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Hurricane Fiona rips through Turks and Caicos as Puerto Rico struggles to regain electricity

Hurricane Fiona blasted the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday as a Category 3 storm after devastating Puerto Rico, where most people remained without electricity or running water and rescuers used heavy equipment to lift survivors to safety.

Storm predicted to approach Bermuda as a Category 4 hurricane by Friday

A man wades in floodwater outside a home
Nicasio Gil walks through the stagnant water left by the swollen Duey river, caused by Hurricane Fiona in the Los Sotos neighborhood in Higüey, Dominican Republic, on Tuesday. (Ricardo Hernandez/The Associated Press)

Hurricane Fiona blasted the Turks and Caicos Islands on Tuesday as a Category 3 storm after devastating Puerto Rico, where most people remained without electricity or running water and rescuers used heavy equipment to lift survivors to safety.

The storm's eye passed close to Grand Turk, the small British territory's capital island, on Tuesday morning after the government imposed a curfew and urged people to flee flood-prone areas. Storm surge could raise water levels there by as much as 1.5 metres to 2.4 metres above normal, according to the U.S. National Hurricane Center.

Late Tuesday afternoon, the storm was centred about 120 kilometres north of North Caicos Island, with hurricane-force winds extending up to 45 kilometres  from the centre.

Premier Washington Misick urged people to evacuate. "Storms are unpredictable," he said in a statement from London, where he had attended the funeral of Queen Elizabeth. "You must therefore take every precaution to ensure your safety."

Fiona had maximum sustained winds of 205 km/h and was moving north-northwest at 13 km/h, according to the Hurricane Center, which said the storm was likely to strengthen into a Category 4 hurricane as it approaches Bermuda on Friday.

Puerto Rico struggling to recover electricity

Rain was still lashing parts of Puerto Rico Tuesday, where the sounds of people scraping, sweeping and spraying their homes and streets echoed across rural areas as historic floodwaters began to recede.

"Puerto Rico is not prepared for this, or for anything," said Mariangy Hernandez, a 48-year-old housewife, who said she doubted the government would help her community of some 300 in the long term, despite ongoing efforts to clear the streets and restore power.

"This is only for a couple of days and later they forget about us."

The cleanup efforts occurred on the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Maria, which hit as a Category 4 storm in 2017 and knocked out power for a year in parts of Cayey.

Jeannette Soto, a 34-year-old manicurist, worried it would take a long time for crews to restore power because a landslide swept away the neighbourhood's main light post.

"It's the first time this happens," she said of the landslides. "We didn't think the magnitude of the rain was going to be so great."

80% of island nation without power

Puerto Rico Gov. Pedro Pierluisi requested a major disaster declaration on Tuesday and said it would be at least a week before authorities have an estimate of the damage that Fiona caused.

About 80 per cent of homes and businesses in Puerto Rico still lacked power on Tuesday as rains from Hurricane Fiona receded, leaving residents complaining that the island's troubled electrical grid was still a mess before the storm, despite billions of dollars in funding to improve it.

Hsaid the damage caused by the rain was "catastrophic," especially in the island's central, south and southeast regions.

"The impact caused by the hurricane has been devastating for many people," he said.

A man collects rainwater in a jug
A man collects spring water from a mountain in Cayey, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday. Locals have been forced to collect water from springs after Hurricane Fiona affected the water supply. (Alejandro Granadillo/The Associated Press)

Power provider LUMA Energy said it had restored service to more than 100,000 customers and crews were still working to bring back power for others. Fiona hit Puerto Rico on Sunday, causing an island-wide outage for its 1.5 million customers.

The company said "full restoration could take several days."

The head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency travelled to Puerto Rico on Tuesday as the agency announced it was sending hundreds of additional personnel to boost local response efforts.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared a public health emergency on the island and deployed a couple of teams to the U.S. territory.

The broad storm kept dropping copious amounts of rain over the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, where a 58-year-old man died after police said he was swept away by a river in the central mountain town of Comerio.

Another death was linked to a power blackout — a 70-year-old man was burned to death after he tried to fill his generator with gasoline while it was running, officials said.

Parts of the island had received more than 64 centimetres of rain and more was falling Tuesday.

National Guard Brig. Gen. Narciso Cruz described the flooding as historic.

"There were communities that flooded in the storm that didn't flood under Maria," he said, referring to the 2017 hurricane that caused nearly 3,000 deaths. "I've never seen anything like this."

Cruz said 670 people have been rescued in Puerto Rico, including 19 people at a retirement home in Cayey that was in danger of collapsing.

Puerto Ricans still recovering from Hurricane Maria in 2017

The blow from Fiona was made more devastating because Puerto Rico has yet to recover from Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the power grid in 2017. Five years later, more than 3,000 homes on the island are still covered by blue tarps.

U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said Tuesday he would push for the federal government to cover 100 per cent of disaster response costs — instead of the usual 75 per cent — as part of an emergency disaster declaration.

"We need to make sure this time Puerto Rico has absolutely everything it needs, as soon as possible, for as long as they need it," he said.

Two people lie on cots in a hurricane shelter.
Residents affected by Hurricane Fiona rest at a storm shelter in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on Monday. (Stephanie Rojas/The Associated Press)

Authorities said Tuesday that at least 1,220 people and more than 70 pets remained in shelters across the island.

Fiona triggered a blackout when it hit Puerto Rico's southwest corner on Sunday, the anniversary of Hurricane Hugo, which slammed into the island in 1989 as a Category 3 storm.

Water service was cut to more than 760,000 customers — two-thirds of the total on the island — because of turbid water at filtration plants or lack of power, officials said.

Fiona was forecast to weaken before running into easternmost Canada over the weekend. It was not expected to threaten the U.S. mainland.

In the Dominican Republic, authorities reported two deaths: a 68-year-old man hit by a falling tree and an 18-year-old girl who was struck by a falling electrical post while riding a motorcycle. The storm forced more than 1,550 people to seek safety in government shelters and left more than 406,500 homes without power.

The Dominican president, Luis Abinader, said authorities would need several days to assess the storm's effects.

With files from Reuters

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