Metro

BEHIND THE STORY

Behind the story of covering Puerto Rico

Following the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, men In Puerto Rico rigged PVC pipes to collect water from a spring.
JESSICA RINALDI/GLOBE STAFF
Following the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria, men In Puerto Rico rigged PVC pipes to collect water from a spring.

Editor’s note: A look at the origins of signature Globe journalism.

Over six days chronicling the devastation in Puerto Rico, Globe photographer Jessica Rinaldi and I witnessed many horrors — homes reduced to their foundations, overcrowded emergency rooms filled with agony, relatives weeping for the dead.

As we traveled from San Juan to the ends of the island, we met patients who had to wait dangerously long times to receive dialysis and chemotherapy, ranchers whose livestock had been decimated, and people living in roofless homes surviving on the coffee in their cupboards.

As President Trump Thursday suggested that he might pull the military and other federal agencies out of Puerto Rico — even though most residents still lack electricity, running water, and phone service — one scene stands out from our reporting that reflects the needs that persist across the island. Late one afternoon, as the hot sun began to set over Corozal, a small, hilly city near the island’s center, we came upon clusters of people who had parked along the side of a road. That, alone, wasn’t an uncommon sight, as we had become accustomed to finding lines of cars parked in strange places where there just happened to be a trace of a cellphone signal.

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But this was different. These people — all of them American citizens — had come for water. There were no military trucks or soldiers handing out bottles. Instead, they were using whatever they could to tap into an underground stream, then catch the water that flowed from the hills.

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Some brought PVC pipes and gutters, while others crawled into crevices with jugs. Some would use the water for drinking. Others needed it to flush toilets, wash dishes, and bathe. A few couldn’t wait to get home for a shower, and they had relatives hold jury-rigged curtains so they could wash away the sweat right there.

“This is what we have to do,” said Jose Rodriguez, 38, a truck driver who had just backed his pickup under a spout made from a plastic pipe that someone had placed in an opening in one of the hills. Water sprinkled from it into a 400-gallon tank on the back of his truck. He was bringing the water to his wife’s aunt, who was too sick to come for herself. 

Luis Rios, a US Army veteran who served in Oklahoma and Germany, learned about the springs from a neighbor and drove about a half hour to get there. He brought three tanks, each holding about 180 gallons.

“We have never experienced anything like this,” said Rios, 52, who planned to return to his job with the US Postal Service when mail service eventually resumes. “This is a big deal — and it makes you sad when you think about what we’ve been reduced to doing for basic needs.”

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Stephanie Amarante, 23, came with relatives and neighbors. They brought about 30 laundry detergent containers, soda bottles, jugs — any empty canister they could find. 

By now, night had fallen, and people were using the flashlights on their cellphones to fill their containers.

“This is like a nightmare,” she said. “It’s just crazy.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.