In beleaguered Puerto Rico, Fiona revives trauma of Hurricane Maria

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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico, Sept 23 (Reuters) - Javier Rivera-Aquino is a lawyer who supplemented his income by raising bananas on a 17-acre plot of land in the mountains of west-central Puerto Rico until five years ago, when Hurricane Maria plowed into the island and swept away his plantation.

For Rivera-Aquino, this week revived painful memories of 2017 as another powerful storm, Fiona, inflicted a fresh round of destruction on an island still struggling to recover from Maria.

Strengthening into a Category 1 hurricane before making landfall on Sunday, Fiona hit the island with surprising fury, destroying crops, dumping massive amounts of rain and cutting power to nearly every corner of the island.

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Days later, with more than 900,000 homes and businesses still without electricity, Puerto Ricans are coming to grips with the extent of the damage. Rivera-Aquino said farmers near his hometown of Lares are digging out after the storm stripped coffee fruit from trees planted on mountainsides and washed out banana plantations in the valleys.

"The farmers in the valley, the banana farmers, total devastation," said Rivera-Aquino, 50. "They're hit bad and I'm not sure what they'll do."

Rivera-Aquino knows too well the challenges now facing his neighbors around Lares, about 62 miles (100 km) southwest of San Juan, the capital city.

"I farmed with pride," he said. "It was something I did with pride, but the insurance wasn't enough to replant, so I had to sell. Maria took it from me."

While LUMA Energy, the grid operator, said “full restoration could take several days," Rivera-Aquino is skeptical that timetable can be met.

"Maybe it'll be weeks, maybe longer in the mountains," said Rivera-Aquino, who feels fortunate to have installed solar panels on his home and a large cistern to catch rainwater to supply his family.

'IT'S INCREDIBLE'

Jonathan Berrios, a writer who lives in the small city of Cidra, said Fiona brought a deluge of about 30 inches of rain as the storm battered the island for hours with wind gusts at times up to 90 mph.

"The rain, it's a record for this place, more than Maria," Berrios said.

While Cidra, about 31 miles (50 km) south of the capital, suffered multiple landslides in the wake of the catastrophic 2017 hurricane, Fiona has brought its own significant problems, he said.

Some roads are blocked with mud and stones, several bridges were washed away and houses near the rivers were flooded to their rooftops, or knocked off their foundations, he said.

"The rain and river took them down," Berrios said.

His house is built on a hill, and while some water got in, he said it wasn't damaged much.

"We're in the center of the island. Salinas and places in the south are the worst. I'd say thousands of homes are damaged or destroyed. It's incredible. Some houses are buried in mud...Crazy."

Juan Mercado, a major and division commander for the Salvation Army in San Juan, said the church has distributed more than 10,000 meals since Monday, usually chicken or beef, some rice or pasta and salad greens.

His team has about 80 volunteers on the ground, but expects the ranks to swell in the next few days to 125. The aim is to serve meals for at least the next two weeks.

Mercado toured the damaged parts of the island for two days this week. He said he was stunned by what he saw, including homes left in rubble and bridges were swept away

"Some communities are entirely cut off," he said.

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Reporting By Ivelisse Rivera in San Juan and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Writing by Frank McGurty and Alistair Bell

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