Puerto Ricans were confronted today with their first clear view of the crushing devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria — splintered homes, crumbled balconies, uprooted trees and floodwaters coursing through streets.
The storm cut a path through the island Sept. 20 and 100 percent of the territory remained without power. Officials predicted that it could take months to restore electricity as rescue brigades ventured out to assess the toll of death and injury.
Puerto Rico faces numerous obstacles as it begins to emerge from the storm: the weight of an extended debt and bankruptcy crisis; a recovery process begun after Irma, which killed at least three people and left nearly 70 percent of households without power; the difficulty of getting to an island far from the mainland; and the strain on relief efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other groups spread thin in the wake of several recent storms.
“Irma gave us a break, but Maria destroyed us,” said Edwin Serrano, a construction worker in Old San Juan.
Maria had entered Puerto Rico’s southeast side Sept. 20 with Category 4 winds of 155 mph, and continued its furious roll northward, bringing pounding rains and heavy winds to the Dominican Republic.
Officials cautioned that it could deliver dangerous storm surges to the Bahamas and Turks and Caicos, which were reeling from the effects of Hurricane Irma.
Most predictions suggested that Maria would veer north and spare the mainland United States. But officials said the East Coast was still not out of danger and even absent the storm’s main fury, coastal areas could still feel its effects this weekend with heavy rains and dangerous gales.
Maria passed close to the northeastern coast of the Dominican Republic today as a Category 3 storm. Hurricane warnings were in effect for parts of that country as well as the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas.
Flood warnings covered the entirety of Puerto Rico today. Forecasters say Puerto Rico will see about 2 feet of rain by Sept. 22, with as much as 35 inches in places. Storm surges were expected to raise water levels as much as 6 feet in the Dominican Republic.
There is significant concern about the expected “life-threatening” storm surge of 9 to 12 feet in the Turks and Caicos and Bahamas, according to Michael Brennan of the National Hurricane Center.
The death toll from Hurricane Maria has risen to at least 15 on the small Caribbean island of Dominica, according to Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit. Two people were also killed on the French Caribbean island of Guadeloupe, officials said.
Gov. Ricardo Rosselló told CNN late Wednesday that officials knew of only one fatality in Puerto Rico.
The U.S. Coast Guard reported the death of a man aboard a capsized vessel near Vieques, Puerto Rico. A woman and two children were rescued from the boat by a British Royal Navy helicopter crew, it added.
President Donald Trump said Thursday that he would visit Puerto Rico, but gave no details on the timing of the trip.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp announced a 24-hour curfew for four islands until further notice. In Puerto Rico, Gov. Rosselló had previously set a 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. curfew effective until Saturday.
RESTORING POWER A PRIORITY
Jenniffer González-Colón, Puerto Rico’s nonvoting member of the House of Representatives, told CNN that the island appeared to have been “devastated,” with power lines lying on the ground and rivers flowing over bridges.
González-Colón, who spent much of the hurricane in a closet, said today restoring power was crucial, but added that the governor had estimated that it could take a month or more to get electricity back for the whole island. She suggested that without electricity, many of the pumps that supplied residents with running water would not be functioning.
Complicating matters, more than 95 percent of the island’s wireless cell sites were out of service, said Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Ricardo Ramos, chief executive of the government-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, told CNN today that the island’s power infrastructure had been basically “destroyed.”
Ramos said residents would need to adjust to a new way of life, changing how they cooked and how they cooled off. He said that adjustments would be particularly difficult for a younger generation that had grown up playing with electronic devices and taking power for granted.
“It’s a good time for dads to buy a ball and a glove and change the way you entertain your children,” he said.
SEASIDE AREA SMASHED BY STORM
Residents and business owners in the Condado area of San Juan began to trickle into the streets today to assess the havoc. Joggers ran past what resembled a beachside battlefield. Bikers pedaled slowly, taking in the overwhelming damage.
Condado, the tourist district of the island that has seen a reawakening of sorts with the opening of new hotels and restaurant chains over the last couple of years, was ravaged. Windows were blown out in the apartment buildings and hotels that line the promenade. A restaurant lost its roof. Parque del Indio, a popular seaside park for skaters and joggers, was blanketed with sand and water.
“It’s total destruction,” said Angie Mok, a property manager. “This will be a renaissance.”
Mok’s fourth-floor seaside apartment had been destroyed. Her apartment had no shutters, and the wind rattled her belongings, while ankle-high water soaked the floors.
Carmen González, 58, a marketing manager for a real estate company, also ventured out Thursday. “The country is paralyzed — it’s like a war zone,” González wrote in Spanish in a text message. “This has been devastating. The whole of Condado is full of obstacles.”
In Old San Juan, which like most of the island was without reliable cell service, people were thirsty for information. At Plaza de Armas, residents sat on benches and stoops to share what information they had. Those with radios were tuning into the only station broadcasting in the entire island.
Cristina Cardalda, 55, had just gotten her first phone call since Maria hit — it was her cousin in Florida checking in. “I haven’t heard anything from anyone,” she said.
FAMILY MEMBERS SEEK INFORMATION
For Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland, the tragic news coming from the island has been magnified by the fact that many of them have been unable to get in touch with friends and relatives, given the sharp blow that Hurricane Maria dealt to the island’s communications infrastructure.
“We’re all anxious, we’re all desperately seeking information and we’re all on call to help Puerto Rico and give it whatever it needs,” said David Galarza Santa, 48, a Brooklyn resident who said he has been unable to reach his family in the municipality of Florida, west of San Juan, since noon on Sept. 20.
But Galarza was optimistic that his family there, including his father and two older sisters, were doing well, in part because they had all hunkered down at his father’s sturdy cement house. He also noted that Puerto Ricans were old hands when it came to surviving devastating storms.
More than 5 million Puerto Ricans live on the mainland, more than the population of the island itself, and the worry and stress were widely shared today among those watching from afar. It was a feeling of “impotence,” said Eliezer Vélez, 44, of Atlanta.
Vélez, who works for the Atlanta-based Latin American Association, said that he was hoping to get in touch with his mother, two brothers and a number of uncles and cousins. He said a sister who lives on the island was able to send him a message through WhatsApp this morning; she relayed that everyone was OK.
“We’re praying for them and hoping for the best,” Vélez said. “It’s really sad that you’re here, but your mind and your heart are on the island. We are here, but we belong there. I cannot describe the frustration that I’m not there.”
PUERTO RICO IN ‘PERILOUS SHAPE,’ TRUMP SAYS
“Puerto Rico was absolutely obliterated,” Trump said during a meeting with President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine at the U.N. in New York today.
“Their electrical grid is destroyed,” Trump added. “It wasn’t in good shape to start off with. But their electrical grid is totally destroyed. And so many other things.”
Trump has declared Puerto Rico a disaster area, and said he was consulting with Rosselló and federal officials about the recovery effort. “We are going to start it with great gusto,” he said. “But it’s in very, very, very perilous shape. Very sad what happened to Puerto Rico.”
Despite the challenges his island faces, Rosselló said on Twitter that “we will come out of this stronger than ever.”
In an interview with WAPA radio today, Rosselló said reopening the island’s ports was a priority as that would allow for shipments of aid, including generators, food, cots and first aid materials.
The White House has also declared the U.S. Virgin Islands a disaster area, to make federal funding available for residents of St. Croix.
On the damage in the Virgin Islands, Trump said, “All you have to do is take a look at a picture. They are flattened. Areas around there have been flattened.”
DOMINICA GRAPPLES WITH DESTRUCTION
Skerrit, the prime minister, called the damage from the storm “unprecedented” in an interview with a television station on the nearby island of Antigua today. He gave a death toll of 15, but warned the number may rise, as at least 20 people were still missing and dozens of villages had yet to be assessed.
“We have many deaths but it is just a miracle that we do not have hundreds of deaths in the country,” Skerrit said. “Because when you look at the destruction, people were in those homes.”
The storm made landfall there Sept. 18, bringing with it winds of up to 155 mph. Aerial views of the island showed houses and businesses torn apart by the storm.
Skerrit described “almost complete” devastation: power and water have been cut across the island, communications are nearly impossible, schools have been destroyed and the main hospital is without electricity. Indigenous villages on the country’s east coast have yet to be assessed, and he said it would be a “miracle” if there was no loss of life there.
Skerrit said residents had taken the risk seriously, and many evacuated to shelters before the storm hit, which mitigated the loss of life. Many displaced residents are still in shelters and some are staying with neighbors in the few homes that would have survived, but many do not know where to spend the night, he added.
Skerrit will travel to New York on Sept. 22 to meet with international leaders at the U.N. General Assembly.
ST. CROIX, CENTER OF EARLIER RELIEF EFFORTS, NOW NEEDS HELP
Emily Weston, a businesswoman who lives on the outskirts of Frederiksted on St. Croix, said that she and her boyfriend weathered Hurricane Maria at home on Sept. 19, moving from room to room before eventually seeking shelter under a piece of plywood.
“You hear all this stuff banging into the side of the house, and you hear the roof vibrating and moving through the night, but it held,” she said. “It was terrifying. I was scared.”
Her house fared better than many others that lost windows and roofs as the center of the storm passed just south of the island. Weston added that St. Croix — which pitched in to help St. Thomas and St. John after they were devastated by Hurricane Irma this month — would need outside aid.
“A lot of people had stocked up for Irma, and after Irma spared St. Croix, everyone gave their supplies to St. Thomas,” she said. “So there is a concern on the island that we won’t have enough now in the short term.”
Hurricane Maria was kinder to St. Thomas and St. John, both of which have been struggling to recover from Irma. Still, St. Thomas was hit with heavy rain and flooding.
“We were really pretty crippled from Irma,” said Adrien Austin, who owns a car rental company there. “We had a lot of rain — significantly more than Irma.”
“Infrastructure-wise, it definitely set us back a couple weeks,” he added. “We’re right back to disaster-relief impotency.”
He added that the many residents whose roofs had been ripped off by Irma were particularly hard hit. Though he expects the island to be without electricity for months to come, he believes the tourism industry will recover soon.
“We will rebuild quickly,” he said.