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Some areas of Puerto Rico remain in danger after devastation of Hurricane Fiona

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

And on the south side of the island, as NPR's Adrian Florido reports, despite forecasts, this hurricane still caught many people off guard.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: Barrio Playa is a small neighborhood in the town of Salinas on Puerto Rico's southern coast. It's where Yesennia Alvarado and much of her family live. She said people knew Fiona would bring heavy rain, but they did not expect the water levels to rise so high and so fast.

YESENNIA ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Close to midnight last night, when the water started entering people's homes and reaching their waists, people started to panic. They shot emergency flares into the air.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Emergency responders rescued more than 200 people here and in surrounding neighborhoods. This afternoon after the water receded, Alvarado was making the rounds, checking on members of her family.

ALVARADO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Her cousin Tata wasn't home. Next door, Cano Correa said he and his wife, Norma Rosa, rode most of the storm out with family in another town. When they returned to their house this morning here in Barrio Playa, they found a sloppy mess.

CANO CORREA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: (Speaking Spanish).

CORREA: (Speaking Spanish).

NORMA ROSA: (Speaking Spanish).

CORREA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Their whole house was full of water, leaves and mud.

CORREA: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Correa walked to the backyard, a concrete patio surrounded by brick walls. "Look," he said. "It's like a swimming pool. I don't know how I'm going to get that water out of there." All across Puerto Rico, in coastal towns like this one and in many mountain towns, people are starting to assess just how much destruction Hurricane Fiona wrought with its near-record rainfall. In some places, the floodwaters are starting to recede, but in others, the rain hasn't stopped. And there are still huge threats of flash floods, mudslides and collapsed bridges. Much of the island is still without power, and some places don't have drinking water. It could be days or longer before those services are restored. Governor Pedro Pierluisi said Monday that officials are still in emergency response. Including here in Salinas, more than a thousand people have been rescued island-wide. Lysbeth Moran and her husband, Doel Santiago, thought for a good long while last night that they would be among those people.

LYSBETH MORAN: And so, yeah, it was really, really - it was a really traumatizing experience. It was really bad.

FLORIDO: She said watching the water level rise from their porch, she started to prepare to escape to their neighbor's house. He has a second story.

DOEL SANTIAGO: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: Hurricane Maria brought stronger winds, her husband said, but Fiona brought more rain. One of the reasons it got so bad in this neighborhood, he said, is because the pump that is used to remove stormwater out to the ocean didn't seem to be working last night. Maria destroyed the couple's previous home in 2017. They decided to rebuild but to make their new house hurricane-proof. It's painted a nice, bright blue. It's got sturdy concrete walls. And they raised it onto a concrete platform more than 3 feet off the ground.

MORAN: Thinking, you know what? We're going to be safe. We're going to have a good structure for years to come. It doesn't matter if a hurricane hits the island. We're going to be pretty safe. But as, you know, what we witnessed last night, we don't think so.

FLORIDO: Moran said that she and her husband had been talking about adding a second story to their home sometime after they retire years from now. But after Fiona, they're going to start building that second story right away. Adrian Florido, NPR News, Salinas, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.