Puerto Rico’s governor declared Hurricane Maria the worst catastrophe in island history Saturday as despairing residents struggled without water, fuel, phones and power.
“Hysteria is starting to spread,” said Mayor Jose Sanchez Garcia of the northern coast town of Manati. “The hospital (in our town) is about to collapse. It’s at capacity.
“We need someone to help us immediately.”
Puerto Rican officials are also holding their breath that a crack in an 88-year-old dam would not lead to a total collapse and massive flooding at Lake Guajataca.
The reservoir was near capacity after 15 inches of rain fell on the surrounding mountains. Attempts to evacuate the area downstream were plagued by outages in the nation’s communications systems.
“We don’t know how long it’s going to hold,” said Gov. Ricardo Rossello. “The integrity of the structure has been compromised in a significant way.”
A flash flood warning remained in effect for the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas, with a combined population of 70,000, as the dam held Saturday.
Authorities dispatched buses to the region to ferry residents to higher ground.
Rossello flatly declared that Maria was “without a doubt the biggest catastrophe in modern history for Puerto Rico.” The cost of damages would exceed the total for the last major storm to batter the country — Hurricane George in September 1998.
The hurricane death toll is at least 10, a number that is expected to grow, according to Gov. Ricardo Rossello. That number is down from the estimate of 13 Rossello gave on Friday.
Two of the dead included police officers killed in floodwaters in the town of Aguada.
San Juan resident Nedia Febus, 64, surveyed the massive damage in her neighborhood and declared she didn’t expect any electricity until Christmas.
“This storm crushed us from one end of the island to the other,” she said as drivers waited in hour-long lines outside the few functional gas stations.
Officials in the coastal town of Vega Alta were desperate to reach a flooded neighborhood with a nursing home full of elderly residents.
“I need to get there today,” said Vega Alta Mayor Oscar Santiago. “Not tomorrow, today.”
Dozens of mayors from across Puerto Rico met the governor Saturday with lengthy lists of items in scarily short supply.
More than half of the U.S. territory’s 78 battered municipalities were completely out of contact with the government, said Carlos Bermudez, a government spokesman.
Officials said 1,360 of Puerto Rico’s 1,600 cell phone towers were knocked out by Maria, along with 85% of phone and internet cables on the island.
“We haven’t seen the extent of the damage,” said the governor. Power remained out across all of Puerto Rico, with dire warnings that electricity might not be restored for months.
Officials said more than 15,000 Puerto Ricans remained in shelters. An overnight curfew also remained in effect.
The only good news Saturday came courtesy of ex-NYPD Detective Rick Colon, who was in contact with a ham radio operator in Puerto Rico.
The amateur broadcaster in the hurricane-ravaged nation, using power from a generator, contacted Colon in Palm Bay, Fla., to relay messages from Puerto Ricans eager to let U.S. relatives know they were alive.
“I made about 100-plus calls,” said Colon. “Calling the family members was very emotional. They started screaming and crying and thanking me.”
Colon said the fellow ham operator relayed the phone numbers for him to dial on behalf of the people stranded in Puerto Rico without any phone service.
“I’m not going to lie,” said Colon, who retired in 2006 after 21 years on the job. “I had tears in my eyes calling several of these people. It takes an emotional toll on me.”
The National Weather Service forecast indicated the rainfall that caused massive flooding and mudslides was abating Saturday, with only passing showers and isolated thunderstorms expected.
The winds on the island were down to about 17 mph, and skies were expected to remain cloudy.
But meteorologists acknowledged it was difficult to report on the impact of the weather because many of its recording devices were powerless.
In the U.S., forecasters warned that Maria was whipping up dangerous surf and rip currents along the East Coast. The Category 3 storm, with winds still whipping at 115 mph, was expected to steer well clear of the mainland.