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Life after Maria: Puerto Rico a month after the hurricane

Hurricane Maria laid waste to much of the island, leaving millions without electricity. It turned lives upside down and wrecked an already damaged economy. Some have left the island, but those who remain still need help to get back on their feet.
20 Oct 2017 – 12:02 PM EDT

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A month has passed since powerful hurricane Maria destroyed much of the island, but much of its ravages remain: dark streets, non-functional traffic lights, and a lack of hot food, drinking water and medical services.

For millions of Puerto Ricans this is now reality, or what in the streets is called 'life after Maria.'

Some are already getting used to living without the basics, like TV, wifi or washing machines.

And those are the happy stories.

In the so-called 'Camp of the Forgotten,' in the municipality of Utuado, some people go out of their way to bring food to their families who were isolated after the bridge collapsed in the district of Rio Abajo. FEMA used a helicopter to deliver aid there.

"Utuado is one of the most affected villages on the island, if not the most affected," said Samuel de Jesús, one of the organizers of the camp, 30 days after the storm. "A lot collapsed here and it's pretty much destroyed. There are areas where there is still no access and the situation is very difficult."

Across the island, some Puerto Ricans lost everything. About 250,000 families were left homeless, the government estimated this week. That's what happened to Nancy and Domingo, in the municipality of Loíza. They now sleep in a bed covered with a blue awning, provided by FEMA, between buckets and boxes filled with the few belongings that survived.
A month after the catastrophe, the government says it has identified 48 people who died as a result of Hurricane Maria. But many say the government has deliberately undercounted the death toll to make its own efforts look better.

"I honestly think that figure is a ridiculous underestimate of the reality of this disaster," said Senator and physician Jose 'Chaco' Vargas Vidot in an interview with Univision News. "And that's because governments and politicians think that the death toll is a sign of government inefficiency, but death is random and a matter of chance. Death comes because hurricanes with 186 mph winds and 220 mph gusts cause casualties, and that is not the fault of any government. So, why cover it up? Why not tell things as they are?"


Vargas Vidot is concerned about epidemics that may break out in the coming months. He also criticized dozens of hospitals that closed temporarily after the storm. "The big hospitals were clearly unprepared for this reality that is endemic to a tropical island, that's to say, hurricanes are not a coincidence, hurricanes are a reality from June to November," he said.
One of those new threats is leptospirosis, a disease that is spread through contact with the urine of rats and other animals that may have contaminated local rivers.

Epidemiologist Carmen Deseda announced this week that at least 74 people have shown symptoms of the disease, which can be deadly. The risk comes from drinking water from local springs, something that became almost essential to survival in some mountainous areas.
"There are people who are taking water from the stream thinking that because it's naturally occurring and contains no chemicals, it's safe, when it is not," the secretary of the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources, Tania Vázquez Rivera, said this week.


"At this time, no one should get into or take water from any body of (natural) water, unless the Water and Sewer Authority certifies that it is indeed safe to use," she added.

Federal aid

For its part the government of the island is doing its best to request federal aid. "We recognize that much has been done, but much remains to be done," Governor Ricardo Rossello told President Donald Trump Thursday at the White House. Trump declared that his administration has done "a great job" on the island, giving himself a grade of 10 out of 10.

Meanwhile, Puerto Ricans in and out of the island, including celebrities from retired baseball star Carlos Delgado, to chef Jose Andres, are working tirelessly to send and distribute aid, with more than 4,000 people still living in shelters.


"I have a moral commitment," Delgado told Univision News.

Water ... canned food ... crackers. The relief flights bring basic items, but also some new luxuries: battery radios to listen to the news, portable fans, portable solar lights, and tables to wash the clothes by hand.

With the resources that exist, the government does what it can.

Schools and universities will reopen next week, even as at least 100 schools are still being used as shelters and distribution centers for the most affected. Students will only have classes from 8 a.m. to noon, and not all schools will be ready to resume the semester.


"Where a school can be opened, we'll transfer students there from schools that are not ready to open," Education Secretary Julia Keleher said in an interview with Univision News.

Faced with the frustration of living without electricity or water, thousands have left the country, many without knowing if the move will be temporary or permanent. And those who stay are having to adapt to a new reality. "Life has been turned on its head in Puerto Rico," said Kamil Rivera, who works organizing weddings and events at the El Conquistador hotel in the municipality of Fajardo.

"The plumbers, people who work in construction; they all have work now and maybe there's not enough of them. And we don't (have work)," he added.
For barber José 'Firus Cuts' Muñoz, the lack of electricity has not stopped his business. On the sidewalk in front of his barbershop, he and his employees now trim hair under a tent, to the music of rapper Bad Bunny, which streams from the loud speakers of a car parked in the street.

"There's lots of new people passing by. It's good for business doing cuts out here," he said with a smile.


Similarly, in Santurce, Abner Roldán has spent two weeks selling coffee on the sidewalk in front of his Café Comunión store, which he had planned to open in mid-October.
At first he wasn't sure it would be a good idea, but it worked: "I sold the coffee in an hour or so on the first day. People would say, 'Bring oatmeal, bring mayorca (Puerto Rican sugar rolls)!'"

Thus, little by little, Puerto Rico is rising.

That's now the most heard phrase on the island, in ads, on the radio, on social media. It is the new mantra: "Puerto Rico rising."


In photos: This is what Hurricane María left behind in Puerto Rico

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