Still reeling from the impact of Hurricane Maria, authorities in Puerto Rico say a 90-year-old dam is dangerously close to breaking. Due to the Guajataca Dam’s imminent failure, discovered by an engineer inspecting it, The National Weather Service (NWS) in San Juan issued a flash flood warning for eastern Isabela Municipality and western Quebradillas municipalities.
The dam, located in the northwestern part of the U.S. territory, may fail at any moment, as the crack could be the first sign of a total failure of the dam, according to Anthony Reynes, a meteorologist with the U.S. NWS, as reported by the Associated Press.
“There’s no clue as to how long or how this can evolve. That is why the authorities are moving so fast, because they also have the challenges of all the debris. It is a really, really dire situation,” Reynes said. “They are trying to mobilize all the resources they can but it’s not easy. We really don’t know how long it would take for this failure to become a full break of the dam.”
Executive director of Puerto Rico’s emergency management agency, Abner Gomez, said in an interview late Friday night that the dam’s gates suffered mechanical damage during the storm. The damage doesn’t allow the gates to open and let out normal water currents, which could cause the dam to spill over, according to officials.
A breech of the dam could potentially cause life-threatening flash flooding, as it lies across the Guajataca River to form a reservoir which can hold roughly 11 billion gallons of water.
In a tweet, the NWS told residents along the Guajataca River to “evacuate NOW,” because their lives were in danger.
The tweet read: “All Areas surrounding the Guajataca River should evacuate NOW. Their lives are in DANGER! Please SHARE! ”
All Areas surrounding the Guajataca River should evacuate NOW. Their lives are in DANGER! Please SHARE! #prwx
— NWS San Juan (@NWSSanJuan) September 22, 2017
Another tweet told the same residents to “seek higher ground now!” The tweet read: “Flash Flood Warning for eastern Isabela & western Quebradillas until 2AM. Residents along Guajataca River seek higher ground now!”
— NWS San Juan (@NWSSanJuan) September 23, 2017
Authorities have evacuated about 70,000 people who live in the area of the Guajataca Dam, and buses having been called in to help people leave. In a Saturday afternoon update, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said the dam is holding up, but told residents to evacuate the area until further notice.
“To those citizens … who are listening: Please evacuate,” Rosselló said. “We want your life to be protected … Please, if you’re listening, the time to evacuate is now.”
The NWS noted that the government called the situation “extremely dangerous.” According to preliminary results of various dam break scenarios, the NWS found that a full breach could cause water to reach the coast in under 12 hours. Flood extent mapping in those scenarios does show that the water will stay largely within the river channel, however.
Gomez said under current conditions, with water rising after Hurricane Maria, the dam cannot be repaired right now. With additional water flowing into the lake, emergency evacuation was the only option, because if the dam tops over or fails structurally, he said, “thousands of people could die.”
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority operates the dam. They say there have already been failures that are causing flash flooding downstream.
The dam crisis comes as Puerto Rico is still recovering from the devastating effects caused by Hurricane Maria. The death toll rose to 21 on Friday as food and supply shortages have created a humanitarian crisis in the U.S. territory.
“There’s a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico,” Gov. Rosselló told the AP. “This is an event without precedent.”
Much of the island is expected to be without power for weeks, with some locations said to be potentially without power for four to six months, officials said.
— CBSDFW (@CBSDFW) September 23, 2017
— New York Daily News (@NYDailyNews) September 23, 2017
— Global Issues Web (@globalissuesweb) September 22, 2017
— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 22, 2017
— ITV News (@itvnews) September 23, 2017
— Eli Dror (@edrormba) September 23, 2017
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