JUNCOS, PUERTO RICO -- In the heat and humidity here in the central mountains, Meryanne Aldea fanned her bedridden mother with a piece of cardboard Sunday as the ailing woman lay on her side, relieving a large ulcer in her back.
The 63-year-old mother, Maria Dolores Hernandez, had cotton stuffed in her ears to keep flies out, since her now screenless windows were letting all sorts of bugs in. The gray-haired diabetic woman spoke with her daughter about her worries: that she would run out of prescription drugs, that they were almost out of generator fuel to keep her insulin refrigerated and to run the fans at night. With all the heat, she feared that her ulcer would become infected.
But she worried most about her daughter's home on the floor above hers, which was destroyed by Hurricane Maria. The shrieking winds had ripped off the zinc roof and the pounding rains had soaked the unprotected rooms below. While the outer concrete walls were mostly intact, everything else was ruined, covered by dirty tree branches, leaves, glass and debris.
Aldea reached out to hold her mother's hand.
"Relax," she said. "It's OK."
Four days after a major hurricane battered Puerto Rico, leaving the entire island in a communications and power blackout, regions outside San Juan remained disconnected from the rest of the island - and the world. Juncos, in a mountainous region southeast of the capital that was slammed with Maria's most powerful winds, remains isolated, alone, afraid.
For many residents, the challenge of accessing the essentials of modern life - gasoline, cash, food, water - began to sink in. And government officials had no answers for them. Estimates for the return of electricity and basic services will be measured not in days but in weeks and months. For those most vulnerable, far too long.
Many have been openly wondering when help will arrive, whether from local officials or from the federal government. The first thing some villagers ask when they see outsiders: "Are you FEMA?"
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is warning that his government needs broader assistance from the federal government, calling on the Pentagon especially to provide more aid for law enforcement and transportation. Rosselló said he's also worried that Congress will shortchange his island once the initial wave of emergency relief is gone.
"We still need some more help. This is clearly a critical disaster in Puerto Rico," he said Sunday night. "It can't be minimized and we can't start overlooking us now that the storm passed, because the danger lurks."
For federal agencies trying to respond to Maria, the situation in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands is inescapably more challenging than the situations in Texas and Florida after hurricanes Harvey and Irma. It's difficult to get onto the islands.
The airports and harbors here were severely damaged. That means the islands are more isolated than ever, even as the humanitarian crisis has worsened by the day.
So although massive amounts of food, water, fuel and other supplies have been dispatched by federal agencies and private organizations, with more resources on the way, this has been an obstacle-filled process.
Federal agencies have succeeded in clearing the use of the Port of San Juan for daytime operations, but other ports remain closed pending inspections. Many roads are blocked, inhibiting relief convoys. The Transportation Department has opened five airports in Puerto Rico and two in the U.S. Virgin Islands, but only for military and relief efforts.
Six commercial cargo ships have delivered supplies including food, water and generators to the Caribbean islands, and more supplies are on the way by ship from Florida and by air from Florida and Kentucky. Among the provisions: The Defense Logistics Agency is sending 124,000 gallons of diesel fuel to Puerto Rico.
In addition to concerns about basic survival, on the west side of the island worries have intensified about a ruptured dam that has been tenuously holding back the waters of Lake Guajataca. Government officials said Sunday that the "fissure" in the dam is "large and will collapse at any time." Throngs of residents in nearby towns have been urged to evacuate. The dam's failure could lead to massive amounts of water flowing unabated through coastal communities.
In Juncos, scores of homes were destroyed, and thousands of homes sustained damage, Mayor Alfredo Alejandro estimated. Four highways are inaccessible by car, and two bridges were harmed. Roofs of homes all over town are gone, and almost all government buildings were damaged.
Mountains typically brimming with trees and other vegetation are brown and desolate, stripped of all greenery. The mayor of 17 years said he discovered a river he never knew existed in his town, because it was always overgrown with plants. Curved bamboo lining the winding roads were left as bare sticks.
Less than a week ago, Alejandro said, "I had a pretty town."
"Today I have a desert," he said.
Puerto Rico's executive director of emergency management said in an interview that aerial views of destruction in this region looked "more like a tornado than a hurricane."
But Maria's destruction in the town was just the beginning. The mayor said Juncos "anxiously" needs diesel, water, hospital equipment and satellite phones for local leadership.
Some local responders in Juncos were forced to clear area streets by hand with machetes, because the town doesn't have enough chain saws.
Just two gas stations were functioning in the town, and lines stretched for more than half a mile. Some people walked and rode bicycles for miles with empty gas canisters in hand.
One of the town's two supermarkets was open Sunday, and employees would let in only 10 people at a time to avoid chaos. Residents, who stood in line for hours, could purchase only rationed food. There is no functioning bank or cash machine in the entire municipality.
When Aldea, 37, and her 5-year-old daughter walked through her shell of a home in Juncos after the hurricane had passed, the child hardly said a word. She scoured her pink room, with pony stickers on its walls, and picked out a couple of soaked dolls and coloring books.
"We don't have a house anymore," Aldea explained to her daughter, Darangellie. "We're going to have to start new with what we have."
Aldea, who works as a secretary in the mayor's office, is living with and taking care of her mother in the tiny room downstairs. Darangellie spends most of the days with a relative in town, but at night she sleeps with her mother. The child has asthma and needs to use a daily nebulizer treatment - requiring her mother to turn on their generator at night. They have enough diesel to power the generator for one more day.
She has a half-tank of gas left and can't set aside the entire day that would be necessary to wait in line for more because she has to care for her daughter and mother. It doesn't help that driving to town for her job - which usually takes seven minutes - now takes more than a half-hour because of blocked or inaccessible roads.
But Aldea remained calm. More than anything, she is thankful to be alive: "If I don't stay strong, how can I take care of the two people who depend on me?"
Across town, a second-level three-bedroom apartment was ripped to shreds in the storm, the cooking appliances, kitchen counters and cabinets the only surviving evidence of the wooden structure.
Maribel Quiñones Rivera, 53, lived with her husband in the home for decades, raising her children and grandchildren there. During the hurricane and in the days that followed, she sought shelter with relatives in their apartment directly below.
On Sunday, she still hadn't walked upstairs to see the debris up close. When asked why, she shook her head and cried. "I can't," she said.
To make matters worse, Quiñones Rivera and her relatives are out of cash - they used their last $30 to buy gasoline. They have five or six bottles of water left.
There are some moments of hope amid the misery in Juncos. On Sunday, about 30 people gathered in a small blue church for Mass. The priest apologized for the lack of a microphone and said the service would be brief.
Aida Sanchez, a member of the congregation, said she came to thank God.
"Because despite the circumstances," she said, "we're alive."
Achenbach reported from Washington. Daniel Cassady in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Ed O'Keefe in Washington contributed to this report.
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 Díaz, 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," Yulín 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 1o 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, an employee at the Gulf Express. "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.
Yulín, 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 Yulín with a request on Friday: "Tell the world we're here," he said, Yulín recounted. "Tell everyone we're fighting. Tell everyone that can listen that we are going to make it."
With her voice faltering, Yulín echoed that cry: "If anyone can hear us . . . help."
"Those are words that no society should have to endure alone or ever," Yulín 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."
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Cassady reported from Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
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Video: San Juan mayor: 'There is horror in the streets'
Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz recounts the many struggles Puerto Rico's capital city is facing as it tries to regain its footing after Hurricane Maria.
Short URL: http://wapo.st/2fHIm2H
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Video: See Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria from the air
Hurricane Maria caused widespread damage to Puerto Rico. Drone footage captured the scene in San Juan and Canóvanas on Sept. 21.
Short URL: http://wapo.st/2fFSGIt
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