People affected by Hurricane Maria collect water while others bathe using an improvised water system for water pipes from a mountain creek in Utuado, Puerto Rico on October 17, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO
It’s been a month since Hurricane Maria ripped through Puerto Rico and Samuel de Jesus still can’t drive out of his isolated, blacked-out town.
In fact, much of the US territory in the Caribbean is still a crippled mess four weeks after that fierce Category Four storm.
The bridge connecting Rio Abajo to the rest of the island was swept away when Maria slammed the island on September 20. For two weeks Rio Abajo, located in a mountainous region in central-western Puerto Rico, was cut off and forgotten, without power or phone service.
“We didn’t know what to do. We were literally going crazy,” said de Jesus, 35.
“Those were difficult, desperate days. We could not find a way out, and the hurricane caused extensive damage,” he told AFP.
During the two long weeks following Maria, the 27 families living in Rio Abajo saw their supplies quickly deplete.
De Jesus, who has diabetes, needed to keep his insulin refrigerated. The storm blew away the island’s already decrepit power grid, so people resorted to emergency generators.
“But I was running out of gasoline to run the generator,” he said.
A helicopter now makes regular deliveries of food, water and medicine because with the bridge washed out, there is no other way in or out of town.
People can’t wade across the river because it is contaminated with human waste after a pipe broke when the bridge went.
Some brave souls use a precarious ladder rigged to get across the water, but for most people it is too dangerous.
We need a bridge “to take out our vehicles and leave in case of emergency, or if there is a landslide,” he said.
Where the bridge once stood, residents set up a system of ropes, pulleys and buckets to move supplies over the river, which has been contaminated with sewer water since the hurricane.
Over the remains of the bridge locals hung the single-star, red, white and blue flag of Puerto Rico and a sign that reads “the campsite of the forgotten.”
Desperate need for electricity
Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rossello visited the surrounding municipality of Utuado on Wednesday to deliver supplies, but he did not stop in Rio Abajo.
“Utuado is certainly one of the most severely affected municipalities in all of Puerto Rico,” Rossello said.
“Our commitment is to give it support and aid during the whole road to recovery.”
Eighty-one percent of Puerto Rico remains blacked out one month after Maria struck. Clean water for drinking, cooking and bathing is scarce, too.
Puerto Ricans’ main obstacle to getting back to some semblance of normality is the slowness of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority in getting the power grid back up and running.
The lack of power has paralyzed a key industry — pharmaceutical production — and most businesses including restaurants are closed or operating at great cost through the use of diesel powered generators.
This nightmare comes about a year after the US government established an external fiscal control board for the island after it declared bankruptcy because of 73 billion dollars in debt.
Economist Joaquin Villamil told AFP that damage from Hurricane Maria is estimated at 20 billion dollars — four times that of Hurricane Georges in 1998, when measured in 2016 dollars.
Villamil said reconstruction money provided by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and from insurance companies will have a positive impact on the island’s economy in the second half of fiscal 2018 and in fiscal 2019, but this boost will just be temporary.
“From an economic point of view there is not much net gain,” said Villamil, who works for a consulting firm called Estudios Tecnicos.
He said the economy has been shrinking since 2006 and Maria will delay any prospect of recovery.
It will take at least until 2026 to get back to the GDP level of 2006, he added.
Making things worse, people are leaving the island for the mainland US. Forecasts are that the population now at 3.4 million will go down to 3.1 million or even less by 2026, said Villamil.
The government of Florida estimates that since October 3 — the day a state of emergency to deal with an influx of Puerto Ricans was declared — more than 36,000 people from the island have poured in.