VIEQUES, PUERTO RICO — This small island seven miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico has been without running water, power, gasoline or communications for more than a week, leaving its 9,000 residents teetering on the edge of crisis and clamoring for help.
The water sanitation plant has not run in four days because of a lack of fuel, threatening an island-wide sewage backup. The backup generator at the only hospital in Vieques was stolen; the remaining generator is almost out of fuel, and 18 dialysis patients cannot survive without consistent power to the hospital.
And Vieques can't easily receive supplies because of its location. One shipment of gas has arrived since the storm, and the municipality had limited access to it because residents who had been waiting in line for three days reportedly hijacked the pumps, according to a quasi-relief group and residents on the island.
The island — a community best-known for its decades-long fight against the U.S. Navy, which operated a bombing range here — is faring like many other remote Puerto Rico locales that have not yet received external help: People are struggling to maintain any sense of normalcy, and they have little confidence anyone is coming to save them.
When asked at a news conference Thursday if reports of the hijacked gas station were true, and if local authorities had requested martial law to regain control of the island, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said he had not heard about the situation but was sending help.
Before Hurricane Maria slammed the island, Vieques was verdant, a paradise retreat with pristine beaches, a large nature preserve, home to many U.S. mainland retirees.
The landscape now is almost unrecognizable. Trees were uprooted, and those still standing are bare and offer no shade. Homes were destroyed. People are getting desperate.
Lucky to get out
Five days after Maria hit Vieques, I started my day in the dark at 5 a.m. waiting in line for gas. Because there was no communication with the rest of the world, there was no way to know if it was actually coming.
Roughly 30 people were in front of me on line; one had been waiting for 11 hours the previous day and left her car there overnight so she wouldn't lose her spot. People had set up folding tables at the pumps to play dominoes while they waited. I left, because I heard it might be possible to get to Puerto Rico on a private plane for a very short stay in San Juan.
I was desperate to make a phone call, to tell my family — to tell anyone — that I was alive.
After a short trip to San Juan — an hour on the ground, and tearful calls to my parents, my brother, my editor — I learned at the last minute that a seat had opened up on a private aid flight to the mainland United States with ViequesLove, a group that had brought satellite phones and medical supplies to Vieques. It was the first intimation I had that someone, anyone, was trying to help us. I was relieved that no one had forgotten about us. But I was also desperate to leave.
After stuffing some damp, dirty clothes in a bag, I grabbed my dog and returned to the airport. Within minutes we were airborne. We touched down in Florida about 10 o'clock Monday night.
In the days since, I have been constantly responding to posts from people in the United States and across the globe asking if their loved ones on Vieques are okay. With no direct communication between Vieques and the rest of the world, I am one of very few people that can offer any information about the people still trapped there. But I don't know what has happened to them since I left.
Vieques is a U.S. territory, the people who live there U.S. citizens. They are currently without electricity, running water, gasoline and any connection to the rest of the world. Any news that circulates is hearsay, rumor. Every time a plane or helicopter flies over, people look up to see if it's military, news or private. At the end of last week, a radar plane was circling the island. We were petrified that it was tracking a new storm; we had no way to know what, if anything, was coming for us next.
People have no access to credit cards, and whatever cash they withdrew before the storm is dwindling quickly. Vieques was without power for more than a week after Hurricane Irma, restaurants and businesses were closed, and many people haven't been able to work or earn money since.
One word I often use — lovingly — to describe Vieques is "primitive." We have no traffic lights, horses roam free and streets are identified by landmarks and lawn ornaments rather than names.
We don't have shopping malls or food delivery or other such creature comforts, but we choose to live that way, and we love it.
The word primitive has taken on a new meaning, now. It's having to siphon rainwater from the roof to flush your toilet. It's carrying around a machete to cut through downed tree branches that obstruct your path. It's having no way to know what is going on elsewhere in the world, or even on the other side of the island. It's rationing drinking water. It's trying to fall asleep in a dark, hot room and hoping that if an intruder tries to break in, you'll remember how to use the spear gun your friend lent you, since you can't call for help.
I was lucky, extremely lucky, to get out.
Amy Gordon is a freelance journalist who lives in Vieques.