One month after Hurrican Maria, Puerto Rico's Coast Struggles to Rebuild
By Michael Deibert
(Read the original article here)
"I experienced Hugo, Hortense, and George," the 75-year-old said as she stood in the backyard of her half-destroyed home in the Palmas Bajas neighborhood of this coastal town, clouds of mosquitoes buzzing infernally as she named previous powerful hurricanes that battered the island.
"But there was never anything to compare to Maria."
With an outbuilding of her main home destroyed by wind and rain, other parts of the house were battered as the storm tore a nearby basketball court from pillar to post, sending debris flying through the air like missiles.
When the winds abated, Alvarado — whose sister, Nydia Alvarado, lives in Lancaster — and her husband, 70-year-old Luis "Pucho" Gonzales, found the district had been sealed off by fallen debris and swollen rivers.
Gonzales gathered their neighbors together to clear a path using machetes, shovels and their bare hands.
"When the hurricane passed, everything was blocked and eight or nine of us worked here to clear the road," Gonzales said.
A few neighborhoods away, in Barrio Olimpo, Veronica Tirado, whose sister also lives in Lancaster, sat in a house filled with memorabilia of that most American pastime, baseball, and offered her own account of the disaster.
"It has been a horrible experience, both during and after," Tirado said. "I thought the winds were going to explode the door."
Scenes of destruction
The word "hurricane" barely does justice to the destruction Maria wrought on this Caribbean island of 3.5 million people — all U.S. citizens — in late September. It already had been afflicted with population flight because of an economic crisis and grinding austerity that has left public services ill-quipped to deal with a catastrophe of this magnitude.
Along the coast, telephone poles lay on their sides, some having crashed down through the middle of houses, and cables lay strewn like confetti along roadsides and in trees. Roughly 70 percent of the island remains without power.
In one field, an old school bus that the storm picked up and flung some 500 feet rested upside down like a child's toy. Old stone homes, some that had stood for over a century, have been reduced to mere piles of rocks.
Farther up the coast, in the seaside town of Maunabo, where the prowess of the fishermen is so legendary people paint murals honoring them, any response of the U.S. federal government seems confused, at best, though residents say it has improved somewhat in recent days.
Walking into a local gymnasium where a group of volunteers were working with the National Guard to distribute food, one reporter was asked if he was from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the government body whose slow response to the crisis has been widely criticized.
"I am a fisherman [and] the president of the Fisherman Village, at least what is left of it," said 45-year-old Victor Lam as he surveyed Maunabo's almost totally destroyed dock, which had recently been modernized and refurbished.
"Truly, I had never seen a hurricane as strong as this one among the ones that had hit Puerto Rico. The waves came up to there” — he pointed to a region easily above the head of a person — “and left a lot of debris."
No communication, no food
Even the hillside barrios of Maunabo, such as the impoverished neighborhood of Calzada, weren't spared.
"It felt like an earthquake. Every time there was a gust of wind you could feel your house shaking," said Marcia Montes, 33, who moved back to the island from California 17 years ago and owns a bar here.
“There's no communication. … People have to figure out where they'll find water. They go to rivers."
The need is attested to by the hundreds of people waiting in line to receive food at a public school in Calzada, nervously eyeing late afternoon clouds descending low over the surrounding hills, appearing to threaten more rain.
"There are many situations going on through Puerto Rico's municipalities, but Maunabo has been hurt deeply," said Edwin Pagan Bonilla, whose organization, Generacion 51, has partnered with the Chefs for Puerto Rico initiative of the Spanish-American chef José Andrés to deliver food to those in need. The chef's kitchen network has delivered about 2.2 million meals to the citizens of Puerto Rico, more than any other body including FEMA and the Red Cross.
"This is an effort that has risen from the community," said Pagan Bonilla. “But we need all the help we can receive."
Andrés told LNP that he saw the problem of the response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico as one of will, not resources.
"If we had asked permission from above, we would still all be still waiting," he said. "The private sector here functioned very well, the bakeries were producing, the main food distribution companies had food. The problem was they had to feed the island and no one was making the calls. People even in the worst of situations, all they want is a humble plate of hot food."
Even in these dire moments, however, there are signs of life. In the abandoned shell of a devastated home in Maunabo, an elegant white horse grazes defiantly, as if oblivious to the destruction surrounding him.
Back in Guayama, days after the storm hit, a stray kitten wandered in to the battered home of Lucy Alvarado. She decided to let the stray stay.
She named her Maria.