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There was once a bridge here: A devastated Puerto Rico community deals with isolation after Maria

A family crosses a river in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Residents of the San Lorenzo neighborhood have to wade across to the main part of the city because Hurricane Maria washed away a key bridge. (Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/For The Washington Post)

There was once a bridge here, connecting the neighborhood of San Lorenzo with the city center, connecting a community with the necessities of American life: supermarkets, gas stations, emergency services.

But Hurricane Maria was unkind to this place and that bridge. In the searing heat, families now trudge through murky, waist-deep water with grocery bags on their heads, large chunks of cement along the riverbed the only evidence that a crossing ever existed.

The storm’s devastation here in the central mountains outside San Juan was among Puerto Rico’s worst, and the bridge collapse was an added insult. Now thousands of residents are sequestered in their toppled town, away from local officials, federal help, food, fuel, water and medicine.

The only way out of the residential neighborhood is to swim across the river or drive at least three hours around a mountain, a near-impossibility because of the scarcity of gas. Residents tied a fallen cable wire across the river in an attempt to send food and water across. As of Monday afternoon, it hadn’t worked.

Elderly and ailing residents of San Lorenzo have no way of accessing medical treatment. On Saturday, three people helped a man on dialysis cross the river in a float fashioned out of a car tire. Once on the other side, his son placed him on the back of a horse and trotted to a hospital, said San Lorenzo resident Antonio Ojeda, who works in the mayor’s office.

“I feel trapped,” said Genesis Matta, a 25-year-old resident.

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

Five days after Maria battered the city of Morovis, 37 miles southwest of San Juan, residents and local officials said they had received no help from Puerto Rican officials and had no contact with federal agencies. Puerto Ricans across the island have echoed those frustrations as advocates off the island have begun to put pressure on the Trump administration to speed up help to U.S. citizens who have long felt disconnected from the mainland — but perhaps have never felt so alone. President Trump on Tuesday praised his administration’s response to the disaster and announced that he plans to visit Puerto Rico next week.

Trump administration facing pressure to speed up recovery in Puerto Rico

The mayor of Morovis, Carmen Maldonado, appeared out of breath and on the verge of tears Monday as she spoke about the calamities in her town. She was on her way to break into a high school cafeteria with police to get food for residents from the pantries there. The high school was being used as a shelter to house more than 70 people.

“There is no gasoline, not even for the ambulances,” Maldonado said, noting that the governor had promised to send supplies. “Lies. Where is the food? Where is the water?”

Thousands of homes in the town were completely destroyed. One supermarket was open, but there were no functioning gas stations. It had been impossible for many residents to access water, so local officials opened a fire hydrant.

“They are entering crisis,” Maldonado said.

At about 2 p.m. Monday, a caravan of vehicles pulled up to the river, carrying a group of law enforcement officials. Some had patches on their sleeves displaying four letters long awaited in many parts of Puerto Rico: FEMA.

The team of Montgomery County search-and-rescue officials had flown in from Maryland the day before to help the Federal Emergency Management Agency with recovery efforts. On Monday, they were tasked with visiting some of the hardest-hit towns on the island, scouting damage and assessing community needs. They made their way to the river’s edge.

Manolo Gonzalez, who owns one of the only restaurants in San Lorenzo, near the river, asked FEMA officials for fuel for his generator, so he could power his icemaker. He hoped to set up his restaurant as a place for local residents to get ice — particularly his diabetic neighbors who were unable to keep their insulin cold.

Maria’s deluge on Puerto Rico

Other members of the FEMA team helped replace the utility cable stretching across the river with a stronger wire. But that wire was among the only supplies they would be able to leave in the town: They were unable to cross the river. They brought no food or water and had only minimal medical supplies for emergencies.

A Bureau of Land Management official who was providing security for the FEMA team looked across the water.

“It’s like being on 9/11, watching the towers fall and not being able to do anything about it,” said the official, who declined to give his name. “It’s a feeling of helplessness.”

Another member of the team pointed to the families slowly pushing through the water on foot: “If someone doesn’t do something about this, eventually someone is going to get killed.”

“Did you just watch this group?” said another. “There were old people, there were kids.”

When the FEMA team walked into the Morovis city hall, the mayor was in a frenzy. Maldonado asked the rescuers to go to the town shelter — the high school — to take stock of the needs. There, they met in a classroom with the shelter’s organizers.

“How many days can you last on your diesel?” a FEMA official asked. Less than 24 hours, the shelter leader said. They were running low on water and would have food for only a week. One man, who had lost his legs months before the storm, was in need of medical treatment.

“Where’s the closest hospital?” FEMA representatives asked.

“All of the closest hospitals are closed,” the shelter organizer responded.

The needs of the town are urgent, but the federal assessment is moving slowly, underscoring the logistical challenges many responders are facing across Puerto Rico. Roads are blocked, seaports and airports are closed or barely functioning, power is out, and cellphone service is limited.

At one point the team members waited outside a school for about an hour because they had lost contact with the mayor, and they struggled to transmit information to the command center by satellite radio. Most of them did not speak Spanish, and none knew their way around the area — at one point they had difficulty locating an address because they couldn’t find it on Google Maps.

Island of Vieques remains in the dark, and silent, since Hurricane Maria hit

The team members said they would be reporting Morovis’s needs to the command center so that the emergency management team could coordinate how to get supplies there. But when asked how long it would take for water, food and gasoline to arrive in the town, the FEMA officials did not have an answer.

And for residents, particularly those in San Lorenzo, the clock is ticking. Six elderly people who usually receive daily care from nurses were in dire need of medical attention. Other residents had been cut and injured by the machetes they used to chop up trees and clear streets.

Genesis Matta, a nurse who lives in San Lorenzo, said a cancer patient showed up at her home Sunday, asking her to help with his catheter. But she had none of the necessary equipment to do so — he would have to go to the nearest hospital, two hours away.

“My heart hurts because I wanted to help him,” Matta said. If seven days went by, he could get an infection.

Meanwhile, throngs of people from across Puerto Rico and beyond have streamed to the river in San Lorenzo, hoping to reach their families on the other side.

Ana Zayas and Jaime Marquez flew into San Juan’s airport from Boston on Monday and drove straight to San Lorenzo. Their flight, which had been scheduled before the hurricane hit, had been delayed until the airport could handle it. They hadn’t heard from their San Lorenzo relatives since before Maria stormed through, and when they saw the collapsed bridge, they were stunned.

Ken Chan, 28, had not heard from his 9-year-old son or his son’s mother since the hurricane had passed. After driving from his home in Arecibo, he stood at the end of the road overlooking the river and the homes scattered in the mountains on the other side.

“At least I can see the house, and it looks intact,” he said. “That eases my mind.”

He decided to attempt the journey across the rushing water. “Who doesn’t want to see their son right now?” he said.

But he didn’t make it. After getting halfway across, the water became too intimidating, the rocks too slippery.

He turned around and waded back.