Hurricane Fiona strengthened into a Category 4 storm on Wednesday, three days after devastating Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic, as well as Turks and Caicos. The storm, now packing 130 mph winds, is currently heading toward Bermuda—and may scoot just to the west of the island nation early Friday, before taking aim at Nova Scotia later next week.
We’re in the midst of hurricane season—and Fiona just so happened to strike the island of Hispanola almost five years to the day after Hurricane Maria did the same, a storm which had an incredibly lethal, long-lasting impact on the island that can still be felt today.
That’s not to stay Fiona hasn’t caused problems for Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. For example, as of publication time, roughly half of Puerto Rico is still without power and running water. At least five people have been killed by the hurricane across the Caribbean: one in Guadeloupe, two in Puerto Rico and two in the Dominican Republic.
We caught up with NBC News national correspondent Gabe Gutierrez, Fox Weather correspondent Nicole Valdes, CNN correspondent Leyla Santiago, ABC News correspondent Victor Oquendo, as well as Weather Channel en Español meteorologist Milmar Ramirez (top right) and her producer Erika Camareno to learn more about what’s happening to our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico right now—and differences between covering Fiona in 2022 versus covering Maria in 2017.
More than one of these correspondents hails from Puerto Rico, which makes covering this story especially challenging.
TVNewser: How are you and your team doing, and what you are you seeing on the ground right now?
Camareno: After the storm, we are seeing gasoline problems and very long lines. The lines are so long, the wait can be hours. There is high demand for gas, but little availability. Since there is no solution to re-establishing the power supply to many in the island, this will be the situation as gasoline is used to supply energy plants and vehicles. For example, some of the team did not have energy at the hotel where they were staying.
We interviewed the Mayor of Guayama and he talked about the destruction left by flooding in that community. While there were no mudslides, the creeks and rivers in the area swept down a bridge and some houses. Fortunately, they were empty.
Gutierrez: The days are long—and you always feel like there are more stories to tell if only you had more time. Most of the island doesn’t have power and about half has no running water. The heat index is around 100 degrees. Every time I come here, I’m reminded that Puerto Ricans are among the most resilient people on the planet.
Oquendo: Covering a hurricane comes with a special set of challenges, but it’s nothing compared to the people directly impacted, living through the aftermath. Since Fiona hit, we crisscrossed the island: from Salinas and Ponce in the hard-hit South, to Caguas, Canovanas, Toa Baja and San Juan. The floodwaters have mostly receded, the painful cleanup well underway. We’ve seen people clearing their water-logged and mud-caked belongings out of their homes. Piles of furniture and appliances lining some neighborhoods. It’s heartbreaking to see—yet the Puerto Rican people, who have been through so much already, have an unbreakable spirit.
Ramirez: The team is doing well—we worked hard to deliver the most up-to-date information from our audience. We went through Hurricane Fiona and experienced the winds of the eye wall of the hurricane. We received wind gusts of 103 miles per hour. After the hurricane, it was a very different experience. We saw flooding and people suffering. We saw them experiencing the traumatic event of another hurricane, five years after the devastating and fatal Hurricane Maria.
As a Puerto Rican, it became very personal because my parents were experiencing the storm about an hour from where I was reporting live. While I was reporting, I was thinking about my family and their welfare. Even though I was relatively close to them, I felt far away. This gave me the strength to continue to inform viewers as the storm got closer.
Santiago: Our team has been on the ground in Puerto Rico since Saturday. Early Sunday morning, we headed to Caguas, about half an hour south of San Juan. We met Samuel Rivera and his family. They had already lost power as the outer bands of Hurricane Fiona brought in rain and wind. While standing on the family’s balcony, I could see the anxiety in his parents’ eyes when a wind gust came in and knocked off a tree branch near their home. That moment spoke to the trauma that still lingers—and the anxiety that is very much alive for the Puerto Ricans on the island after Hurricane Maria. We covered Fiona’s approach from San Juan. I stood in the exact same spot where Hurricane Maria nearly blew me away while reporting for CNN.
As soon as it was safe to get back on the road, we headed south to Salinas, where the Puerto Rico National Guard had to rescue residents from the flooding. For our team, it felt too familiar. The same restaurant owner who gave us permission to set up a live shot the day before Hurricane Maria battered the island, was picking us up in his truck five years later to take us to the devastated areas now coping with the wrath of Fiona. As of this morning, the majority of customers have water again, but the majority are also without power. We visited a section of Toa Baja that was completely inundated by Fiona. Neighbors were still dragging out furniture and belongings damaged by the flooding. They were relieved to have power and water to clean their homes as they threw out mattresses, furniture, refrigerators, toys, and more.
Valdes: We’ve seen a level of disaster that’s comparable to much stronger hurricanes. Flooding alone has destroyed entire communities, strong winds decimated farmlands— and there are millions of people struggling to survive without power, running water or access to many basic resources and no word on when they may return. It’s a devastating situation that could continue to impact quality on this island for months, or even longer. Of course, it’s difficult to see the level of suffering among the Puerto Rican people, who’ve already faced such incredibly destructive storms. As a Puerto Rican myself, I can see the pain—but I’ve also seen the resiliency and strength these communities demonstrate, despite the challenges they continue to face.
What makes Hurricane Fiona different from other storms you’ve covered, including Hurricane Maria in 2017?
Camareno: Fiona behaved differently than other hurricanes I’ve covered. This storm created more damage that was visible due to water than due to winds so far. Roads and houses are left filled with mud. Flooding was the major issue. During this event, people were thinking it was more of a tropical storm and—thus—expected less impact, but it turned into a hurricane and caught them by surprise.
Gutierrez: Fiona was not Maria. While the floodwaters devastated many communities, I’m not sensing the widespread chaos and desperation that we saw during Maria’s aftermath. I attribute that to this storm’s lower wind speed that left most cell phone towers intact. Communications are better this time around. I’ll remember this slow-moving storm was a massive flood event. Though smaller, it reminded me of 2017’s Hurricane Harvey in Texas: the rain seemed like it would never end.
Oquendo: Fiona was not Maria. First of all, the loss of life, was significantly lower post-Fiona. Some areas saw more rain and flooding from Fiona than they did during Maria. That said, she still delivered a punishing blow for a Category 1. Fiona wiped out power before making landfall and it has yet to be fully restored. When I drove through the mountainous region of the island post-Maria, the foliage and vegetation had been wiped out, bright green trees reduced to brown sticks. Fiona didn’t do that, the mountains held up.
Ramirez: Fiona was different because I was living it. I was in the middle of live field coverage. During Hurricane Maria, my experience was in-studio. It is different from being live. Fiona increased intensity as it got closer to landfall. It was a complicated situation because many people did not get ready on-time—and had a little small window to prepare.
Santiago: Every single person on this island learned lessons from Maria. The big question is how are those lessons applied? Families told me they were better prepared. Nobody was waiting for help. Neighbors were out cleaning roads, gathering water from the mountainside and helping each other, with little faith the government would provide much support. A big difference this time is that there is actually cell service. After Maria, the lack of communication created a huge challenge for families trying to reach families—and emergency crews trying to coordinate logistics for disaster relief. The amount of rainfall and the flooding was also a big difference. It just wouldn’t stop raining!
Valdes: I’ve covered a handful of hurricanes since I started my career in journalism, but lived through even more growing up in South Florida. Most of these tropical systems produce winds that tear apart homes and more. Hurricane Fiona, though, dumped an unimaginable amount of rain on the island—and remains one of the greatest impacts of the storm. Puerto Ricans who’ve survived stronger storms admit the effects are unlike anything they could have imagined, or anything they expected to see.
What is a must-have tool in your on-the-ground reporting kit?
Camareno: As a field producer, we need a fan with batteries—because it is incredibly hot—waterproof boots, bottled water, repellent, a cell phone with additional batteries, internet access, cash and food.
Gutierrez: Water/Gatorade. It’s easy to “forget” to hydrate when you’re juggling so much. But it catches up with you quickly. Plastic sandwich bags to keep your cell phones in to protect them from rain. 5.11 tactical shirts. They don’t show sweat. Portable power bank to charge cell phone.
Oquendo: Portable battery charger. Can’t live without it. My producer, Rachel DeLima and our crew start working around 5:00am, before Good Morning America and who knows where we could end up after that.
After GMA, we search for stories, finding the most powerful interviews and compelling video. We’ll also report for our streaming platform, ABC News Live and before we know it, we’re on the air for World News Tonight with David Muir. The day isn’t done yet, in these situations, we’ll also work on Nightline and there’s GMA the next day to keep in mind. Without a portable battery charger—I’m not sure how half of the work would get done.
Ramirez: At The Weather Channel en Español we only use state-of-the-art technology to deliver accurate, real-time weather reports and forecasting—but my personal must-haves include a radar scope, a radar app and my phone.
Santiago: Patience. It’s hard to have when you are on deadline. But it’s a must when speaking to families that have just experienced a disaster that has just devastated their lives. If you want to truly understand what they are going through you must take the time to listen, instead of grabbing a soundbite and rushing off for the story.
As for more practical and tangible things, I don’t go anywhere in Puerto Rico without two things: mosquito repellant wipes and ginger chews. The wipes are small and easy to travel with—and the ginger is the only thing that keeps me from getting nauseous on those windy mountainous roads when I have to write and read scripts and emails in the car!
Valdes: I don’t think I can point to just one tool. When covering a disaster of this magnitude, you never know where you’ll end up. I’m always carrying a pair of waterproof boots, non-perishable food and plenty of water with me everywhere I go. It’s helped make sure I can stay focused and hydrated to do my best work—and allow me to take on any environment or weather event.
What’s a standout story from the ground you can tell us that you haven’t had the chance to bring up on TV? It can be a discussion with a government official or an interaction with a local/everyday citizen.
Camareno: As a Puerto Rican and a producer, I would talk about how within the different traumatic situations, Puerto Ricans conserve hope and put on their best attitudes as a resilient community. They are friendly to the team wherever we go, they provide us with food, happiness, goodness, and great hospitality—even in such difficult circumstances.
Gutierrez: One of the local freelancers we work with spent more than seven months without power after Maria. Seven months. Even before Fiona, power outages were increasingly common. This would never be acceptable on the U.S. mainland, yet it’s become a way of life here. We‘d planned to tell more of that story on Maria’s anniversary this week—but then Fiona hit and a new disaster overtook the headlines. Puerto Rico’s chronic power struggle is always simmering.
Oquendo: I’ve been reporting from Puerto Rico for years for ABC News. I was there before and after Maria—and back again when earthquakes rocked the island in 2020 further damaging the power grid. Covid paused our trips to the island, this was my first time back since the pandemic.
What struck me the most while covering Fiona was the resilience, resourcefulness and spirit of the Puerto Rican people. So many people I spoke with, off camera, who were in the middle of what would and should have been a devastating and demoralizing situation—somehow brushed it right off. Kind of like: “No power? No problem. We deal with blackouts without a storm, Fiona has nothing on us.” It’s incredibly impressive.
That said, these are U.S. citizens we’re talking about, these conditions are unfair and they need to be addressed. I couldn’t imagine seeing this on the mainland. They deserve much better, at the very least—a functioning power grid and reliable running water.
Ramirez: A couple of weeks ago, I was in Puerto Rico investigating climate change impact on the island for the Protecting Puerto Rico special coverage now airing on our network. Storms like Maria and Fiona continue to destroy these communities. That’s why we need to find a way to inform people of the effects of climate change on the island. These storms are becoming stronger due to it—and that is something we must communicate to our viewers.
Santiago: I was in Toa Baja, looking down on my phone, when I heard a song that transported me straight to my childhood days in Puerto Rico. It was a popular song blasted out on speakers of ice cream trucks. My heart immediately smiled remembering the days my cousins and I would run out to the streets with whatever money we could convince our grandma to give us for a treat. I looked up and was instantly brought back to reality, as the ice cream truck made its way down the street lined with the damaged belongings of families whose homes were flooded. The moment symbolized so much. From the destruction to the resilience found on the island of Puerto Rico.
This song has always taken me back to my childhood and made my heart smile. Hearing it play tonight, however, as the truck made its way down a street in Toa Baja lined with the belongings of families whose homes were flooded, broke my heart. #fiona #PuertoRico pic.twitter.com/skGyJTq4xq
— Leyla Santiago (@leylasantiago) September 22, 2022
Valdes: A conversation that continues to come up among Puerto Ricans is not only the immediate effects were seeing from Hurricane Fiona, but the lasting effects that will remain for years to come. The impact to the island’s food supply, water distribution and access to communities has the potential to impact quality of life for Puerto Ricans for several years.
Past hurricanes have shown that many native Puerto Ricans flee the island when rebuilding and recovery remains out of reach from the damage caused to their homes and livelihoods. That includes essential workers like doctors, nurses and first responders. Some argue these hurricanes are more than just a natural disaster, they lead and add to a persisting health care and energy crisis that remain unique to the island— largely based on these weather events and the islands fragile infrastructure—and lead to further issues when these hurricanes hit the island. It’s a domino effect that has the potential to change the course of the U.S. territory for the foreseeable future.