Spend a day wending down unpredictable country roads outside San Juan and the unending hurt Hurricane Maria inflicted on Puerto Rico becomes crushingly evident.
Maria drenched town after town east of the capital, dumping so much water that simple people who had already lost their roofs to the Category 4 storm’s winds then saw their little belongings washed away by unrelenting water.
And the floods were threatening the island’s western reaches too: A crack opened Friday in the nine-decade-old Guajataca Dam, forcing the feverish evacuations of some 70,000 people in the towns of Isabela and Quebradillas, west of where Maria’s eye exited Puerto Rico on Wednesday. The mountains near the dam got more than 15 inches of rain after Maria left, inundating the reservoir.
“It’s time to get people out,” Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said as a fleet of buses were cobbled together to whisk away residents from the region.
Still, the picture of Maria’s aftermath continues to be frustratingly incomplete: Many of the island’s far-flung corners — and pockets much closer than that — remain inaccessible because of submerged roads and non-existent cellphone service. At the same time, San Juan, always a haven of relative privilege, hummed to life.
Hurricane Maria, a Cat 4 storm with winds of 155 miles per hour, slammed into the east coast on Wednesday morning, the first storm of such fury to hit Puerto Rico in more than 80 years. The storm demolished an island already reeling from years of economic crisis and that had been slapped earlier this month by Hurricane Irma, which left tens of thousands without power before Maria made landfall.
The island is now a federal disaster zone and Friday capped another frantic day of rescue, relief and evacuation efforts.
The mayor of Toa Baja, a town west of San Juan, told reporters that eight people had drowned; Puerto Rico’s government confirmed six deaths, including three in Utuado, who died in a landslide. A hospital in the city of Bayamón had to move patients at a hospital because there wasn’t fuel to run generators, the mayor told the island’s largest newspaper, El Nuevo Día. In the chaos, 13 inmates at a jail in the same city escaped in the chaos, although eight were promptly recaptured.
Transportation continued to be a challenge as authorities closed road after road because of overflowing rivers. Electricity remains out for the entire island. A government spokesman told the Associated Press that Maria took down 1,360 of the island’s 1,600 cell towers, and authorities had yet to communicate with 40 of the island’s 78 municipalities.
In some of those towns, people have become consumed by rumors.
“Isn’t there another hurricane coming?” asked Ana De Jesús, the keeper of a beachfront kiosk in Piñones, about 12 miles east of San Juan but so desolate since the storm that it feels far more removed.
She was the second person to ask a reporter the same question, confused by Katia and Lee, storms that formed before Maria and posed no threat to Puerto Rico.
Over a half-hour, three people asked a single reporter if she worked for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The answer was no. They looked crestfallen, but hardly surprised.
“I think we’re not going to get power back for a year,” said 46-year-old Marangely Santos of Canóvanas, where the river poured into the streets, though the waters had already receded by Friday.
The only sign of hope: the rumble of helicopters — it was unclear if they were media or military — that periodically flew overhead.
“We have nothing. Nothing, nothing. There is nothing,” said 35-year-old Alana Pizarro, who stood ankle-deep in muddy water like a sentinel in Loíza, a beach town whose side streets flooded as far as one could see. Reaching the ocean seemed impossible.
Cars and people came and went and Pizarro remained, staring into the horizon.
“Distracting the mind,” she explained. “It’s not easy to lose everything.”
Her life was spared because she’d moved in a few doors down, into her grandmother’s cement house. But everything else? Gone. “My refrigerator is over there,” she said, pointing with her chin to a point clear across the street.
“Fifteen panties, seven pants, four shirts,” said her neighbor, Lizmary Bultrón, 39. “That’s what I have left to wear.”
The floodwaters were low enough to make dramatic emergency rescues unnecessary — but high enough to destroy all property in their way.
Friday morning, locals lined up for more than an hour to buy fresh bread at the only open grocery store. It quickly ran out. A nearby stand made brisk sales of fruit and vegetables that survived the storm: plantains, yuca, limes, malanga, ñame.
“No supplies. No communications. We ordered water two weeks ago, before Hurricane Irma. It never got here,” owner Amaury De Jesús said, adding he was able to get back in business after buying 55 gallons of gas Thursday to fuel his generator. “No banks are open. We can’t take credit. It’s a risk. But people have been good.”
Desperate for help, a family invited reporters into two of their homes: one where the zinc roof blew off, exposing everything to the elements and leaving a wooden bed imploded; and another with two stories, now housing three generations of dispossessed families: the Riveras, Lozadas and De Jesúses. The only part left standing of an adjacent zinc shed was the exposed plumbing.
“Investment opportunity,” a surviving sign read.
Next door, Sandra Matos and her family passed the time on the terrace, and insisted on giving reporters cold water bottles from their limited supply. She refused their attempts to say no.
“For your survival,” she said.
Just 20 miles miles away, San Juan was a different world.
Tree-removal crews motored around the city. Soldiers directed traffic along a shuttered highway. Hungry neighbors packed an Isla Verde pizza parlor.
In the Miramar neighborhood on Friday afternoon, a line outside the lone station pumping gas stretched for blocks and blocks, one for cars and another for pedestrians hauling portable fuel tanks. Some had been there for four hours, knowing the station had fuel and planned to fix the electrical glitch that had kept pumps from working.
“I’m here because the feds are here,” said Nadja Campos, pointing to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents organizing lines and distributing water. “Like the song says: Des-paaa-cito.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this story from Miami.