PONCE, Puerto Rico—The quiet, peaceful ambience here was interrupted early Tuesday. A loud siren blared, urging residents of the island’s southern coast—and second largest metro area—to begin evacuating their homes because Maria, a new and powerful Category 5 hurricane, is headed this way.
Ponce is just one of the 44 municipalities that have activated the compulsory evacuation process. The whole island has not yet recovered from Hurricane Irma, which made a glancing blow. Irma knocked out most power lines, leaving more than 1.2 million residents in the dark.
Now, Maria is barrelling right toward the populous heart of Puerto Rico. Its sustained winds—not gusts—are 160 miles per hour, and unlike Irma it is expected to dump a huge amount of water, causing mudslides in addition to other damage.
It has devastated the little island of Dominica already. Whether it will hit the continental United States at week’s end remains an open question, but it looks like there’s no way for Puerto Rico to escape the hurricane’s landfall on Wednesday.
“We’ve already begun the preparation process and the best thing is for them to leave their homes and find shelter,” said María Meléndez, the mayor of Ponce, accompanied by the governor of Puerto Rico, Ricardo Rosselló, and personnel of the Department of Public Security and the National Guard mobilizing evacuees.
The mayor ordered 11,976 people to get out of town. Many of them live in flimsy houses made of wood and corrugated zinc that are extremely vulnerable to high winds and coastal flooding.
But not everybody was convinced that Hurricane Maria would put their lives in danger. Skeptics argued that the conditions of the shelters are far worse than their homes.
“We are 3,000 cots short,” Luis Delgado, director of the Office for Disaster Preparedness and Emergency Management of Ponce, told a local newspaper.
Delgado’s statement heightened the reluctance to evacuate, mandatory or not; and once word got around that some of the shelters aren’t ready, many families were hard to convince.
“I’m not moving here. This is my home and there’s no need for me to leave,” said 62-year-old Rodrigo Negron.
“We are really sorry but you are not safe here, sir,” an officer replied.
Tensions were growing between the two, so the officer decided to give the man an opportunity to gather his belongings, because tomorrow he will be evacuated, no matter what.
“There’s always contradiction. These people live in vulnerable zones so they need to evacuate,” Darisabel Texidor, the Ponce municipality press secretary, told The Daily Beast. People have a lot of emotional attachments to their homes, he said.
Texidor noted one retirement community where residents are bedridden and unable to move. “We will come back tomorrow first thing in the morning and take them to the refuge we have prepared for them,” he said.
As of Tuesday, 80,000 clients in Puerto Rico are still without electricity.