SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO — In the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, the floodwaters reached more than 10 feet. Stranded residents screamed "save me, save me," using the lights in their cellphones to help rescue teams find them in the darkness, the town's mayor said.
In Loiza, a north coastal town that already had been ravaged by Hurricane Irma, 90 percent of homes — 3,000 — were destroyed by Hurricane Maria just days later. In communities across the island, bridges collapsed and highways were severely damaged, isolating many residents. In Rio Grande, officials had yet to access a number of families stuck in their homes, three days after the powerful storm made landfall.
When speaking about his town’s destruction, Ramon Hernandez Torres, mayor of the southern city of Juana Diaz, took a long pause, his voice catching and his eyes filling with tears.
“It’s a total disaster,” he said.
Hurricane Maria pounded the entire island of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, but the scope of the damage had been speculative and unclear since, in large part because towns across the U.S. territory have been completely off the grid. Though images from the air showed incredible destruction, mayors were unable to reach central government for leadership and help because communication was impossible. No telephones, cellphones, or Internet. No power. No passage through roads that had been washed away or blocked with trees and power lines.
But on Saturday, for the first time in days, mayors and representatives from more than 50 municipalities across Puerto Rico met with government officials at the emergency operations command center here in the island’s capital city. Many of the mayors learned about the meeting through media reports over satellite radio the night before. One mayor said his staff was informed after a man ran to his offices with a note telling him to make his way to San Juan.
Approximately 20 other mayors across the island still have not been able to make contact with government officials, leaving major gaps in the broader understanding of the damage Maria left behind.
The mayors greeted each other with hugs and tears, and they pleaded with their governor for some of the things their communities need most: drinking water, prescription drugs, gasoline, oxygen tanks and satellite phones. The entire population remains without electricity. Families everywhere are unable to buy food or medical treatment. Roads remain waterlogged, and looting has begun to take place at night.
"There is horror in the streets," San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said in a raw, emotional interview with The Washington Post. "People are actually becoming prisoners in their own homes."
“Whenever I walk through San Juan,” Cruz said, she sees the “sheer pain in people’s eyes. . . . They’re kind of glazed, not because of what has happened but because of the difficulty of what will come,” she said. “I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time. . . . Two days ago I said I was concerned about that. Now I know we won’t get to everybody in time.”
Oscar Santiago, mayor of the northern coastal city of Vega Alta, said many of his community’s families refused to evacuate their flooded homes. One little girl was standing barefoot with her family on a roof, which was littered with nails, he said. When he asked her to put on some sandals, she told him: “The hurricane took them.”
Marcos Cruz Molina, mayor of Vega Baja, said even his own wooden home was destroyed, and he has since sought shelter with his parents. Jose Rodriguez, mayor of Hatillo, in the northwest, said “hundreds and hundreds” of homes in his town were obliterated. “It’s catastrophic,” he said.
The meeting in San Juan came a day after the governor urged residents downstream from Lake Guajataca — a population of nearly 70,000 — to evacuate amid fears that a dam holding the lake back might fail because of damage from Hurricane Maria’s floodwaters. Officials said the dam’s structural damage was caused by a “fissure,” a crack that had grown to a significant “rupture” by Saturday. The dam’s failure could lead to massive amounts of water flowing through coastal communities along a river’s path to the ocean, and authorities believed evacuation was the only option.
Local authorities said the actual number of residents remaining in those towns at risk of destruction was most likely much lower because of early overestimates, officials said. Evacuations continued on Saturday.
The official death toll on the island from Hurricane Maria has risen to 10. One died when he was struck in the head by a panel, another died in an accident with an excavating machine, three died in landslides, two in flooding in Toa Baja, and two police officers in Aguada drowned when the Culebrinas River overflowed. One person in Arecibo died after being swept away by rising water. Officials believe there are probably others they haven’t yet been able to confirm.
At the intersection of Routes 2 and 10 in Arecibo, employees of the Gulf Express gas station and their families — about 20 people in all — were hard at work Saturday. Their boots and sneakers were caked with mud because there is mud everywhere: On their pants and shirts, in their cars and on the walls of their homes. The makeshift cleanup crew was using brooms to sweep out the grayish brown slop that lay two or three inches thick inside.
After Maria blew threw the city, taking down trees and power lines, the flash floods came.
“The water had to be at least six, maybe seven feet high,” said Nelson Rodriguez, a Gulf Express employee. “It took everything. All the medicine in the pharmacy, all the food, it’s gone.”
Every home and business in this part of Arecibo was affected by the flooding. Two blocks away from the gas station, Eduardo Carraquillo, 45, helped his father, Ismael Freytes, 69, clean the mud out of their yellow, first-floor apartment. Inside, a film, rising six feet high on the walls, marked where water stagnated for much of a full day.
“The water just pushed through the door, as if it had been left open,” Carraquillo said. “We all evacuated the day after the storm, because we were warned about the flash flood that might come. Everyone left, just to be safe, except for two older men that lived a few houses away. They just didn’t want to leave. When we came back, we found out the flood had killed them right there in that apartment.”
Some Puerto Rico officials believe it could be months before the island recovers and that it will be at least a year before some sense of normalcy returns.
Officials estimate it will take three weeks for hospitals to regain power, and about six months for the rest of the island to have electricity. By Saturday, 25 percent of the population had telecommunications connections.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló announced efforts to centralize medical care and shelters for the elderly. He also plans to distribute 250 satellite phones among mayors to facilitate communication. He said he urged the mayors to develop a “buddy system” with other local officials.
Cruz, San Juan’s mayor, said she has never seen such devastation, but she also said she has never seen such determination to make it. She described a phrase she keeps hearing from residents: “Yo soy Boricua. I am from Puerto Rico.”
“That has become the very courageous way of saying we are going to overcome anything that comes our way,” she said.
A janitor stopped Cruz with a request on Friday: “Tell the world we’re here,” he said, Cruz recounted. “Tell everyone we’re fighting. Tell everyone that can listen that we are going to make it.”
With her voice faltering, Cruz echoed that cry: “If anyone can hear us . . . help.”
“Those are words that no society should have to endure alone or ever,” Cruz said. “What I would ask is not only for Puerto Rico, but for the entire Caribbean that has been hit so hard by this: Do not forget us and do not let us feel alone.”
Cassady reported from Arecibo, Puerto Rico.