TOA BAJA, Puerto Rico — When the river began to rise and a wall of water surged down their street, Maribel Rodriguez and her husband had no time to grab anything but their three children.
The family sprinted to their car and raced to higher ground a few blocks away. Within five minutes, the concrete house where they had lived for 18 years was inundated with more than 7 feet of muddy, trash-filled water.
Over the weekend, like many on this battered island, Rodriguez and her family were doing their best to purge the horror inflicted by Hurricane Maria.
As the water receded, that meant using mops and hoses to clear out mounds of sludge and ankle-deep, stagnant water, snakes and other creatures, family belongings, and sewage. It also meant trashing nearly all their possessions in a soggy heap in front of their three-bedroom house — mattresses, clothing, photos of the family, toys, TVs, and much more.
“We lost everything,” said Rodriguez, 39, adding that her family does not have insurance on the house and has only enough savings to get by for about a month. “We have nowhere else to go, no other option. So we have to clean up.”
Much of the country is still struggling more than a week after Hurricane Maria devastated the tropical island with 150 mile-per-hour winds and heavy flooding. Millions of people remain without electricity, food, or water that is safe to drink.
All along Avenida Palma in Toa Baja, on the island’s northern coast, where bulldozers were straining to clear all the mud, families were digging out, picking through their sodden, moldy possessions, and erecting massive piles of refuse in front of their homes — totems of their loss.
In the afternoon, Betito Márquez, Toa Baja’s new mayor, was walking down the street, shaking hands and surveying the damage.
At least three people in the neighborhood had drowned in their homes when the nearby river overflowed its banks shortly after the eye of the hurricane had passed. About 20,000 homes were flooded in this city of 80,000, wreaking more damage than the mayor could estimate, he said.
“We’re doing everything we can to recuperate,” said Márquez, many of whose constituents remain homeless, living in overcrowded shelters.
Toa Baja needs help, he said, and isn’t getting enough.
“Right now, the federal support is very slow — too slow,” he said. “The reality here is that we have major needs, and there’s a lot of anxiety.”
In addition to the lack of power, running water, and all the ruined homes — many had tattered roofs and none appeared to have received the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s signature blue tarps — Márquez worried about possible epidemics from all the fetid water and mud, potentially toxic garbage such as abandoned refrigerators, and the need for more security.
He requested at least 250 additional police officers, whether from the National Guard or departments from the mainland. None had arrived.
“There has been chaos,” he said. “We’re waiting for help.”
Also walking down the street, beside dump trucks hauling out loads of mud and trash, Toa Boa’s police chief Orlando Cotty said that nearly one-third of his 90 officers had been unable to report for duty, either because they were struggling with their family’s own tragedies or because they lacked fuel to get to their posts.
With nearly all phone service out across the island, and with little ability to communicate, it was hard to know the exact reasons.
There hadn’t been any significant violence, he said, but robberies had spiked about 20 percent since the hurricane.
Cotty was still recovering from the intense emergency operations he lead in the 48 hours after the storm, in which he and his men went without sleep or food as they trudged through the deep waters to rescue some 1,500 people who had been trapped.
He had found the three people who drowned and worried that more would turn up dead. At least 21 residents remain missing.
“We need the help,” Cotty said. “We are American citizens. We’re not asking for anything more than we need.”
Without water, Puerto Ricans have been improvising, using PVC pipes and gutters to funnel fresh water from underground streams to fill any empty container they can find. Others asked relatives to hold curtains to provide a measure of privacy as they bathed beneath outdoor springs and the rare, still-functioning public spigots.
Without electricity, they have been sweating with open windows in the muggy, mosquito-filled nights, eating canned food or cooking rice and beans on gas stoves, with only candles or flashlights for light.
On Avenida Palma, Marisa Rodriguez was just happy to still be alive.
The 62-year-old had lived most of her life on the treeless street, now with two granddaughters. After the hurricane, she had been trapped for seven hours on the second floor of her home, where the water had risen 14 feet. She thought she might die there, until someone on a boat rescued her.
Now, like everyone on her street, she was digging out, hoping to banish the mud and mold from her now roofless house, so she and her family might move out of the packed school where she had been sleeping since the hurricane.
“We’re refugees,” she said. “It’s terrible. We have nothing left.”
Miguel La Luz and his family were using squeegees to push out the muddy water from the house they had owned for 15 years, which they had scrubbed so thoroughly that the walls looked newly painted, and much of the tiled floor appeared white again.
They were living in a shelter on a basketball court. They hoped to be able to move back home within a week, but they had no furniture. All of their mattresses, bureaus, tables, clothing, and much more were in a growing pile in front of their home.
They were also hungry.
“We haven’t had anything to eat since they gave us breakfast at the shelter,” said Luz, 42, while cleaning with his family.
At the end of the street, at the Asamblea de Dios evangelical church, Rosa Rosado was looking to the heavens for strength.
Not only was everything on the two floors of her church destroyed, but her nearby house was uninhabitable, too.
The 63-year-old pastor had just finished a day’s worth of cleaning, and like nearly everyone on the block, she was covered with mud and unsure when she would be able to take a real shower.
“I don’t blame god; this is on us,” she said. “But we could use all the help we can get.”
David Abel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org