More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria tore Puerto Rico apart, the situation in the island’s mountainous region, far from improving, seems to be worsening by the minute.
Away from the media center of metropolitan San Juan, where Governor Ricardo Rosselló holds daily press conferences about the improvements made across the country, residents here in Orocovis in the Cordillera Central are denouncing the continued lack of assistance. While many people say they understand that the devastation has affected the entire country, the disappointment shows on their faces regarding the absence of a quick and urgent response.
In the Damián Abajo neighborhood of Orocovis, a town considered the heart of the island for its central location, scenes suggest a return to the 19th century in Puerto Rico.
Maria shut down power, water, and telecommunications systems across most of the island, with the worst damage in the southeast, where the hurricane made landfall, and in the central mountain region. “The damages on the mountainside were devastating. The system was completely destroyed,” says Ángel Figueroa-Jaramillo, president of the Electrical Industry and Irrigation Workers Union.
With no running water available, people in Orocovis have turned to bathing in the rivers and creeks that flow from the mountains. They carry the same water away in buckets for cleaning and to flush toilets. Laundry is also done in the river, using buckets or any device that will help do the job.
“The advantage we have is that we can go to the river to bathe,” says Solmari Rivera, an Orocovis resident. “I’m saving the drinking water I have for cooking. The nearest oases [water distribution centers] that have been set up are some thirty minutes from here and if you don’t have a car, you have no way to bring water.”
Some residents have even turned to horse riding as a means of everyday transportation. But most people are walking — where they can get through. Landslides have left roads covered in mud, blocking the passage of vehicles. The floods also swept away entire sections of roads, turning crossing by car into an act of bravery motivated by necessity.
Add to this chaos the downed power lines that hang over cars like Christmas decorations. Some are so low that you can touch them if you stick your hand out your window.
“This has been very difficult,” says Rivera. “For four days, the road was blocked for cars because of a landslide. Now it has improved a tiny bit because they opened a path.” The first days after Maria, she says, her husband rode to work on a brown mare named Sofía.
Sonia Sostre, a neighbor of Rivera’s, recalls a scene from September 22, two days after Maria made landfall. “The Tuesday before the hurricane hit, an old man from Damián Abajo died, and they had to keep him in the house until Friday because there was no way they could get him out,” she says. “The guys from Marrero Funeral Home came over and had to carry him out.”
“They took him up there by foot, like they did in the old days, and everyone was crying. He was much loved around here,” adds Julio Berríos, another Orocovis resident.
Aida Ocasio, who lives in Damián Abajo, still has not recovered from the shock of seeing a gorge overflow and sweep away everything in its path including her kitchen and much of the road in front of her house.
“Our fear is that it will keep raining, that the sewer will overflow, and that we will continue losing parts of the house, but where are we going to go?” she says, on the verge of tears. She points to a spot farthest from the collapsed area. “We are sleeping in a room over there, far away, just in case.”
Despite the destruction her home suffered, Ocasio has yet to be visited by any state or federal government officials.
“Only one person from the municipality came over, and gave us some fruit, water, and a few other things,” she says. “But no one else has come around here.”
Xiomara Rivas, Ocasio’s daughter-in-law, added: “We are humble. You hold on and you wait, but some people are in need, and this has been slow. I have not seen much movement.”
Rivas says that in Orocovis, supplies have arrived, but the distribution is disorganized and goods are not reaching everyone in need. He says that many people are depending on relatives and friends to bring them food and water in order to survive.
“Over there in Bauta and Culebra [two of the village’s neighborhoods], they don’t have anything,” says Rivas. “The people from the community are the ones helping out with what little they have.”
In the nearby town of Morovis, the story is the same.
“We have had zero help. Nobody has come here, and it is the same in many other places,” says Jesús Torres, a retired police officer.
Not only was Torres’s home damaged, but so was a restaurant he had just finished building and was about to open. “I don’t even want to get up to see the damage,” says María Virgen de la Torre, Torres’ wife. “They finished it on Saturday, and it came down on Wednesday. After years of savings, it was all gone in flash.”
Those scenes repeat themselves over and over in the interior towns of Puerto Rico, where poverty and the storm’s deadly fury combined to leave a desolate landscape. Last week in Utuado, further west in the mountains, the River Vivi overflowed, flooding buildings with up to five feet of water. Meanwhile, residents approached journalists and other strangers arriving in the Judea neighborhood, asking the same hopeful question: “Are you from FEMA?”
On Friday, a squad from the Highways and Transportation Authority arrived. Ocasio was told that the big sinkhole near her house will be filled, and that barricades would be placed over it to prevent cars from driving too close to the precipice. But still she worries what will happen if rains return.
“Maria was not the storm,” she says. “The storm is now.”