LEVITTOWN, PUERTO RICO — The winds had eased, the debris was no longer soaring through the air, the chaos had subsided. Elizabeth Serrano Roldan decided to lie in her bed and rest. In her gated, middle-class community in the San Juan suburbs, it appeared Hurricane Maria had finally passed.
Then came the water.
It was murky, and sudden, and it flowed into Serrano Roldan’s home with ferocity. Needing a wheelchair to get around, she was marooned on her mattress — her 82-year-old mother was similarly trapped nearby — as the water rose a foot, then two, then more. Her bed had become an island. There was no way out and no one heeding her pleas for help.
“We called and called and called,” Serrano Roldan said. “They promised to come, and nothing happened. It kept rising and rising and rising.”
She looked to the three crosses hanging over her bed, the painting of the Virgin María on the wall. And she prayed. No storm had ever done this here, not in this neighborhood. Hurricane Maria, it seemed, was coming to get her even after it was already gone.
Neighborhoods like this one across Puerto Rico have become disaster zones, the 100-mile island covered in detritus, destruction and despair. As of Thursday afternoon, more than 24 hours after the strong hurricane’s eye had cleared out, the scope of Maria’s damage was still unknown. Much of the U.S. territory remained without power — and could lack electricity for months. Communications were in many places nonexistent.
The information that did trickle out Thursday included images of downed power lines, caved-in buildings and streets blanketed in choppy brown water. Roofs in the capital of San Juan were torn apart, leaving the interiors open to the elements. Enormous trees were pulled from the ground by their roots, and forests were stripped of their leaves.
Stark images and grave news also emerged out of other islands battered by Maria. In the island nation of Dominica, the prime minister said Thursday that at least 15 were confirmed dead and 20 more were missing in the wake of the storm, according to the Associated Press.
Here in Levittown, one of the largest planned communities in Puerto Rico, the flooding was triggered after authorities opened the gates to the Rio de la Plata, in the center of the island, to bring water levels down. The action caused an artificial lake to overflow about 8 or 9 p.m. Wednesday, flooding the community of thousands and trapping residents in their homes.
Early Thursday, emergency management teams and the National Guard rescued dozens of residents, taking them to nearby shelters. But many more remained stuck in their homes with almost no cellphone reception, some of them waiting on their rooftops.
More than 30 neighbors rushed to the two-story house where Serrano Roldan lives with her mother. The neighbors, many of them elderly, needed to find higher ground, and the Roldan family’s home was the only one on the block with a second floor. The women welcomed them.
As the neighbors sought refuge in the three small rooms upstairs, along with their five dogs, Serrano Roldan stayed downstairs, in her bed. Serrano Roldan has spinal muscular atrophy and uses a wheelchair; she must be lowered into her accessible bed with a crane.
With the waters swiftly rising around her on the first floor, she prayed: “Thy will be done.”
In front of her, sleeping on a lower bed, even closer to the rising water, was her mother, Anna Roldan, weeping.
“I couldn’t leave her,” the mother said.
As the sun rose, the water began to slowly pull away, allowing the neighbors to start filtering back to their homes. Residents assessed the damage. Many found all of their belongings — their furniture, their cars — destroyed from the floodwater.
The flooding was a shock to Levittown residents, not only because it was unexpected but because it was unlike anything the neighborhood had experienced. It is the largest housing development in the Toa Baja municipality, and historically, it had been considered safe from hurricanes. Residents across Levittown said their homes had never before flooded.
By midday Thursday, some of the neighborhood’s most vulnerable residents still hadn’t found a way out of their wet, damaged homes.
Serrano Roldan sat in her doorway in her waterlogged, inoperable wheelchair. She was stuck, sweating in the humid, wet home, with a bandage wrapped around an open vein on her right wrist.
The gray-haired woman, a college professor at the University of Puerto Rico, was recently diagnosed with bronchitis and sepsis. Before the storm made landfall, she had been receiving IV treatment from a home nurse. She desperately needed to be taken to a hospital but could no longer make calls on her landline.
Her mother reached over to her, trying to feed her a bologna sandwich.
“I don’t have an appetite right now,” she said. “Nothing.”
Her mother, who has severe arthritis, walked slowly through the first level of the home, assessing the damage. In the bedroom, where Serrano Roldan’s butterfly collection lines the walls, nearly everything was lost. All of their clothes, dressers, bedding, all of the machines Serrano Roldan uses to get around on a daily basis, soaked in the floodwater.
“Oh my God,” the mother said.
Thursday happened to be her 82nd birthday.
Puerto Rico, home to 3.5 million U.S. citizens, was still getting pelted by Maria’s outer bands Thursday as search-and-rescue operations began. The heavy rains sparked dangerous flash floods, particularly in more remote mountainous areas, which the National Hurricane Center called “catastrophic” and “life-threatening.”
The poor conditions complicated efforts to assess the full scope of damage, though authorities in Puerto Rico are already estimating that the cost could reach into the billions.
President Trump acknowledged the likelihood of severe damage. The island is in “very, very, very perilous shape,” Trump told reporters in New York during a meeting with Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko.
Across the continental United States, people pleaded for information about their loved ones on the island, sending panicked messages on social media and dialing and dialing and dialing, getting nothing but silence or busy signals.
About 5 million Puerto Ricans live on the U.S. mainland, including 700,000 in New York City and more than a million in Florida.
“People are begging for information,” Vanessa Pahucki, a teacher in New York, wrote in an email. She has not yet heard from her uncle, who is in Naguabo, on the eastern side of the island. Pahucki started a Facebook group called Loved Ones in Puerto Rico — Check In, where people are asking for updates about areas where loved ones live, and where people on the island are sharing videos.
Rep. Nydia M. Velázquez (D-N.Y.) hasn’t heard from her five siblings in Yabucoa. She did speak to a sister near San Juan who lost her home when a nearby river flooded.
“It’s terrible, but it’s the story,” she said. “We’re just getting so many phone calls. People are desperate because they don’t know. They don’t know the whereabouts, they don’t know if they are fine, and it’s terrible. This is unprecedented. This is beyond the imagination of everyone.”
Waiting with Serrano Roldan and her mother were a married couple, Barbara Terreforte and Vicente Sanabria, the last of the Levittown neighbors that had sought refuge in the home. They are both in their mid-70s, and Sanabria has diabetes.
They sat by the front door, wondering how they might get out of there. The roads were still flooded, and the only means of escape would be in a large SUV.
Terreforte’s daughter had managed to walk more than an hour to check on her parents. Around the neighborhood, scores of other Puerto Ricans trudged through knee-deep waters to check on their relatives.
With no cellphone reception, it was nearly impossible for families to communicate. Some of the Levittown residents were in shelters, but many others were still in their homes. Families drove around with their windows open, asking locals if they had seen their aunts, parents or friends. Others, on the mainland and around the world, posted messages on Facebook and Twitter. They posted coordinates, house numbers and names of their relatives in Levittown, asking authorities to please help rescue them.
Terreforte’s daughter went to fetch an SUV to try to bring her parents to safety. But Terreforte didn’t want to leave Roldan and her daughter behind.
“How do you know someone will come get you?” Terreforte asked.
“Go, don’t stay here. You’ll be safer there,” Roldan said. “We’ll find someone.”
Then, minutes later, a white SUV pulled into the driveway. It was a family friend, who had heard from Serrano Roldan’s daughter in Florida that her mother and grandmother were stranded in Levittown. The family friend offered to drive the mother and daughter to a hospital for Serrano Roldan to receive the treatment she needed.
She was “like a little angel,” Serrano Roldan said, tears forming in her eyes.
Roldan quickly grabbed what she could — clothes, essential medicines, identification — and stuffed it in one of her daughter’s butterfly-print suitcases. The family friends helped lift Serrano Roldan out of her wheelchair and into the car.
“I’ll sit with you and hold onto you,” her mother said. Then, waving to neighbors, they drove off through the flooded streets. A way out.
Somashekhar and Zezima reported from Washington. Daniel Cassady in San Juan, and Ed O’Keefe and the Capital Weather Gang in Washington contributed to this report.