SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — Tens of thousands of people in northwestern Puerto Rico were ordered to evacuate Friday afternoon after floodwaters from Hurricane Maria damaged the Guajataca Dam, which the National Weather Service said is in "imminent" danger of failing.
The dam, built by the Army Corps of Engineers in 1929, suffered a "fissure," Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in a news conference Friday. An estimated 70,000 people in the municipalities of Quebradillas, Isabela and part of San Sebastian could be affected if the dam collapses, he said. A failure would likely send a massive amount of water from an inland lake along the Guajataca River, which flows north through coastal communities toward the ocean.
"To those citizens (of those areas) 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 situation adds a new urgency in Puerto Rico as officials here survey the wreckage left by Hurricane Maria, the most powerful storm to strike the island in more than 80 years.
Authorities reported at least six fatalities, three of which occurred in the municipality of Utuado as a result of mud slides. Two people died in flooding in Toa Baja, and one other person died in Bayamón when a panel struck him in the head, the U.S. territory's public safety department said in a statement. More deaths are likely to be reported in the coming hours and days, officials said.
"We are aware of other reports of fatalities that have transpired by unofficial means, but we cannot confirm them," said the secretary of the department of public safety, Héctor M. Pesquera.
Authorities have been hampered in their ability to assess damage because foul weather continued to batter parts of the island early Friday. The storm also knocked out power to the entire island and left only 15 percent of the territory's 1,600 telecommunications towers functional, officials said. Of the island's fiber cables, up to 85% are damaged.
But the breadth and depth of the devastation is coming into focus as Puerto Ricans begin to clear out the rubble.
Photos taken from a helicopter surveying the damage in the southeast part of the island, encompassing an area that on a good day would be a two-hour drive from the capital of San Juan, show entire neighborhoods blanketed in murky water, the waves in some cases reaching near the first-floor windows. Tops of buildings were sliced open, their top-floor rooms visible like dollhouses.
"We saw houses with the roof ripped away totally," said Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo, a freelance photographer for The Washington Post. One shopping center had a huge hole in the roof, "open like a can of tuna," he said. "You could see all the merchandise, clothes hanging in the shelves."
A large building on a coastal luxury resort, once with enviable ocean views, is now partially floating over open air as rocks and mud crumbled under one corner and fell into the sea. Windmills broke and shattered solar panels shone "like broken mirrors," Pichardo said. One reassuring sign, he said, is that people appeared to have fled many of the flood-damaged areas; occasionally people peeked out of second-floor windows or lingered on balconies, apparently waiting for the waters to recede.
Damaging floods continued to plague Puerto Rico in Maria's wake, hampering rescue missions and making it difficult for officials to survey the full extent of the destruction. Authorities have not yet been able to reach or contact some remote communities, in part because of the power outages
and damage to communication systems, including cellphone towers and landlines.
Shock has given way to frayed nerves as officials warn residents that it could be months before power is restored. People queued up at gas stations to fuel cars as well as generators, and long lines snaked from grocery stores. Residents unable to reach family members in remote areas took to the roadways to try to find them, only to meet downed trees and other debris. News was particularly scarce from the southern and central parts of the island, as well the tiny island of Vieques to the east.
On Radio Isla Friday morning, Rosselló urged residents to stay in their homes.
"It's still not safe in the roads. There's still a great deal of flooding," he said. "Now is not the time — unless it's an emergency — to be on the roads."
He said that Puerto Rican residents and civilians have been essential in the rescue and recovery efforts.
"That solidarity is how we're going to be able to get people out of danger" and help lift Puerto Rico out of this, he said.
The enormity of what they had just been through — and what was yet to come — appeared to be sinking in for many people, including those who considered themselves hurricane-hardened.