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Thousands ordered to evacuate amid fears of Puerto Rico dam collapse

Torrential rain has turned roads into rivers across the island of Puerto Rico
Ricardo ARDUENGO (AFP)
The island territory is still completely without electricity

Authorities in Puerto Rico rushed Saturday to evacuate people living downriver from a dam said to be in danger of collapsing because of flooding from Hurricane Maria.

The drama unfolded as the US island territory, working without electricity, struggled to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean.

The 1920's era earthen dam on the Guajataca River in northwest Puerto Rico cracked on Friday, prompting the government to issue an order for 70,000 people in downstream towns to evacuate -- the combined population of those towns. 

Late Saturday, however, the governor's office said it was impossible to determine exactly how many people were ordered out by local mayors, because they do not have working phones and the government has been unable to contact them.

But a Puerto Rican government official confirmed Saturday that evacuations that began Friday evening were continuing.

He said the dam had cracked, sending water gushing through and prompting fears of flash flooding.

On Friday, public safety chief Hector Pesquera had cited a different cause for the initial dam failure, according to the newspaper El Vocero. Pesquera said a drain which normally releases water from the dam in a controlled fashion had broken, sending it gushing out in torrents.

Ricardo ARDUENGO (AFP)

Puerto Rico was already battling dangerous floods elsewhere on the island because of Hurricane Maria, which hit before dawn Wednesday as part of its furious tear across the Caribbean.

Governor Ricardo Rossello visited Isabela, an area near the dam, late Friday and urged people to get out. The government is also sending in buses to take people to higher ground.

As the island is without power but for emergency generators, and without telecommunications, the governor's entourage left a satellite phone with the mayor of Isabela so he can talk to crews manning the dam.

Rossello has called Maria the most devastating storm to hit the island in a century.

A preliminary assessment said 13 people had died as a result of the storm, he told CNN Friday.

In its latest update at 2100 GMT, the US National Hurricane Center said Maria was moving northwest and located 285 miles (460 km) east of Great Abaco island in the Bahamas. 

So far, at least 33 people have been confirmed dead as a result of Hurricane Maria, including 15 in Dominica, three in Haiti and two in Guadeloupe.

Of the 13 victims in Puerto Rico, eight died in the northern town of Toa Baja, one of the worst-hit areas which was ravaged by winds of more than 125 miles per hour (200 kilometers per hour) and then hit by flooding when the island's largest river, La Plata, burst its banks. 

It was also distressing day for Marina Montalbo, 36, a secretary from Isabela. She was trying to rest in a shelter with her husband and her 11-month-old baby. 

"They made us evacuate. It was a really difficult thing to have to do," she said, sobbing. "We just had to get out; they were screaming that we had to get out."                    

Aid ships trying to dock

HECTOR RETAMAL (AFP)                  

Across the island, streets were littered with debris from the storm, with toppled trees, street signs and power cables strewn everywhere. 

The torrential rain also turned some roads into muddy brown rivers, impassable to all but the largest of vehicles.

Puerto Rico's electricity network has been crippled by the storm and engineers say it could take months for power to be fully restored.

US federal emergency chief Brock Long said ships carrying millions of meals and bottles of water were trying to dock as the island's ports are slowly reopened.

Before reaching Puerto Rico, the storm devastated the small island nation of Dominica.

And after striking Puerto Rico, the storm headed west toward the Dominican Republic where it damaged nearly 5,000 homes, forcing the evacuation of more than 18,000 people, the president's office said. 

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