Abandoned after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans now face Fiona’s fury
Jetsabel Osorio leans against a doorway in her hurricane-battered home, in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. Nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, no one has offered her family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm ripped off their home. They were hit again by Fiona. | Alejandro Granadillo / AP

LOÍZA, Puerto Rico (AP)—Jetsabel Osorio Chévere looked up with a sad smile as she leaned against her battered home.

Nearly five years have gone by since Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, and no one has offered her family a plastic tarp or zinc panels to replace the roof that the Category 4 storm ripped off their two-story home in an impoverished corner in the north coast town of Loiza.

“No one comes here to help,” the 19-year-old said.

It’s a familiar lament in a U.S. colonial territory of 3.2 million people where thousands of homes, roads, and recreational areas have yet to be fixed or rebuilt since Maria struck in September 2017. The government completed only 21% of more than 5,500 official post-hurricane projects, and seven of the island’s 78 municipalities report that not a single project has begun. Only five municipalities report that half of the projects slated for their region have been completed, according to an Associated Press review of government data.

Jetsabel Osorio stands in her house damaged five years ago by Hurricane Maria before the arrival of Hurricane Fiona in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. | Alejandro Granadillo / AP

When Hurricane Fiona hit this past Sunday with torrential rains, more than 3,600 homes were still using tattered blue tarps as makeshift roofs because of the damage from Maria. The latest storm unleashed landslides, knocked the power grid out, and ripped up asphalt from roads and flung the pieces around.

Hundreds of people were evacuated or rescued as floodwaters rose swiftly. Rushing rivers of brown water enveloped cars, first floors, and even an airport runway in the island’s southern region.

Forecasters said the storm dumped “historic” levels of rain on Sunday and Monday, with up to 30 inches (76 centimeters) in eastern and southern Puerto Rico. “The damages that we are seeing are catastrophic,” said Gov. Pedro Pierluisi.

The storm washed away a bridge in the central mountain town of Utuado that police say was installed by the National Guard after Maria hit in 2017. Large landslides also were reported, with water rushing down big slabs of broken asphalt and into gullies.

Health centers were running on generators—and some of those had failed. Health Secretary Carlos Mellado said crews rushed to repair generators at the Comprehensive Cancer Center, where several patients had to be evacuated.

“I think all of us Puerto Ricans who lived through Maria have that post-traumatic stress of, ‘What is going to happen, how long is it going to last and what needs might we face?’” said Danny Hernández, who works in the capital of San Juan.

He said the atmosphere was gloomy at the supermarket as he and others stocked up before the storm hit. “After Maria, we all experienced scarcity to some extent,” he said.

The full extent of the damage from this latest storm remains to be tallied, but many Puerto Ricans, looking at the aftermath of Maria, fear they will be abandoned to deal with it on their own once again.

Abandoned again?

“That is unacceptable,” said Cristina Miranda, executive director of local nonprofit League of Cities. “Five years later, uncertainty still prevails.”

Puerto Rico’s governor and Deanne Criswell, head of the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency who recently visited the island, stressed that post-hurricane work was underway, but many wonder how much longer it will take and worry the devastating storm that has now hit will worsen the situation.

Criswell said officials focused on recovery and emergency repairs for the first three years after Maria. Reconstruction has started, she noted, but it will take time because authorities want to ensure the structures being built are robust enough to withstand stronger hurricanes projected as a result of climate change.

“We recognize the concern that recovery may seem like it’s not moving fast enough five years later,” she said. “Hurricane Maria was a catastrophic event that caused damages that are really complex.”

The hurricane damaged or destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes and caused an estimated 2,975 deaths after razing the island’s power grid. Crews only recently started to rebuild the grid with more than $9 billion of federal funds. Island-wide blackouts and daily power outages persist, damaging appliances and forcing those with chronic health conditions to find temporary solutions to keep their medications cold.

The slow pace has frustrated many on an island emerging from the biggest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.

Some Puerto Ricans have opted to rebuild themselves instead of waiting for government help they feel will never come.

Nelson Cirino sees his bedroom after the winds of Hurricane Fiona tore the roof off his house in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Sunday, Sept. 18, 2022. | Alejandro Granadillo / AP

Osorio, the 19-year-old from Loiza, said her family bought a tarp and zinc panels out of their own pockets and set up a new roof over their second floor. But it leaks, so now she lives with her father and grandfather on the first floor.

Meanwhile, in the island’s central region, community leaders who accused the government of ignoring rural areas formed a nonprofit, vowing to never go through what they experienced after Maria. They’ve built their own well, opened a community center in an abandoned school, and used their own equipment to repair a key road. They also opened a medical clinic in April and certified nearly 150 people in emergency response courses.

“That’s what we’re seeking, to not depend on anyone,” said Francisco Valentín with the Primary Health Services and Socioeconomic Development Corporation. “We’ve had to organize ourselves because there’s no other option.”

Waiting for help that never came

Municipal officials also have grown tired of waiting for help.

In the southern coastal town of Peñuelas, Mayor Gregory Gonsález said he sought permission to hire special brigades to repair roads, ditches, and other infrastructure, with work starting in mid-September. Fiona may end up undoing their work.

Peñuelas is one of five municipalities that has not seen a single post-hurricane project completed, with a pier, medical center, government office, and a road still awaiting reconstruction. Gonsález said that few companies make bids because they lack employees, or they quote a price higher than that authorized by federal officials as inflation drives up the cost of materials.

It’s a frustration shared by Josian Santiago, mayor of the central mountain town of Comerío. He said it’s urgent that crews repair the main road that connects his town to the capital of San Juan because landslides are closing it down with increasing frequency. Tropical Storm Earl was blamed for causing eight landslides on Sept. 6, just hours before it became a hurricane.

“It’s a terrible risk,” Santiago said, adding that engineers recently told him it could take another two years to repair. “Two years?! How much longer do we have to wait?!”

Reminders of how much time has passed since Hurricane Maria hit are scattered across Puerto Rico.

Faded red plastic tassels tied around wooden electrical posts that still lean as much as 60 degrees flapped in the wind as Tropical Storm Earl dumped heavy rain across the island in early September.

Norma López, a 56-year-old homemaker, has a post leaning just feet away from her balcony in Loiza, and it exasperates her every time she sees it.

“It’s still there. About to fall,” said López, who lost her roof to Hurricane Hugo in 1989 and again to Maria. “I’m here trying to survive.”

Virmisa Rivera holds an envelope with the amount of money she was given to repair her hurricane-damaged home in Loiza, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022. She said FEMA also gave her $1,600 to rent a house while they repaired her roof, but no crews came by. | Alejandro Granadillo / AP

Sixty-five-year-old Virmisa Rivera, who lives nearby, said her roof leaks every time it rains, and the laminated walls near her bedroom are permanently soaked.

She said FEMA gave her $1,600 to rent a house while it repaired her roof, but no crews came by. Her boyfriend, who recently died, attempted to install zinc panels, but they don’t protect from heavy rain.

“My house is falling apart,” she said, adding that the government said it would move her to a new home in another neighborhood since it can’t repair hers because it’s in a flood zone.

But Rivera worries she will die if she moves: She takes 19 pills a day and uses an oxygen tank daily. Her family lives next door, which gives her security since she now lives alone.

Family also is the reason Osorio, the 19-year-old, would like to see a roof for the second floor. It’s where her mother raised her and her sister before dying. Osorio was 12, so her younger sister was sent to live with an aunt.

Plywood panels now cover the windows of the second floor that her mother built by hand with cinderblocks. It’s where she taught Osorio how to make candles and cloth wipes for babies that they used to sell, sitting side-by-side while Osorio talked about her school day.

“This is my mother’s,” Osorio said as she motioned to the second floor, “and that’s where I plan to live.”

This article combines material from two dispatches by the author.


Dánica Coto
Dánica Coto

Dánica Coto helps cover the Caribbean for the Associated Press. She is based in Puerto Rico but reports, edits, and translates stories from around the region.