Stuck in time
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Hurricane Maria hit fast, but Puerto Rico's long recovery
has some imagining life on the mainland
Stories by Seth Robbins
40 days after Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, Daytona Beach News-Journal reporter Seth Robbins and photographer Lola Gomez traveled to the island to document the storm's damage and the people working to rebuild.
Their trip spanned five days, concentrated mainly in Puerto Rico's remote mountain regions.
The central highlands township of Utuado was isolated even before Maria, leaving residents to wonder how they will carry on. Read the full story.
After Hurricane Maria struck Sept. 20, lush trees were shorn of leaves, palm fronds were shriveled, and the mountainside was turned brown from the rush of water and earth.
Some 40 days after the storm, greenery had crept back into the hillsides, but a formerly scenic lake was still mud-colored, and the houses overlooking it offered irrefutable testament to Maria’s violence. Dirt spilled from one, rain fell in another, and a third remained flipped over in a heap of smashed concrete. That home had dropped some 100 feet when the ground beneath it gave way.
Utuado — overlooking Lake Caonillas in the island's central highlands — was especially hard hit. And the people here, isolated even prior to Maria, seemed stuck in time, unsure of what to do or even what the next day might hold. Whether to leave for the mainland, or try to rebuild was, in many ways, too much to think about.
Charito Morales, 39, takes the blood pressure of 86-year-old Francisco Serrano, who lives alone in an apartment in the hilltops of Utuado. Morales, who works in public health in Philadelphia, came to Puerto Rico shortly after Hurricane Maria to triage patients.
Charito Morales and Chelsea Ervi check on a bedridden Anibal Maldonado and his wife, Reina, in their house in the mountains of Utuado. Morales and Ervi are volunteering with Pirates Surf Club Hurricane Relief, a group with ties to New Smyrna Beach that is providing aid to the hillside residents in the heart of Puerto Rico.
A lanky man nicknamed “Coqui,” Jose Maldonado, 43, grew up in Utuado, returned about two years ago and was supporting himself ever since with disability benefits. Before, he’d lived in Jersey City and Connecticut and would consider returning if it weren’t for his wife — who will never leave this place, he said.
Since the hurricane, Maldonado had served as a de-facto communications center for the town, owing to his hobby as a radio operator. Cell phone service was still absent in much of Puerto Rico, and here in the mountains, it was nonexistent.
"I drive around now and then, and try to help with what I can," he said.
On a weekday at the end of October, Maldonado stopped to greet Midge Battistini, a 64-year-old English teacher who was pushing water out of her front door with a mop. At the house’s center was a circular staircase. She climbed its steps into a gray light. Her bedroom was now open to clouds — roof gone, walls collapsed, and interior paneling and beams littered about.
“I had no time to save anything,” she said. “I have been living here 27 years and in 32 hours everything was gone.”
Battistini's daughter, Desiree Montalvo, said that when they returned after sheltering at a school, they found the house knee-deep in water.
Every day they return to clean what they can and to take care of their 11 dogs, the home’s sole inhabitants now, many of them sleeping on a couch. Mother and daughter were having trouble finding a place where they could live with the pack; people had recommended they abandon the dogs or give them away. But Montalvo said that is not an option. They were all rescues already.
Later, Maldonado's truck came upon a house with an open garage where a white Toyota Yaris sat surrounded by some two feet of dirt. The homeowner, a tanned and mustachioed man named Felix Lafontaine, paused his digging to explain the puzzling scene.
The car had been — or rather, still was — parked in a garage that opened into the dining room. Now, wet earth spilled toward a wood cabinet, which was still holding silver platters, china and glasses: the dining room’s remains. Hanging on the rear wall were graduation photos.
During the storm, Lafontaine’s 36-year-old daughter, Melissa, stood near a back window, watching the enormous palm trees sway. Fearing that one would snap, Lafontaine told his daughter to head into the kitchen on the other end of the house.
“She leaves and passes in front of the Yaris. She comes and walks into this space here, and then just as she arrives in the kitchen, whoom, everything went,” he said, describing the landslide.
In the dining room, tree roots and plant shoots mixed with twisted aluminum. Chairs were covered in dried mud. Lifting a sheet, Lafontaine revealed a wooden table, which he had brought back from Chicago, where he used to live. It no longer had any legs — they had been knocked out.
“I cry because my daughter is still alive. She is still alive,” he said, almost in disbelief. “If she would have waited two minutes crossing this she would have been dead right here.”
Climbing higher through mountains, with names such as Cerro Morales, Cerro Maravilla and Sabana Grande, Maldonado came to a bend. At its edge was a concrete corner, each side spray-painted with the words “estamos en la proxima casa.” We are next door.
Up the road was Carlos J. Soto, a wiry man with tawny skin who said the house was his. Soto’s 17-year-old daughter Katiria said that seven family members, herself included, were inside it during the storm when rocks and water burst through a bedroom wall, sending in flows that grew so deep her 6-year-old cousin had to be lifted on a relative’s shoulders.
With nowhere else to go, the family remained in the neighboring house, which Soto said belongs to a “man in New York” who knows of their presence. FEMA told them an inspector wasn’t able to reach their home because the roads were impassable, and now their application was on hold. The landslide also crushed Soto’s truck.
Katiria, who is in her senior year of high school, said she wants to study biology in college. She was just a few weeks away from taking her entrance exam when Hurricane Maria struck. Now it was unclear when the exam would be given or when her school would reopen.
“With the situation as it is and the school and all these things, everything is in,” she said, pausing and grappling to find the word to describe how the hurricane had left her life paralyzed. She finished in English: “Stop.”
As Puerto Rico rebuilds, poorer areas outside the coastal city of Mayaguez may face the longest wait for full recovery. Read the full story.
In the coffee-rich highlands of Puerto Rico, homes rested in heaps on muddied ground, their tin roofs split, wooden walls collapsed, furniture in scraps.
Some 40 days after Hurricane Maria hit, the few distinguishable items in the wreckage belonged to the children who had lived there: a small knapsack, a bobble-head figurine, a broken toy house in which a 3-year-old named Karlianys once played.
“Why did the wind knock down the house?” she asked him on these trips. She wanted to know if “el viento era malo” — if the wind was mean. He didn’t know what to tell her.
The storm “uncovered the country's poverty,” said Augusto Lopez Serrano, who has led these small-scale efforts to remote areas around Mayaguez, a city on the western coast.
Serrano got help from a GoFundMe campaign set up by his cousin, Zenaida Denizac, a former city commissioner and schoolteacher in Deltona. Born in Mayaguez, Denizac returned to her home more than a month after the storm to check on family members and to help distribute aid.
The next morning Serrano and the team ventured out in their pickups, blasting a new pop song called “Isla Bendita,” an ode to Puerto Rico.
In the town of Rio Canas, they met Jaqueline Bracero, 52, as she gathered drinking water from a metal tube embedded into a rock face. Since the storm, she’d been living in a room in a church basement.
As the volunteers’ trucks crawled higher into the mountains, the air cooled and the tropical vegetation turned to dark forest.
Ema Vega Lugo’s home resembled a fallen house of cards, its walls toppled and tin roof piled loosely. Lugo, 54, worked on small farms, picking coffee and spraying fertilizer. But since the hurricane there was nowhere to work, she said.
Lugo and her family had received $500 from FEMA and were about to rent a new house, but had no beds to sleep in. In the front of the home rested a mattress, waterlogged and turning to shreds.
The volunteers hauled cartons of food and cases of water into homes with each stop. Serrano greeted each resident with the same polite phrase:
“We’re here to offer you a bit of help, if you’ll permit us.”
People gratefully accepted hot meals of rice and beans, and opened up about their struggles.
These highlands were home to Carlos Vasquez with 3-year-old Karlianys; Juanita Oliveras, an 87-year-old woman who said that she only traveled to the city once a year to buy Christmas gifts; and Jose Avelin, a coffee picker who said small growers were abandoning their farms after Maria stripped the plants of their berries.
After a day in the mountains, Serrano and his nephew had some 20 boxes of food and several pallets of water left. The next morning they headed to the northern coast of Mayaguez — an area hurt more by flooding than winds.
Rushing waters there had swallowed and opened up chunks of road — like enormous Florida sinkholes. Green water had pooled in one, the result of sewage after a main pipe collapsed.
Tamara Rivera, 9, was exploring the husk of her former home, crawling between cement blocks and fallen beams.
Two months after the storm, her family was still camped in a school that had been converted into a shelter. Tamara’s father, Jaime Rivera Pesante, railed against FEMA and Añasco’s mayor for having ignored them.
Tamara was more concerned about her favorite stuffed animal, an elephant with a pink nose named Dulce, which had disappeared in the floodwaters.
“I’m still looking for it,” she explained.
Serrano said he’d try to find her another.
Puerto Rico “is at the edge of the abyss, because of the economic depression,” he said. “It’s paying for the bad decisions of its administrators for the past 50 years.”
He pulled up to a neat grid of houses that formed a settlement called Santa Rosa. The town should never have been built, Serrano said. But decades ago the land was sold cheap, the houses went up, and by the time the government saw that it was at risk for major flooding, it was too late. Finally a court ordered the power company to run cables there.
Eneida Figueroa, 73, was scraping a rotten-smelling black sludge from the white tile of her shower. A dirt line about three feet high ringed every wall, showing where the floodwaters had reached.
From a lonely road flanked by cow pastures, the mayor of Cabo Rojo, Roberto Ramirez Kurtz, watched expectantly as a team of workers strung electricity cable on newly set concrete posts.
Serrano greeted the men — many his former coworkers — and sized up what they’d accomplished. He knew what difficulties lay ahead, not only for the grid but for the island itself.
“It’s not enough to bring people food,” he said.
“Puerto Rico will have achieved something when people have their water and electricity service again,” he added. “When people have recovered emotionally.”
In less than two hours, there was going to be an attempt to turn on the electricity for the town’s center. Serrano seemed glad that, at least, some lights would likely work.
Amid the tumult of tools and whine of generators, another sound was heard — the high pitch croak of “coquis,” the dime-sized brown frogs that are native to the island. Many Puerto Ricans had remarked that they hadn’t heard their chorus for some time.
In the weeks after the storm, the coquis’ singing had come back.
Some 40 days after Maria, Jose Rivera’s house is still submerged in the sea, but he says he’ll never give up fishing or his coastal home. Read the full story.
People stopped on the road to snap photos of Jose Rivera’s coastal house, knocked over and still submerged in the sea. Behind it, a car was buried in sand, only its two rear wheels above the surface.
Rivera, a bear of a man, fishes for a living, catching red and yellow snapper with the line twisted around his thick hands. He had watched much of the hurricane from that very site, peering out from the front door of the adjacent building, the cooperative where he and other fishermen skin and sell their daily catches.
He described the worst moments of the storm: Winds ripped away the tops of palms, which, he said, resembled helicopter blades spinning across the sky. An enormous gum tree snapped, and then nearby rivers crested. A wave of water, the color of chocolate, descended, pouring through a crevice between the door and the floor.
Within 15 minutes, the water reached his stomach, he said. He shoved open the gate and then forced it shut against the rushing water, locking the door behind him.
The keys to his truck were still inside.
With nowhere else to go, Rivera waded into the chest-deep water, barely staying upright as he used his thick arms to pull against the driving currents. Part of a tree slammed into his foot, and it took him three tries to reach the house across the street.
The next day he found his own house collapsed, a sea of fetid floodwaters surrounding it. It was still that way some 40 days after the storm, though the water had receded a little. His 25-foot boat, named after his daughter, was also destroyed. Most of it had washed away, leaving only a portion of its overturned hull.
Rivera spoke about clients returning day after day to bring him clothes, groceries and money — or just to give him a hug.
“I’m staying,” he said. “I’m going to fix it. I’m going to remake the fish shop.”
His wife of thirty years, standing by his side, nodded in support.
“I’m going to keep fishing,” he said.
Before his visitors left, he welcomed them to return one day to try the fresh snapper — never fired but oven cooked after being stuffed through the gills with viandas, sweet potatoes, green plantains and yucca.