Puerto Rico has recovered from Maria’s destruction after Hurricane Fiona

The valves, which sprouted from the ground like flowers, all that was left of her small house near the banks of the Guamaní River, flooded and swallowed her yellow, cabin-like house, other houses on the block, her stepfather’s vintage Toyota and four of her eight beloved cats. A friend hid her house keys after Baez evacuated to her mother’s house, preventing her from returning to pick up the cats during the storm.

“People come from different places,” said Baez, 50, under a sweltering sun. “We have informed them so that they can come and get water.”

“I’m debating what to do,” said Baez, who has previously lived in New York and Connecticut. “I had a house. It wasn’t a mansion but it was my house. Now I have nothing. Will I get help?”

Even more widespread flooding than Hurricane Maria

Fiona made landfall in southwestern Puerto Rico last Sunday evening. It was the first hurricane to make landfall since September 20, 2017, when Maria left thousands dead and caused a months-long blackout for the island’s more than 3 million residents.

The Puerto Rican government, after initially saying only 64 people had died as a result of Maria, later put the death toll at nearly 3,000, making it one of the deadliest hurricanes in US history. At least two deaths have been attributed to Fiona so far.

Hurricane Fiona dumped torrential rain across Puerto Rico — more than 30 inches in some areas of the southern and central mountain region — and caused flooding that was more widespread than the historic storm of 2017. Some parts of the island received more rain than during Maria, which ravaged Puerto Rico with 160 mph winds.

The day after Fiona made landfall, more than 2,000 people were staying in shelters on the island, according to Governor Pedro Pierluisi. Many have since returned home or are temporarily staying with relatives.

At least 1,000 Puerto Ricans were rescued by emergency crews, the National Guard reported.

Fiona’s steady rain and widespread flooding that turned streets into muddy streams washed away bridges and reopened roads repaired after Maria. It flooded rivers and streams, and caused pumps to fail after power outages, leaving thousands of homes without running water and sewer systems.

As of Saturday, 847,447 customers of the island’s electric company LUMA Energy — about 53 percent of all homes and businesses — were still without power. About 1,062,192 customers, that is 80% of all users, have running water. As of Saturday, 265,548 customers — about 20 percent of all homes and businesses — were still without water from the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority, according to the website of the government’s emergency portal system.
Power lines are visible at dusk in Guayama.  Fiona knocked out power across the island, leaving half of homes and businesses without power five days after the storm.

‘Call 911… We’re in danger’

On Thursday afternoon, in the southern coastal town of Salinas, Jacqueline Rivera and her husband, Luis Vasquez, cleaned out the small one-bedroom beach house they’ve lived in since the pandemic. Their clothes and other belongings were strewn on the muddy ground outside their log home, 11 miles west of Guayama.

“It was the most peaceful and quiet place,” he said, “until Sunday.”

Their neighborhood, Villa Esperanza, which lies between the beach and the Nigua River, is littered with fallen trees, pieces of aluminum roofing and boats washed from their trailers. The blue-and-white house next door fell into a crater of mud-filled soil in a cabin-and-trailer community mostly used on weekends.

On Sunday afternoon, after Fiona made landfall, Rivera and Vasquez were forced to leave their elevated home when floodwaters began pouring over the concrete surrounding the property. With their three Chihuahuas, they made their way to the raised 20-foot container, attached to a trailer and roped to a concrete wall in the backyard. It was around 19:30

“Then we see a boat across the street, as if someone is driving it,” said Rivera, a 54-year-old nurse.

“Right in the middle of the road,” said Vasquez, a 60-year-old plumber.

“Then a trailer with a small portal floated up as if someone was lifting it with their arms,” ​​he said. “That was followed by a neighbor’s new boat, then a jet ski floated down. Then I heard an explosion and the house down the street sank to the ground.”

Jacqueline Rivera leans on the boat she and her husband used as a shelter during Hurricane Fiona in Salinas, Puerto Rico.

They prayed as the water began to rise around their boat. Rivera said somehow his cell phone still worked. He called friends and colleagues.

“Please call 911. Please call the National Guard,” she pleaded. “Put this on Facebook. We need prayers. We’re in danger. If the rope that tied the boat to the wall broke, we wouldn’t be here. This wasn’t a river anymore. It was like a raging brown sea, with waves all around us.”

Their prayers were answered around 2am on Monday morning. A National Guard truck drove down a nearby street after floodwaters receded. They managed to reach the truck safely.

The storm hits, people leave. Will it happen again?

In the immediate aftermath of Maria, about 130,000 people — nearly 4% of the population — left the island, according to 2018 US Census Bureau data. The data reflected a change in population on July 1, 2017, before the storm. and the same date the following year.

The population of the US territory is declining. Amid the debt crisis and other problems, more than 530,000 people have left Puerto Rico since 2010, the agency said in 2018. It remains to be seen how the effects of Fiona, along with economic and political upheaval, will affect mainland migration. Puerto Ricans are American citizens who can move freely to US states.

Rivera and Vazquez have raised children who live in Florida and North Carolina. She said she is more open to migrating than her husband, but admitted it would be difficult to leave.

“We have to fight for the little we have,” said Rivera.

Luis Vasquez cleans the yard of his one-bedroom beach house in Salinas.

Post-Maria blue tarps linger

In an impoverished neighborhood on the northern coast of Loiza, 18 kilometers west of the capital San Juan, 73-year-old Ramona Jimenez watched from her porch with her three grandchildren—ages 3, 8, and 12. The neighborhood was flooded. After Fiona and since Monday, wastewater from the sewage system has bubbled up from underground pipes into the underground street, creating a stinking pool of dark water. He said he keeps the windows closed, even in the hot days after Sunday’s storm.

“Puerto Rico is stuck in the past,” he said. “Nothing changes.”

Jimenez had a new roof installed by a non-profit in February, but the area around her house was still covered with blue tarps made of waterproof material until the roofs were finally repaired. Five years after Maria, more than 3,000 homes still have blue tarps, according to local press.

“This is a marginalized community, like so many on the island, and no one cares what happens to us,” said activist Sonia Martinez, who was distributing food to families in Loiza.

Another community activist, Modesta Irizarry, 53, distributed bags of food and water to senior citizens in her community on Friday. Two other women, sisters Tatiana and Maria Pacheco, set off from the town of Trujillo Alto with a truck full of food collected from donations and purchase money.

“Since Hurricane Maria, people are losing faith in the government,” said Maria Pacheco, a 31-year-old gym owner. “So we want to give these donations directly to people who need them.”

From left, Tatiana Pacheco, Maria Pacheco and Modesta Irizarry make food bags for Irizarry's elderly neighbors.

Maria Pacheco said she does not want to leave the island, although many friends have moved to the mainland in recent years.

“I could make more money somewhere else, but I belong here,” he said. “You’ll be better off financially, but not emotionally, because you’ll always miss Puerto Rico.”

He added: “We can’t change…geographically but we can change politically. It’s sad but I don’t see a short-term solution. I’ll stay as long as I can. I want my children to be born here.”

Irizarry cried at one point as he prepared bags to distribute to about 50 families.

“We want to send the message that our people matter and we matter,” he said. “They will not forget us.”

The first stop they made with bags of food was the home of 77-year-old Ana Luz Pica, who prepared meals for volunteers after Hurricane Maria. Pica thanked them.

“This is a blessing,” Pica said.

On a beach near Loiza, fisherman Jorge Calderon, 54, was giving away bags of fresh fish, shrimp and crab that he netted in the days after the storm. In return, the neighbors brought him breakfast and lunch.

Jorje Calderon, a fisherman who gave away his catch, poses for a portrait in Loiza, Puerto Rico.

“Some people talk bad about Loiza, but there are a lot of good people here,” said Caldron, whose brother Ivan, a former Major League Baseball player, was shot in Puerto Rico in 2003.

Neisha Caraquillo, 29, sat on the beach with her two children, ages 4 and 7, and an empty plastic bag in hand, waiting for Calderon’s next catch.

“Here is enough for all of us,” he said.

Starting over, maybe somewhere new

Baez, whose house was swept away by floods on Sunday in Guayaman’s southern coast, has returned to his block every day to feed and play with three cats that escaped during the storm and managed to reach a neighboring house. The kittens’ mother also survived but Baez has not seen her since Monday.

Baez called out the cats’ names — Jacob, Jeffrey and Batman — and they came out of the bushes at a neighbor’s house who was left standing.

She said she plays with cats and remembers her days selling clothes and food outside her home. He recently saved enough money to buy a new stove and washing machine that he brought with him.

Baez has a daughter who lives in Hartford, Connecticut. His daughter plans to visit him next month, and Baez said he will decide whether to leave the island.

“I was getting my stuff, little by little, and now I have to start over,” he said. “That’s life here.”

Jacob and Jeffrey, two of Baez's four cats that survived Fiona, watch from the edge of the street where their house stood.