In a Puerto Rican Town, ‘Water Came Out of Nowhere’

TOA BAJA, P.R. — Everywhere they looked there was water. It swept in from the ocean to the north. And it surged toward them from overflowing rivers to the south. Hurricane Maria’s wrath left residents in this coastal town trapped by water.

Entire neighborhoods were submerged and some people were swept away in the surge, residents recounted on Friday.

When the waters began rushing in two days before, Laura Hernandez evacuated her home and huddled in the second floor of a neighbor’s house with several dozen other residents. Two of them were bedridden. From there, she saw her house flood until she could only see the roof. Other residents stood on their own roofs, stranded among the rushing currents of murky water.

“This is something never before seen,” said Ms. Hernandez, 48, a resident of the Barrio Ingenio neighborhood, adding, “The water came out of nowhere.”

The neighbors huddled together throughout the storm for over 24 hours until military trucks made their way through on Thursday to evacuate them.

Over 2,000 people were rescued from homes in Toa Baja on Thursday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said. The exact number of deaths was not clear as of Friday evening. Puerto Rican government officials certified two deaths in the town. But, Bernardo Márquez, the mayor, said eight people drowned due to the flooding, according to reports he had received from rescuers.

A father, a mother, and two children, the mayor said, were found drowned inside their home in the neighborhood of Barrio Ingenio. Rescuers found two older people in the Pueblo neighborhood, he said. The bodies of a father and his son were also found, he said.

When asked if he foresaw more bodies being found, he indicated that the storm’s toll might very well rise further. “I would like to think not,” Mr. Márquez, said. “But I think we will. We have to let things calm down after the storm and go search.”

The Puerto Rico government, however, certified only two deaths after sending Abner Gómez Cortés, the head of Puerto Rico’s emergency agency, to Toa Baja on Friday.

Residents said they were alerted of the floods by people screaming, “Agua! Agua! Agua!” Some were awakened by the water and many said waters rose to six feet in a matter of 30 minutes. Hundreds tried to salvage their cars by driving them to higher ground and then had to swim back to their homes. Many second stories were also flooded while residents took refuge there.

The town was still sorting through the chaos on Friday morning.

Muddy waters still isolated entire neighborhoods. Flooded houses smelled of mud, food and excrement. The town government was just beginning to account for people and supplies in shelters. Volunteers and government rescuers continued to rescue stranded residents on boats and trucks. Dead horses were found scattered in the streets, eyes bulging and bodies bloated by the waters.

Three days after Hurricane Maria hit, some residents still hadn’t found their loved ones.

Iris Rodriguez, 55, who lost her house, has not yet found her daughter and two grandchildren. Their family home was in one of the neighborhoods left 15 feet underwater, Ms. Rodriguez said.

“I’ve tried to remain calm, but,” she said, unable to finish the sentence.

The morning the hurricane hit, Maria’s torrential rains forced the government to open five gates of La Plata Lake Dam in Toa Alta. The waters unleashed by the reservoir rushed downhill toward Toa Baja, while storm surges also flooded the town with ocean water from the opposing side, Mr. Márquez said.

“Currents were coming at an unprecedented level and it got to the point where the dam was going to overflow,” Mr. Rosselló said on Friday.

The dam, built in 1974 by Puerto Rico Aqueducts and Sewer Authority, is mostly used to supply the San Juan area with water.

The government had begun emptying the reservoirs in the island several days before the storm in anticipation of heavy rainfall, the governor said.

“If we hadn’t implemented our preventive protocol, this could have been even more devastating,” he said.

Many residents in Toa Baja ignored government warnings to evacuate.

“Even the night before there were evacuation announcements,” said Brenda Mangual, the town’s director of communications. “There were people who didn’t want to evacuate. There are people that stayed in their homes. They got confident.”

The residents were used to flooding. They had seen the oceans rage many times before. But they had experienced nothing like this, said Ernesto Mato, 78, a fisherman who used his 12-foot aluminum boat to rescue his neighbors.