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One Day in the Life of Battered Puerto Rico: After Hurricane Maria

Author: This story was written and reported by Frances Robles, Luis Ferré-Sadurní, Richard Fausset and Ivelisse Rivera.

6 a.m. Near Corozal

The sun rose Wednesday morning in the low mountains of north-central Puerto Rico, near the town of Corozal, to reveal the world that Hurricane Maria has made: shattered trees, traffic lights dangling precipitously from broken poles, and, here on the face of a weedy hill, a gushing spring, one of the few places where people from miles around could find fresh water.

At 6 a.m., about a dozen trucks and cars had parked nearby. People brought rain barrels, buckets, orange juice bottles.

Some men clambered up the steep face of the hill, placing plastic pipes or old pieces of gutter underneath the running spring, directing the water into massive plastic tanks, then hauling them away. Others crouched at a spot where the water trickled down to the pavement. Jorge Díaz Rivera, 61, was there with 11 Clorox bottles. He lives in a community a few minutes’ drive away where there is no water, no food, and no help. The National Guard helicopters have been passing overhead, and sometimes he and his neighbors yell at them, pleading for water. But so far he has seen no help.

“They have forgotten about us,” he said.

Puerto Rico has not been forgotten, but more than a week after Hurricane Maria hit, it’s a woozy empire of wreckage; of waiting in line for food, water and gas and then finding another line to wait in some more. A team of New York Times reporters and photographers spent 24 hours — from dawn Wednesday to scorching afternoon heat, to a long uneasy night and Thursday morning without power — with people trying to survive the catastrophe that Hurricane Maria left behind.

6:51 a.m. Santurce, San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Elizabeth Parrilla turned the corner at Calle Loíza and trudged quietly down the dead-end road leading to her home of 50 years on Calle Pablo Andino. Her wedges were beginning to get filthy from the damp foliage left behind by the waters that had inundated her street several days before.

7:44 a.m. Corozal

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Three hundred cars and trucks were lined up on the shoulder of the highway just outside town. Another line of at least 100 cars had formed on the other side of the Ecomaxx gas station.

9:05 a.m. Ocean Park, San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Joey Ramos descended the stairs of his two-story home in water boots and swimming trunks. He carried a green electric saw and waded across the black waters that had flooded Calle Santa Cecilia.

Ever since Hurricane Maria flooded the first floor of his house in Ocean Park, Mr. Ramos has been boxed in the second floor of his home, hunkered down with his wife and his four pitbull-mastiff mix dogs, which guard his house.

The waters stink of excrement. He’s seen fish swim by his stoop. To exit his home he often paddles an abandoned refrigerator like a gondola.

He stays to protect his home from looters after he saw the bakery across his street being ransacked. “The hurricane wasn’t even over and we saw some guys break in and take out televisions,” Mr. Ramos said. “They even waved and smiled at me.”

Several days later, he said, he scared off a man trying to steal a car.

“It sounds stupid, but it works,” he said. “I’m a humble boy. I can live without anything. I try to make the best out of it.”

11:30 a.m. Trujillo Alto

Dr. Eileen Díaz Cabrera knew it was time. The highways were less congested. Things seemed calmer. So she opened her office, which treats mostly elderly patients.

“We opened because we knew the patients needed us,” Dr. Díaz Cabrera said. “We knew there were emergencies we could treat in the office and that there would be patients without prescriptions or those whose insulin had been damaged by the lack of refrigeration.”

But she knew time was short. Her office was running on a generator and the tank was less than half full of diesel. At this rate, she would have to close by Friday. She has called two companies to ask for a delivery. One she couldn’t reach at all. The other put her on a waiting list and told her the office was not a priority.

As the day wore on, the patients streamed in. One woman had first- and second-degree burns on her arms from cooking. Others needed prescriptions for insulin. Some patients were first-timers to her office, since other doctors had not yet opened their own. She wondered: How could a doctor’s office not be more of a priority than apartment buildings that had plenty of diesel?

It was only a matter of time before people started showing up suffering the effects of dirty water and rotten food.

“We could resolve all of those problems,” she said. “Those patients don’t have to fill emergency rooms in these difficult times. But we need diesel.”

11:57 a.m. Santurce, San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

The storm for many was not just something to be endured. It was also a message that it was time to leave Puerto Rico.

In front of the pink and green, art deco facade of the Telégrafo building in Santurce, dozens of people checked their phones. The section of the street is one of the few spots on the island where residents can connect to free Wi-Fi.

People try to reach family members abroad or those left isolated in island towns. Many check their emails for any word from their employer. It’s common to see people break down after making contact with a loved one for the first time since the hurricane.

And for Raymond Hernández, the strip of sidewalk was a way to book his ticket out of Puerto Rico. “I'm going to Tampa to find work for a couple of months,” Mr. Hernández, a personal trainer, said. “And who knows if I end up staying over there.”

For Mr. Hernández, 46, Hurricane Maria was perhaps the final straw in a decision he’s been reluctant to make for 17 years. Over the years, the island's economic recession forced him to close down several gyms he owned. Then his personal training business dried up after Hurricane Irma hit. After Maria blasted out the windows of his apartment in San Juan, he spent two hours during the height of the storm barricading the door with his body.

Now, people are thinking about survival, not working out.

“This hurricane has been the cause of many important decisions for a lot of people,” Mr. Hernández said, shaking his head.

12:30 p.m. Trujillo Alto

Maritza Giol waited in line at the Plaza Loiza supermarket, a flimsy curtain protecting her from the rain. She needed food for her frail 96-year-old mother, Inocencia Torres, who has been stuck in bed for so long she has bed sores. Their cupboards are mostly empty and her mother can only eat liquids and soft food.

Every 15 or 20 minutes, a security guard would allow people in five to 10 at a time to control the crowd. She shuffled forward little by little, and was grateful the line was not too long.

Once inside, she hoped to grab basic staples, like rice and some canned goods. She hoped to see vegetables or viandas, like yucca or plantains, that she could mash for her mother. If not, she will move on to the next line.

“I’ll go to another supermarket, and then the next, if I have to, until I find what I need,” Ms. Giol said. “I can’t leave Mami without food.”

She is not beyond begging. She ran after a fuel truck and pleaded with the driver to sell her some diesel for the generator to help her mom. She didn’t walk away with enough, but she walked away with something. “We lived through Hugo and George,” she said, naming two powerful hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico in recent times, “but none of those storms was like this.”

12:50 p.m. Arecibo

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

On another very bad day, one good thing happened to Olga Cervantes, 75, a retired government worker. She had waited four hours for gas in the morning, starting at 4 a.m. Then she waited in line at the bank for four more hours for cash — but the computer system failed, and she went away empty-handed.

“Look at that — you have money, but you don’t have money,” she said. “Emotionally, it’s terrible.”

And then she found a man selling cold juice and milk out of the back of a refrigerated truck and came away with two half-gallons of grape juice and orange juice. It was refreshingly cold in her hands. She brought the juice home to a hot, dark house, where there was little to do but wait to fall asleep.

3:08 p.m. Guayama

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Three plainclothes security guards protect the Plaza Tu Supermarket, which is a mess of tangled metal, from potential burglars. “All the tire shops on the street were looted. They did it right in front of us and didn’t care,” said one guard, who would only give his first name, Albert. “You should have seen, there were tires rolling all down the street right to the projects.”

4:19 p.m. Barrio Vietnam, Guaynabo

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

A man whose three houses were ravaged in this poor, informal coastal community salvages what he can from the wreckage and struggles to clean up.

4:53 p.m. Utuado

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Out in the countryside, on the west bank of the Vivi River, the remaining chunk of a bridge washed away by Maria juts violently and jaggedly, toward the east, like a broken promise.

There, two young women in exercise gear stepped carefully off the broken bridge and descended a homemade wooden ladder, some 40 feet up. They dropped onto a big pile of debris and then crossed the knee-high waters to the opposite bank.

Kayshla Rodríguez, 24, clambered up the east bank with her best friend, Mireli Mari, 27.

Ms. Rodríguez’s parents owned one of the houses on the east bank and were now stranded by the broken bridge. There was no cell service here, and there was no way for her to call her parents from her home in Mayagüez.

So she drove here with Ms. Mari, a three-hour journey with the post-hurricane traffic. When they finally got to the house, and Ms. Rodríguez finished hugging her parents, she learned that they had water from a spring at the top of the mountain and enough food for a while. Her mother, Marilyn Luciano, 49, offered them something to eat, but the daughter declined. “You need it more than I do,” she said.

Her father advised her to cross back over the river before it rose too high. Reluctantly the two women said their goodbyes, hopped in a white sedan and began the long drive back.

5:26 p.m. Utuado

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

A woman washed her daughter’s hair in a roadside waterfall in Utuado, a city of brightly painted concrete homes nestled in a sleepy valley. The streets were caked with mud, many of the acacias were bent and broken, and in the city and the surrounding municipality, also called Utuado, an unknown number of its approximately 35,000 residents were cut off from the rest of the world by mudslides or failed infrastructure, said Francisco Rullan, executive director of the governor’s energy policy office.

5:54 p.m. Salinas

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

A tree landed on the hearse, water rushed into the funeral home and the sweating mourners were being devoured by mosquitoes, but Salinas Memorial Funeral Home was finally open for business.

A generator roared in the background. It powered the two fans beside Josue Santos’s coffin as extension cords dangling from the sagging ceiling brought in extra light. The funeral director, José Manuel Rodríguez, wore jeans because the wind busted the windows and the rain drenched all his suits.

“That was the embalming room,” he said, pointing toward a mess of broken wood.

Mr. Rodríguez was happy for the business. His eyes welled up with tears as he recalled how, out of cash and food, he had resorted to killing a fighting cock worth $200 to feed his four children.

“I went to three different funeral homes, and all of them were destroyed,” said the dead man’s mother, Aileen Ayala. “I got to this one, and the funeral director was hosing it down and pulling wet furniture out to the street. He said, ‘You see how we are, but I’ll do it.’ He received us in his office by candlelight.”

Mr. Santos, 29, died of a heart condition the morning the hurricane struck. Because virtually all communications were down, his family had only been able to inform the few friends and family they had run into on the street.

“We went through that personal torment alone,” Ms. Ayala, 53, said, noting that the sparsely attended wake would have been packed had everyone, particularly her son’s colleagues at Walmart, gotten the news.

“Then you go out and stand in line — because now life here is all about lines — a line for gas, a line for the bank, and everyone starts talking: ‘I lost this, I lost that, I lost my roof! I lost my car.’” Ms. Ayala said. “And when it’s my turn, I have to say: ‘I lost my son.’”

6:23 p.m. Arecibo

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

Luis Rodríguez Perez, 28, sat under a freeway overpass, making a video call to his brother in Buffalo, N.Y. His wife was a few feet away, in the passenger seat of their sedan.

Mr. Rodríguez Perez lives in the country, about 40 minutes from Arecibo. He had come to this overpass, where he could get a faint cell signal, to call his brother and ask him if he could find a ticket from Puerto Rico to Buffalo. This time, at least, his brother found nothing.

6:53 p.m. San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

“Once night falls, you won't see me outside,” said Ana Luz Pérez at her tidy apartment at the Luis Lloréns Torres housing project, the largest in Puerto Rico. It has 140 buildings and is plagued by crime.

She ran through her options for light in the gloom of her apartment. She decided to conserve the two candles she had left and instead used the remaining gas in her green camping lantern. She turned the knob of the gaslight, and the light flickered, bringing the shadows in the kitchen to life.

The rice with ham and sausage she had cooked for her boyfriend earlier in the day were growing cold on a small stove connected to a white gas tank on the floor. She turned on the stove to warm the meal. “It's the last tank left,” Ms. Pérez said. "We didn't know it was going to be so difficult."

The blackout had given Ms. Pérez plenty of sleepless nights. She spends much of the time smoking cigarettes on her balcony or splashing her face with cool water. She’s up by 4 a.m. She thinks of her four children, ages 21 to 27, living in the Bronx. She worries about her mother, who is 60 and has cancer.

“Solitude kills,” she said, breaking down in tears at her small glass dining table.

Over the cacophony of barking dogs, her boyfriend, Carlos Rivera, climbed the stairs to her apartment. As his shadow grew bigger by her apartment door, Ms. Pérez did not attempt to hide her tears.

6:56 p.m. Arecibo

Kirsten Luce for The New York Times

A long line formed to buy ice in Arecibo.

7:08 p.m. San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

Residents of the the Luis Lloréns Torres housing project watched a television hooked up to a car battery in San Juan on Wednesday.

7:42 p.m. Ponce

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Curfew began an hour and a half ago, but the street at the Ponce downtown plaza is buzzing. It’s pitch black, an older woman is preaching with a megaphone, music is playing, and Toñito’s Jr. Pizza food truck is serving, only by the box. A policeman leaning on an unlit light pole watches it all in the darkness, unfazed by the violations.

11:40 p.m. San Juan

The hotels in the capital are filling up with government workers and contractors. At the Verdanza Hotel late Wednesday, a small group of FEMA-contracted emergency medical evacuation specialists — registered nurses, therapists and jet pilots — were hanging out, waiting for their morning assignment.

The bar was mostly empty, but it was blaring dance music. The assignment was delivered by a bald and burly man who appeared at their table and told them to be at the airport at 0800 hours. They were going to fly eight dialysis patients from San Juan to the island of St. Croix, he said, where they would be transferred to the mainland by the military.

All of the specialists seated around the table work for companies that do not allow them to give their names. “You drop off Tom Cruise in Paris, you don’t feel like you’ve accomplished much,” said one of the pilots. But this was different.

1:48 a.m. Ponce

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Amador García hurt his foot before the storm, but he did his injury no favors by spending the day mowing down avocado trees that toppled in the force of Hurricane Maria’s brutal winds.

Mr. García’s right foot turned purple and swelled. He screamed the whole way to the Dr. Pila Metropolitan Hospital.

He lamented his current state, mostly because it was going to inhibit his ability to stand in more lines. Lines for gas, lines for the bank. “And they only let you take out $200. Why do they do that? Why can’t we have what’s ours?” he said.

While he waited, a steady stream of police officers walked in and out, perhaps for the air-conditioning available in an otherwise steamy night. An older woman in an Old Navy sweatshirt, who walked with two canes, had been screaming because of a lack of toilet paper in the ladies’ room. The guards explained that the systems were down, and so the complaints to housekeeping were being handled manually, meaning slowly, meaning probably never.

2:30 a.m. Ponce

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

The Tropical Ice company does not open until 7 a.m., but already people were lined up outside. They brought lawn chairs, books and playing cards. Some brought blankets.

They clearly aimed to spend the night, and plenty of them were already fast asleep.

Roberto Gallego, 69, was first, an impressive feat in a row of people at least 100 deep.

“11 o’clock at night!” he proudly exclaimed when asked what time one had to arrive at the ice factory to be first in line for two $1.50 bags of watery ice.

Ice was not the only thing he was anticipating. Mr. Gallego was also anxious for the airports to reopen.

“This changed my life,” he said. “I’m going to Orlando.”

5:28 a.m. San Juan

Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

There’s an expression in Puerto Rico: “Hay que echar pa’ lante.” It roughly translates to “Gotta move forward.”

It is an expression of optimism in the face of adversity, which Puerto Rico had in abundance even before Maria. The storm threw Puerto Rico into the darkest, most hellish abyss it has seen in generations. Maybe it would be naïve to think that a sustained dose of “Hay que echar pa’ lante” is enough for the island and its people to make it through. But it would be a misunderstanding of Puerto Rico’s people and culture not to factor it in.

Produced by Matt Ruby and Rumsey Taylor. Maps by Joe Burgess.

DMU Timestamp: September 19, 2017 21:22

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