Puerto Rico Braces For Dorian, First Major Cyclone Since Hurricane Maria

Alexander C. Kaufman
Lemuel Otero, 40, battening down the roof at his property in Maternillo, Fajardo, as Puerto Rico prepares to be hit by Tropical Storm Dorian on Wednesday, Aug. 28. (Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for HuffPost)

FAJARDO, Puerto Rico ― Dorian, the first hurricane to hit Puerto Rico since 2017’s devastating María, was expected to make landfall Wednesday afternoon, pounding the east coast with rain and whipping winds.

The storm strengthened to a Category 1 hurricane about 2 p.m. as it barreled over the U.S. Virgin Islands toward Vieques and Culebra, the Puerto Rican islands sometimes called the “colonies of the colony” off the eastern coast.

Dorian had been expected to veer south. But early Wednesday morning, the storm turned northward.

A man finishes boarding up a restaurant at the Naguabo Malecon in Naguabo, Puerto Rico, on Wednesday.  (Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for HuffPost)

At a marina in Maternillo, an area in the eastern municipality of Fajardo, boaters rushed to pull vessels from the water as the sky darkened late Wednesday morning. Kenny Garcia, 29, a bank employee from San Lorenzo, said he hadn’t expected the storm to make landfall here.

“It’s a surprise,” Garcia said, standing on the dock.

Just down the block, Lemuel Otero, 40, hurriedly battened down the roof of his restaurant, El Chinchorro de Tía Manin.

“We went to bed thinking the system was going south,” he said. “We woke up this morning to the new reality of the new path.”

In the surrounding towns, few homes looked prepared. Windows were open, and few were boarded up. The streets were quiet. The scars of María were still fresh in many places. In the Naguabo neighborhood of Punta Lima, giant wind turbines sat idle, their blades still broken. The bridge that once connected Naguabo with Humacao, where María made landfall, was closed for construction.

Boat owners prepare to take their vessels out of the water at Sardinera Marina in Fajardo. (Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for HuffPost)

On the radio, Ada Monzón, the chief meteorologist at WIPR-TV, said Dorian’s winds were at 70 miles per hour as the storm headed straight for Vieques and Culebra. By Wednesday afternoon, the National Weather Service announced the storm had strengthened to hurricane status near the U.S. Virgin Islands, just to the east of Puerto Rico.

The White House, meanwhile, rushed to politicize the storm. In tweets, President Donald Trump declared the territory “one of the most corrupt places on earth” and called himself “the best thing that’s ever happened to Puerto Rico.”

By the late afternoon, the storm seemed to be dying down. Wielding a giant green umbrella, Aracelys O’Neal walked with three other women along the waterfront in Maternillo, laughing and enjoying the breeze.

“Just don’t put us in the paper as the crazy ladies from Fajardo,” she said, joking.

Fajardo in the hours before Dorian was expected to hit Wednesday. (Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for HuffPost)

Still, some braced for the worst.

On the waterfront in Malecón de Naguabo, workers boarded up Vinny’s Restaurant & Pescadería. Hurricane María’s winds smashed the seafood joint’s windows and flipped over trailers as storm surge flooded the floor.

“We’re worried things could be destroyed again,” said Alexis Ramos, 30, whose family owns the restaurant.

On Tuesday, José Antonio Vázquéz Valdes stood atop a ladder stapling a tarp to a tarp.

The original blue sheet of nylon came from the Federal Emergency Management Administration nearly two years ago, after Hurricane María tore the roof off his mother’s small home along the Caño Martin Peña, a badly polluted waterway that runs through one of the capital’s poorest neighborhoods.

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José Antonio Vázquéz purchased a new tarp to prepare for Dorian. (Photo: Alexander Kaufman/HuffPost)

His mother, 89, died of an infection soon after the storm churned up vile bacteria from the waterway. He inherited the home, and its routine problems. The ceiling is splotched with brown water stains, some of them fresh from a rain shower last Saturday that overflowed the canal and flooded the streets.

This week, he bought new blue tarps as Dorian barreled westward across the Caribbean.

“I’m stressed,” said Vazquéz, 45, as the sun baked down on Tuesday. “It’s not easy, but you have to move forward.”

This story has been updated to note that Dorian has been upgraded to a hurricane and to include additional comments from Puerto Rico residents.

This article originally appeared on HuffPost.