4 million people.

‘WE LOST EVERYTHING’

“We lost our house, it was completely flooded,” said resident Carmen Gloria Lamb, a resident near the rain-swollen Guajataca. “We lost everything; cars, clothes, everything.”

An aerial view shows the damage to the Guajataca dam in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Quebradillas, Puerto Rico September 23, 2017. REUTERS/Alvin Baez

Puerto Rico officials have officially confirmed 10 storm-related fatalities on the island, and the hurricane was…

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