Three weeks after hurricane, Puerto Rico is still staggering

The Palma Real Shopping Center in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 22, two days after Hurricane Maria hit the island.
Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post
The Palma Real Shopping Center in Humacao, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 22, two days after Hurricane Maria hit the island.

YABUCOA, Puerto Rico — Late each night, Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of a town with one of Puerto Rico’s most critical ports, drives for miles on darkened roads, easing around downed power lines and crumpled tree branches —to check his e-mail.

At the wheel of his ‘‘guagua”— local slang for an SUV — he sometimes finds a spotty cellphone signal on a highway overpass, and there he sits, often for hours, scrolling through messages. During the day, with no working landline and no Internet access, he operates more like a 19th-century mayor of Yabucoa, orchestrating the city’s business in an information vacuum, dispatching notes scrawled on slips of paper — about everything from balky generators to misdirected water deliveries — that he hands to runners.

On the other side of the mayor’s favorite overpass spot, one of the generators at the area’s biggest hospital has collapsed from exhaustion, and the frazzled staff has stopped admitting new patients. Deeper into the island’s mountainous interior, thirsty Puerto Ricans draw drinking water from the mud-caked crevasses of roadside rock formations and bathe in creeks too small to have names.


‘‘We feel completely abandoned here,’’ Surillo Ruiz said with a heavy sigh.

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It has been three weeks since Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico, and life in the capital city of San Juan inches toward something that remotely resembles a new, uncomfortable form of normalcy. Families once again loll on the shaded steps of the Mercado de Santurce traditional market on a Sunday afternoon, and a smattering of restaurants and stores open their doors along sidewalks still thick with debris and tangled power lines.

But much of the rest of the island lies in the chokehold of a turgid, frustrating, and perilous slog toward recovery.

When night comes, the vast majority of this 100-mile-long, 35-mile-wide island plunges into profound darkness, exposing the impotence of a long-troubled power grid that was tattered by Maria’s winds and rains. Eighty-four percent of the island is still without power, according to the governor’s office, and local officials in many areas are steeling themselves — with a sense of anger and dread— for six months or more without electricity.

Roughly half of Puerto Ricans have no working cellphone service, creating islands of isolation within the island, cutting off hundreds of thousands of people in regions outside the largest metropolitan areas from regular contact with their families, aid groups, medical care, and the central government.


Christine Enid Nieves Rodriguez, who has set up a community kitchen near the southeastern city of Humacao, has dubbed the new reality Puerto Rico’s ‘‘dystopian future.’’

Attendant with that future are worries about outbreaks of waterborne diseases, such as scabies or Zika, which is transmitted by mosquitoes breeding in standing water. Just 63 percent of the island’s residents have access to clean drinking water, and just 60 percent of waste-water treatment plants are working, according to figures released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In poorer communities, such as the San Juan neighborhood of Carolina and the mountain town of Canovanas, doctors are seeing worrying numbers of patients with conjunctivitis and gastritis brought on by contaminated water and poor hygiene.

With electrical and cellphone outages complicating commerce, large swaths of the island — and even many spots within the biggest cities — are cash-only zones, as if credit cards never existed. More than 40 percent of bank branches have yet to reopen, according to the governor’s office, and barely more than 560 ATMs are functioning for an island with a population of more than 3.4 million.

On the upside, chronic gasoline shortages that plagued the early days after the storm seem to be easing, at least in the larger cities, and 86 percent of grocery stores have reopened. But the journey to fill the tank or the shopping cart can be an exercise in faith and blind courage. In the sprawling metropolis of San Juan, crisscrossed by major highways and multi-laned streets, most street lights are not functioning. Only a surge of post-hurricane politeness and patience seems to be preventing the morgues from swelling with traffic deaths.


The roads leading out of San Juan are lined by denuded hillsides, the storm acting like a blowtorch, searing off leaves and lifting away topsoil, their rocky, browned, frayed surfaces exposed to the sunlight. A surreal consequence of Maria’s transformation of the island landscape is the lack of shade in once-divine town squares and jungly hinterlands.

It’s enough to make many Puerto Ricans consider fleeing the island for good, even though the thought of leaving a place they love can still seem implausible. What awaits many of them here is months of subsistence living. In places such as the surfer haven of Playa Jobos on the northwest coast, a woman whose wood house was blown to bits has taken to living in a disabled food truck outfitted with a hammock.

‘‘When I think about grandchildren, I know that I don’t want this for them,’’ said Lucy Rivera, an unemployed single mother who has crammed nine people, including her disabled mother and mentally ill brother, into a house that lost its roof in the town of Canovanas near the El Yunque National Forest.