Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Desperation, defiance remain in Puerto Rico's central mountains

2 November 2017

Desperation, defiance remain in Puerto Rico's central mountains 1 month after Hurricane Maria 

By Michael Deibert


(Read original article here)

BARRANQUITAS, Puerto Rico — When he surveys this devastated mountain town where he has been mayor for the last two decades, Francisco López sees a community laid low but refusing to give up.

"Basically, all of the work of five decades has been destroyed," López told LNP as he arrived on foot, walkie-talkie in hand, at a food distribution center housed in a sports complex. “All the roads have been damaged, six bridge have collapsed, around 1,200 homes were destroyed. Communication has basically been cut off. This is a critical situation. We are working day and night to get back on out feet."

Perhaps more than any other region of this island, Puerto Rico's central mountains, outposts overlooking stunning vistas connected to the rest of the territory by snaking alpine roads, suffered from both the immediate physical destruction of Hurricane Maria and the subsequent isolation that came in its aftermath.

What once seemed a charming remoteness, perfect for day-tripping families from the capital San Juan to come and enjoy a taste of the island's jíbaro (as its mountain residents are called) culture, was suddenly transformed to a stark sense of being cut off from the rest of the world.

The birthplace of turn-of-the-century Puerto Rican political icon Luis Muñoz Rivera — whose son, Luis Muñoz Marín, brokered the island's commonwealth status with the United States — Barranquitas today, a month after the storm, remains an obstacle course of downed power lines, strewn wires, no electricity and sporadic water.

One sees the remnants of bridges resting in heaps at the bottom of ravines — the municipality has since created temporary paths to allow residents to access to the rest of the city — amid a backdrop of a fevered attempt by local officials to bring aid to those who need it.

"Barranquitas was very affected and without water because the roads were very impacted, but little by little things are getting better," says Sgt. José Oliveras of Puerto Rico's National Guard and who is helping to organize food distribution in the town.

'We are trying to help'

Troops and volunteers are delivering food and water to 33,000 people a day, a process hampered, some said, by a lack of large vehicles, leading the shipments to be transported in relays in 4x4s and private cars. At one intersection, people gather with buckets and jerry cans around a truck dispensing potable water. According to the mayor's office, at least two people have died due to conditions since the storm, and one person in the town has taken their own life out of despair.

At a makeshift medical clinic set up in a Methodist church, volunteers and doctors see waves of people seeking medical attention.

"There are a lot of neighborhoods here without access to medical care, to lights, to water, to medicines," says Oscar Ruiz of the Sociedad Puertorriqueña de Endocrinología y Diabetología (SPED), whose group is traveling around the island conducting health clinics. "We are trying to help, but there is a great need."

Locals concur.

"The services for people with medical complications, with cancer, diabetes, lupus" were very affected by the storm, says Eileen Rivera Diaz, the wife of the pastor of the church where the clinic is held.
At a disaster recovery center staffed by employees of the Federal Emergency Management Agency — one of only five extant on an island the size of Connecticut — around 100 people from the region wait to be seen.

FEMA sees residents "on an individual case-by-case basis," center manager Felix Santos told LNP. "Because not everyone has the same problems, the same damages or the same income."

Asked about the difficulty of residents applying for aid, given the fact that virtually all phone communication and electricity had been cut off, Santos said "we're doing what we always do, we're urging people, if they can't get to us, to apply online or over the phone."

'I've never seen anything like this'

The road beyond Barranquitas — between the towns of Comerío and Naranjito, in the direction towards the capital, San Juan, from which aid would likely come — appeared on the verge of collapse in various places, with one lane of the two-lane pass having collapsed down the mountainside. House along the road were filled floor to ceiling with a thick red clay that had burst through their windows in an apparent landslide.

"I'm 80 years old, I've lived in this house for 50 years and I've never seen anything like this," said Aida Jiménez , standing in the shell of her home that stands overlooking a green valley as a tiny kitten darted around her feet. "Look at my house, it's gone, many of the other houses, too."

Further south, though, a sense of hope, however slim, is palpable.

In the town of Aibonito, which boasts an historical presence of the Mennonite community, Harry Nussbaum and Linda Nussbaum-Ulrich, who run the Casa Ulrich guesthouse, await the arrival of the Lititz-based Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS), who landed this week.

"They're bringing construction workers, people that can rebuild and put roofs back," says Linda Nussbaum Ulrich.

Against all odds, on an island where some 70 percent remain without electricity, the center of Aibonito succeeded in restoring its power grid.

On a recent Friday night, the town center was filled with locals and nearby communities, seeking respite from their darkened homes by enjoying some street food and having a beer at one of the local bars. At a restaurant in a converted colonial building, a crowd sang along passionately with the lyrics of "Preciosa," a song made famous by the singer Marc Anthony, that recounts the island's many charms, from its beaches to its fragrant flowers before ending with the emotional refrain Yo te quiero, Puerto Rico (I love you, Puerto Rico).

Next door, on the balcony of a shuttered dance studio, someone had hung a defiant banner:

Y si el cielo cae, bailo bajo la tormenta (And if the sky falls, dance under the storm).

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