The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We got more craters here than the moon’: Puerto Ricans see pocked roads as top problem after Maria

A pothole on Calle Cerra, a popular road that cuts through the middle of a business district in the capital of San Juan, measures about five inches deep. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
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SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Light gray splotches mark the road where Jaime Santana’s patience ceased.

For months after Hurricane Maria, he gingerly maneuvered his 2001 Pathfinder at 2 mph around the giant potholes that have turned the congested streets of his metro San Juan community into an obstacle course for drivers heading to work and home every day.

But he couldn’t take it anymore. The 72-year-old retiree strapped a purple bandanna over his brow and a worn fanny pack around his waist, grabbed his shovel and a bag of concrete, and before the Caribbean sun had eclipsed the island’s turquoise horizon on one August morning, Santana began filling a hole several inches deep and two feet wide.

“Welcome to the island of corruption, bankruptcy and the bumpy roads,” said Santana, who lives in Rio Piedras, a municipality near the island’s capital. “We got more craters here than the moon.”

For Puerto Ricans, crumbled roads and busted highways are the most widely cited problems in need of resources a year after Hurricane Maria struck on Sept. 20, outranking the restoration of the power grid and the repair of damaged homes. When asked where more recovery resources are necessary, 93 percent of Puerto Ricans point to the island’s mangled roadways, according to a new Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey.

Maria’s winds pummeled overpasses and bridges, sending debris and giant boulders sliding down steep mountainsides, cracking the asphalt below. Roads washed away, caved, buckled and sunk into the ground, making the island’s poorly maintained and bankrupt road system a menace for motorists and pedestrians.

The roads are hazardous for family finances. On an island where the median annual income is just shy of $20,000, shelling out thousands for auto repairs or even just replacing tires is a huge blow to household budgets and an impediment for working adults who must travel from rural homes to urban centers. On top of that, about 1 in 5 Puerto Ricans said their vehicles were damaged by the storm itself.

“I don’t buy new tires anymore,” said Odulio Cuevas, 60, of San Sebastian. “Even if you’ve driven on that road 100 times, at night when it is pitch black, you fall into the hole and boom! There goes your car.”

In Barranquitas, in the island’s central mountain region, the total collapse of a scenic route of Highway 143 suspended traffic until an alternative route was created with emergency federal funds. When it rains, mountain byways turn into raging rivers in the central municipalities of Utuado and Jayuya, where drainage valves are nonexistent, paralyzing the commercial activity that rural businesses depend on to survive.

Gov. Ricardo Rosselló has pledged $652 million in state and federal funds to repave and repair major roads and highways over the next two years. But residents said years of neglect have left them skeptical of elected leaders, who in the past have hastily paved their roads during election seasons and disappeared once ballots were cast.

“I am confident the work will be done, but not well,” said Carmen Torres, 35, of San Juan. “We are a tropical island. It rains; debris falls. You have to do things well.”

Puerto Rico’s Transportation and Public Works chief, Carlos Contreras Aponte, said he understands why residents are distrustful. Past administrations neglected the roads as the economy tanked, he said, and they used poor-quality asphalt that was more of a mess than a fix.

“In the past, it wasn’t a priority. But this administration is committed to using better-quality materials and innovative techniques to transform the road system,” Contreras Aponte said in an interview. “These are not just promises. They will see the results.”

Santana, the pothole filler, has become so popular in suburban San Juan that he jokes about running for mayor to replace Carmen Yulín Cruz, who called out President Trump last year over the post-hurricane crisis. Rio Piedras is where he grew up and where he has owned a home for decades.

“I do the work the politicians only talk about,” he said while readjusting orange traffic drums that he took from an abandoned public works site one August morning.

In one hour, more than four dozen rattling and creaking cars, trucks and sport-utility vehicles wove around a bent-over Santana and his 68-year-old buddy, Luis Ivan Tua, as they worked on the road. Another friend, Ezequiel Calero, brought him hot morning coffee and cheese turnovers around 6 a.m., and Santana made sure they had several bottles of water on ice.

“In life, there are no impossible tasks, just incapable people,” he said while leveling off the top of a nearly finished hole using a broken two-by-four. “I take pride in my work.”

Everyone knows “Don Jaime,” as residents call him, even the local dogs. A cavalcade of Villa Nevarez neighbors stopped by to thank the two-man crew with donated bags of Quikrete, a concrete mix. Drivers honked, giving him a thumbs up with the peculiar sound of screeching metal and squeaky suspension systems following behind them — a cacophonous testimony to the months of damage local roads had wreaked on their cars.

“Don Jaime, we love you,” a motorist yelled from his truck as Santana poured a bucket of water into an asphalt cavity filled with dusty concrete powder.

“When are you coming over to Eighth Street?” another neighbor said.

“You are doing God’s work!” yelled another.

“No, the government’s,” Santana yelled back, shooting his fist into the air. “That’s my pay!”

His goal is to finish the entire barrio. But what most people don’t know about their new local celebrity is that he needs this just as much as they do. He cannot afford to have his car break down on these roads.

Years ago, Santana converted his home into apartments because he desperately needed to make money after a bad business deal left him bankrupt and bereft of savings in his retirement. But all three of his tenants lost their jobs after Maria, vacating the apartments that were an important source of income for him. Now, he’s looking for a job.

“I’m going to lose my house if something doesn’t change,” said Santana, wiping his brow after nailing waterlogged plywood over a newly filled hole.

But he doesn’t like to dwell on his problems. There is always someone worse off, the septuagenarian said. He is focused on fixing what is broken in front of him.

“If we don’t do it, no one will,” Santana said. On the face of his home, he painted a written message to encourage his compatriots: “Puerto Rico, unidos venceremos” or “Puerto Rico, united, we will overcome.”