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Misery, yet again, for Puerto Ricans still recovering from Maria

<i>Elijah Nouvelage for CNN</i><br/>Jacob and Jeffrey
Elijah Nouvelage for CNN
Elijah Nouvelage for CNN
Jacob and Jeffrey

By Ray Sanchez, CNN Photographs by Elijah Nouvelage for CNN

At the end of Valencia Street in this southeastern coastal town, Carmen Baez was proud that neighbors were using her washing machine valves to collect fresh water.

The valves, sprouting like flowers from the ground, were all that was left of her small house near the edge of the Guamaní River, which overflowed and swallowed her yellow, cabin-like home, other houses on the block, her stepfather’s vintage Toyota and four of her eight beloved cats. A friend hid her house keys after Baez evacuated to her mother’s home on higher ground, she said, preventing her from returning to fetch the cats during the storm.

“People are coming from different places,” said Baez, 50, standing under a sweltering sun. “We let them know so they can come and get water.”

That she could help others provided some comfort days after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico as a Category 1 storm on Sunday, dropping record rainfall, unleashing landslides and mudslides, flooding neighborhoods and leaving most of the island without power or water.

Fiona arrived almost exactly five years after Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, delivered a blow from which the island has never fully recovered. It has left many Puerto Ricans marveling anew at the kindness of neighbors, revisiting the age-old debate about leaving the US territory for the mainland and questioning their confidence in the island’s political leadership.

“I’m debating what to do,” said Baez, who has previously lived in New York and Connecticut. “I had a home. It wasn’t a mansion but it was my home. Now I have nothing. Am I going to get help?”

Flooding even more widespread than Hurricane Maria

Fiona made landfall in southwestern Puerto Rico last Sunday afternoon. It was the first hurricane to touch down here since September 20, 2017, when Maria left thousands dead and triggered a blackout that lasted months for many of the island’s more than 3 million residents.

Puerto Rico’s government, after initially saying only 64 people died as a result of Maria, later placed the death toll at nearly 3,000 — making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history. At least two deaths have so far been attributed to Fiona.

Hurricane Fiona pelted all of Puerto Rico with heavy rain — more than 30 inches in some areas in the south and the central mountain region — and caused flooding that was more widespread than the historic 2017 storm. Parts of the island had more rain than during Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico with winds topping 160 mph.

The day after Fiona made landfall, there were more than 2,000 people staying in shelters across the island, according to Gov. Pedro Pierluisi. Many have since returned home or are temporarily staying with relatives.

At least 1,000 Puerto Ricans were rescued by emergency crews, the National Guard reported.

Fiona’s unrelenting rain and widespread flash flooding that turned streets into muddy streams washed away bridges and tore open roads that had been repaired after Maria. It overflowed rivers and streams, and caused pumps to fail after the power went out, leaving thousands of homes without water and functioning sewer systems.

On Saturday, 847,447 customers — about 53% of all households and businesses — of the island’s power company, LUMA Energy, still had no power. Some 1,062,192 customers, or 80% of all users, now have running water. There were still 265,548 customers — about 20% of all households and businesses — of the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority without water on Saturday, according to the government’s emergency portal system website.

‘Call 911 … We are in danger’

On Thursday afternoon in the southern coastal town of Salinas, Jacqueline Rivera and husband Luis Vasquez cleaned out the small, one-bedroom beach house where they have lived since the pandemic. Their clothing and other belongings were strewn about the muddy ground outside the wood-paneled home, about 11 miles west of Guayama.

“This was the quietest, most peaceful place,” she said, “until Sunday.”

Their neighborhood, Villa Esperanza, which sits between the beach and the Nigua River, is dotted with fallen trees, pieces of aluminum siding and boats washed away from their trailers. The blue-and-white house next door collapsed into a crater in the cracked, mud-filled ground in a community of cabins and trailers used mostly on weekends.

On Sunday evening, after Fiona made landfall, Rivera and Vasquez were forced to leave their elevated house when flood waters started to pour over the concrete wall surrounding the property. They moved, with their three Chihuahuas, to their 20-foot boat, which was raised, hitched to a trailer and tethered by rope to a concrete wall in the rear yard. It was about 7:30 p.m.

“Then we see a boat floating down the street like someone was driving it,” said Rivera, a 54-year-old nurse.

“Right down the middle of the road,” said Vasquez, 60, who works as a plumber.

“Then a trailer with a small porch floated down as if someone was lifting it up with their arms,” she said. “That was followed by a neighbor’s new boat, then a jet ski floated down. That’s when I heard an explosion and the house across the street sank into the ground.”

They prayed as the water started rising around their boat. Rivera said somehow her cellphone still worked. She called friends and coworkers.

“Please call 911. Please call the National Guard,” she implored. “Put this on Facebook. We need prayers. We are in danger. If the rope connecting the boat to the wall broke, we would not be here. This was not the river anymore. It was like a raging brown sea with waves that surrounded us.”

Their prayers were answered about 2 a.m. Monday. A National Guard truck came down an adjoining street after the flood waters had receded. They managed to get to the truck safely.

Storms hit, people leave. Will it happen again?

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, an estimated 130,000 people — almost 4% of the population — left the island, according to US Census Bureau data from 2018. The data reflected a population change between July 1, 2017, before the storm, and the same date the following year.

The population of the US territory has long been falling. Amid a debt crisis and other problems, more than 530,000 people have left Puerto Rico since 2010, the agency said in 2018. It remains to be seen how Fiona’s aftermath, along with mounting economic and political upheaval, will affect migration to the mainland. Puerto Ricans are American citizens who can move freely to US states.

Rivera and Vazquez have grown children who live in Florida and North Carolina. She said she is more open to migrating than her husband but admitted it would be hard to leave.

“We have to fight for what little we have,” Rivera said.

Blue tarps from Maria’s aftermath linger

In an impoverished neighborhood in the northern coastal town of Loiza, about 18 miles west of the capital of San Juan, Ramona Jimenez, 73, looked out from her front porch with her three grandchildren — ages 3, 8 and 12. The neighborhood flooded after Fiona and since Monday, waste water from the sewage system bubbled out of underground pipes onto the dirt street, forming smelly pools of dark water. She said she keeps the windows closed, even on the scorching days that followed Sunday’s storm.

“Puerto Rico is stuck in the past,” she said. “Nothing changes.”

Jimenez got a new roof installed by a nonprofit in February but around her home several houses were still covered with blue tarps made of waterproof material that were intended to stay up until permanent repairs could be made to rooftops. Five years after Maria, more than 3,000 homes still have blue tarps, according to local press reports.

“This is a marginalized community, like so many across the island, and no one cares what happens to us,” said activist Sonia Martinez, who had been distributing donated food to families in Loiza.

Another community activist, Modesta Irizarry, 53, on Friday distributed bags of food and water to the mostly elderly residents of her community. Two other women, sisters Tatiana and Maria Pacheco, drove from the town of Trujillo Alto with a pickup truck full of donations and food items they had raised money to buy.

“Since Hurricane Maria, people have been losing faith in the government,” said Maria Pacheco, 31, who owns a gym. “So we want to deliver these donations straight to the people who need them.”

Maria Pacheco said she doesn’t want to leave the island, though many friends have headed to the mainland in recent years.

“I could make more money elsewhere but I’m from here,” she said. “You may be better off economically but not emotionally because you’re always going to miss Puerto Rico.”

She added, “We can’t change … geographically but we can change politically. It’s sad but I don’t see a short-term solution. I’ll stay as long as I can. I want my children to be born here.”

Irizarry teared up at one point as she was preparing the bags to be distributed to about 50 families.

“We want to send a message that our people are important and that we matter,” she said. “We will not be forgotten.”

Their first stop with the bags of food was the home of Ana Luz Pica, 77, who had cooked meals for volunteers after Hurricane Maria. Pica thanked them.

“This is a blessing,” Pica said.

On a nearby beach in Loiza, fisherman Jorge Calderon, 54, was giving away bags of fresh fish, shrimp and crabs that he had netted in the days after the storm. In exchange, residents have brought him breakfast and lunch.

“Some people speak badly about Loiza but there are many good people here,” said Calderon, whose brother Ivan, a former Major League Baseball outfielder, was fatally shot in Puerto Rico in 2003.

Neisha Caraquillo, 29, sat on the beach with her two young children, ages 4 and 7, and an empty plastic bag in her hand, waiting for Calderon’s next catch.

“There’s enough here for all of us,” he said.

Starting again — maybe somewhere new

Back in Guayama, on the southern coast, Baez, whose home was swept away in floodwaters on Sunday, has returned to her block every day to feed and play with the three kittens who managed to escape and reach an adjoining house during the storm. The mother of the kittens had also survived but Baez hasn’t seen her since Monday.

Baez called out the names of the kittens — Jacob, Jeffrey and Batman — and they emerged from the bushes of a neighbor’s house that remained standing.

She said she plays with the kittens and reminisces about the days she sold clothing and food out of her home. She had recently saved up enough money to purchase a new stove and washing machine that were swept away with her home.

Baez has a daughter who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. Her daughter plans to visit next month, and Baez said she will make a decision about whether to leave the island.

“I was getting my things, little by little, and now I have to start over,” she said. “That is life here.”

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