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Hot, isolated, and running out of supplies, parts of Puerto Rico near desperation

Meryanne Aldea lost everything at her house when the winds of Hurricane Maria ripped away the roof. The mountain town of Juncos is one of the most affected areas in Puerto Rico, and it remains largely isolated from the rest of the island — and the world. (DENNIS M. Rivera Pichardo/For The Washington Post)

In the heat and humidity here in the central mountains, Meryanne Aldea fanned her bedridden mother with a piece of cardboard Sunday as the ailing woman lay on her side, relieving a large ulcer in her back.

The 63-year-old mother, Maria Dolores Hernandez, had cotton stuffed in her ears to keep flies out, since her now screenless windows were letting all sorts of bugs in. The gray-haired diabetic woman spoke with her daughter about her worries: that she would run out of prescription drugs, that they were almost out of generator fuel to keep her insulin refrigerated and to run the fans at night. With all the heat, she feared that her ulcer would become infected.

But she worried most about her daughter’s home on the floor above hers, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. The shrieking winds had ripped off the zinc roof and the pounding rains had soaked the unprotected rooms below. While the outer concrete walls were mostly intact, everything else was ruined, covered by dirty tree branches, leaves, glass and debris.

Aldea reached out to hold her mother’s hand.

“Relax,” she said. “It’s okay.”

‘If anyone can hear us … help.’ Puerto Rico’s mayors describe widespread devastation from Hurricane Maria

Four days after a major hurricane battered Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island in a communications and power blackout, regions outside San Juan remained disconnected from the rest of the island — and the world. Juncos, in a mountainous region southeast of the capital that was slammed with Maria’s most powerful winds, remains isolated, alone, afraid.

Hurricane Maria slammed Puerto Rico

TOPSHOT - A man and a boy nail a board over a window on September 18, 2017, in Trois-Rivieres, on the Fench Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, as Hurricane Maria approaches the Caribbean. Hurricane Maria strengthened rapidly on September 18 as it blasted towards the eastern Caribbean, forcing exhausted islanders -- still recovering from megastorm Irma -- to brace for the worst again. The US National Hurricane Center (NHC) said the "major hurricane" had intensified to Category 3 as it approached the French island of Guadeloupe, the base for relief operations for several islands devastated by Irma this month. / AFP PHOTO / Cedrick Isham CALVADOSCEDRICK ISHAM CALVADOS/AFP/Getty Images (Cedrick Isham Calvados)

For many residents, the challenge of accessing the essentials of modern life — gasoline, cash, food, water — began to sink in. And government officials had no answers for them. Estimates for the return of electricity and basic services will be measured not in days but in weeks and months. For those most vulnerable, far too long.

Many have been openly wondering when help will arrive, whether from local officials or from the federal government. The first thing some people ask when they see outsiders: “Are you FEMA?”

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is warning that his government needs broader assistance from the federal government, calling on the Pentagon especially to provide more aid for law enforcement and transportation. Rosselló said he’s also worried that Congress will shortchange his island once the initial wave of emergency relief is gone.

“We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico,” he said Sunday night. “It can’t be minimized and we can’t start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks.”

Puerto Rico governor: ‘We still need some more help’ from Washington

For federal agencies trying to respond to Maria, the situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is inescapably more challenging than the situations in Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It’s difficult to get onto the islands.

The airports and harbors here were severely damaged. That means the islands are more isolated than ever, even as the humanitarian crisis has worsened by the day.

So although massive amounts of food, water, fuel and other supplies have been dispatched by federal agencies and private organizations, with more resources on the way, this has been an obstacle-filled process.

Federal agencies have succeeded in clearing the use of the Port of San Juan for daytime operations, but other ports remain closed pending inspections. Many roads are blocked, inhibiting relief convoys. The Transportation Department has opened five airports in Puerto Rico and two in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but only for military and relief efforts.

Six commercial cargo ships have delivered supplies including food, water and generators to the Caribbean islands, and more supplies are on the way by ship from Florida and by air from Florida and Kentucky. Among the provisions: The Defense Logistics Agency is sending 124,000 gallons of diesel fuel to Puerto Rico.

Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz recounts the many struggles Puerto Rico's capital city is facing as it tries to regain its footing after Hurricane Maria. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

In addition to concerns about basic survival, on the west side of the island worries have intensified about a ruptured dam that has been tenuously holding back the waters of Lake Guajataca. Government officials said Sunday that the “fissure” in the dam is “large and will collapse at any time.” Throngs of residents in nearby towns have been urged to evacuate. The dam’s failure could lead to massive amounts of water flowing unabated through coastal communities.

In Juncos, scores of homes were destroyed, and thousands of homes sustained damage, Mayor Alfredo Alejandro estimated. Four highways are inaccessible by car, and two bridges were harmed. Roofs of homes all over town are gone, and almost all government buildings were damaged.

Mountains typically brimming with trees and other vegetation are brown and desolate, stripped of all greenery. The mayor of 17 years said he discovered a river he never knew existed in his town, because it was always overgrown with plants. Curved bamboo lining the winding roads were left as bare sticks.

Less than a week ago, Alejandro said, “I had a pretty town.”

“Today I have a desert,” he said.

Puerto Rico’s executive director of emergency management said in an interview that aerial views of destruction in this region looked “more like a tornado than a hurricane.”

But Maria’s destruction in the town was just the beginning. The mayor said Juncos “anxiously” needs diesel, water, hospital equipment and satellite phones for local leadership.

Some local responders in Juncos were forced to clear area streets by hand with machetes, because the town doesn’t have enough chain saws.

Just two gas stations were functioning in the town, and lines stretched for more than half a mile. Some people walked and rode bicycles for miles with empty gas canisters in hand.

One of the town’s two supermarkets was open Sunday, and employees would let in only 10 people at a time to avoid chaos. Residents, who stood in line for hours, could purchase only rationed food. There is no functioning bank or cash machine in the entire municipality.

When Aldea, 37, and her 5-year-old daughter walked through her shell of a home in Juncos after the hurricane had passed, the child hardly said a word. She scoured her pink room, with pony stickers on its walls, and picked out a couple of soaked dolls and coloring books.

“We don’t have a house anymore,” Aldea explained to her daughter, Darangellie. “We’re going to have to start new with what we have.”

Aldea, who works as a secretary in the mayor’s office, is living with and taking care of her mother in the tiny room downstairs. Darangellie spends most of the days with a relative in town, but at night she sleeps with her mother. The child has asthma and needs to use a daily nebulizer treatment — requiring her mother to turn on their generator at night. They have enough diesel to power the generator for one more day.

She has a half-tank of gas left and can't set aside the entire day that would be necessary to wait in line for more because she has to care for her daughter and mother. It doesn't help that driving to town for her job — which usually takes seven minutes — now takes more than a half-hour because of blocked or inaccessible roads.

But Aldea remained calm. More than anything, she is thankful to be alive: “If I don’t stay strong, how can I take care of the two people who depend on me?”

Across town, a second-level three-bedroom apartment was ripped to shreds in the storm, the cooking appliances, kitchen counters and cabinets the only surviving evidence of the wooden structure.

Maribel Quiñones Rivera, 53, lived with her husband in the home for decades, raising her children and grandchildren there. During the hurricane and in the days that followed, she sought shelter with relatives in their apartment directly below.

On Sunday, she still hadn’t walked upstairs to see the debris up close. When asked why, she shook her head and cried. “I can’t,” she said.

To make matters worse, Quiñones Rivera and her relatives are out of cash — they used their last $30 to buy gasoline. They have five or six bottles of water left.

There are some moments of hope amid the misery in Juncos. On Sunday, about 30 people gathered in a small blue church for Mass. The priest apologized for the lack of a microphone and said the service would be brief.

Aida Sanchez, a member of the congregation, said she came to thank God.

“Because despite the circumstances,” she said, “we’re alive.”

Achenbach reported from Washington. Daniel Cassady in San Juan and Ed O’Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.