SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — As soon as Hurricane Maria had passed, Ernesto Rios got on his BMW motorcycle and began the trek to Puerto Rico’s capital city from Salinas, a town on the island’s southeastern coast. The ride usually takes 45 minutes. This time it took three hours.
Roads were blocked by felled, leafless trees or rendered impassable from flooding. Power lines snaked across roads and sidewalks. There was virtually no electricity or cellphone service. Gas lines stretched for miles, and some people were camping out overnight at stations to power their cars and generators.
When Rios had returned to his apartment in Condado — a touristy, affluent, beachfront neighborhood in San Juan — he immediately wanted to turn around and head back to the coast to do whatever he could. He and two friends brought $200 worth of groceries — rice, beans and pasta — and $500 in cash to pass out to the people in his family’s devastated neighborhood in Salinas.
Since Maria swept through the island on Sept. 20, leaving a path of destruction from coast to coast, Puerto Ricans have been working to make their homes livable again. Although more than two months have passed, much of the island is still crippled, hundreds of thousands are waiting for federal disaster relief, and many residents have relied on neighbors and volunteers rather than waiting for external help that they say might never come.
Neighborhoods bound together and took to the streets, cutting down dead trees and branches with axes and rusty machetes and clearing corrugated zinc roofing to make travel possible. They made massive piles of tree branches, broken glass and shattered utility poles and waited for municipal garbage collectors to take the refuse away — something that in many small towns has yet to happen. And they sought out those who needed the most help, sharing whatever stored food, water and medicine they could scrounge.
Now, almost 75 days after Maria, Bori Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund, which consists of Rios and his partner, Steve Soto, and more than 30 unpaid volunteers, continues to find areas of the island that haven’t received any help.
“People are getting accustomed to what life on the island is like now, and there are lights in some places,” Rios said. “But there are also places where things haven’t changed since the first day after the hurricane took everything. Yabucoa hasn’t changed, and there are many sectors and small towns where the only work that has been done, clearing the roads and rebuilding homes, has been done by the people who live in that community.”
Energy is the most important issue for many people in Puerto Rico, Rios said, but the little work that can be done hasn’t been focused on the parts of the island that need the most help.
“Once you leave the bubble of the metro area, things haven’t changed that much. Luckily, those that have are willing to give back. Every weekend, more Puerto Ricans join the cause and give whatever they can. They donate food, money or their time,” Rios said.
“Maria changed everything in Puerto Rico,” he added. “If you haven’t seen that yet, you haven’t opened your eyes. Culturally, economically, the island will never be the same. And if the government can’t organize itself enough to help us when we need it, then we will help ourselves.”
The Bori Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund has fed nearly 1,000 families by driving out into the country in borrowed trucks and Jeeps and passing out bags of food and supplies. In the coming weeks and months, the group will turn its attention to providing more lasting relief, such as tarps for homes that have no roofs and the possibility of installing solar panels and generators.
“Passing out food can only do so much good. It’s like trying to heal a serious wound with a Band-Aid,” Soto said, adding that Puerto Ricans need employment, training and the ability to solve these same problems the next time around. “We need to empower people, to give them homes to live in, to get them back to work and to restore their sense of pride. . . . This will happen again. There’s no doubt about that. We need to start thinking about long-term solutions, and we have to understand that we will be doing this mostly on our own.”
Edgard Rodriguez Luiggi, 49, an artist who lives in Rio Piedras, part of the San Juan Metro area, said many people in Puerto Rico have grown used to the new way of life and have opened their eyes to the broader situations affecting the island.
“Our power system was obsolete and had been for years. We are becoming more conscious of what the island needs and what we need to do to survive now and in the future,” Luiggi said. “We’re also keenly aware now that we have always been an afterthought and that our political status needs to change. We don’t have the capacity to handle another storm like this. . . . We have to make our island a more modern place, with modern technologies, solar and wind power, and up-to-date building codes. And we need a voice, we need to be heard by those who govern us.”