NARANJITO, Puerto Rico — Just 20 miles from the capital of San Juan, residents here are still marooned after Hurricane Maria destroyed the once-lush landscape more than a week ago, but people are finding ways to help each other.
They have no running water, electricity or reliable communication with the rest of the world, since Maria slammed into Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph and devastated the U.S. commonwealth.
Obtaining basic necessities of water, food and fuel for cars and generators is a daylong mission for each item. Across the Plata River, where a long line of cars and people wait for drinkable water from a tower, a smaller line formed near a PVC pipe that had water trickling from a hillside spring.
Nicolle Ramos, 29, of nearby Toa Alta, said her family uses the water for bathing, flushing toilets and — after it's boiled — drinking.
“When it rains, we don’t come,” Ramos said as she watched people fill coolers, pails and bottles to put in their cars. “We gather water from the downspouts and wash clothes by hand.”
Ramos’ mother, Michelle Rebollo, said gathering this water was today’s task.
“Tomorrow we’re going to try to find gasoline,” Rebollo said in English. “Then, we’ll try to get money. Each one is a whole day.”
The Federal Emergency Management Agency and Puerto Rican National Guard are working to deliver food and water to hard-to-access places, to set up telecommunications in municipal centers and to deliver supplies to hospitals, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said.
He said on Saturday that 714 gas stations — more than half the stations on the island — were operating and receiving fuel. But many stations that line the roads near Naranjito were closed or had signs saying, “No hay gasolina,” no gasoline.
Puerto Rico will receive more fuel in coming days with eight deliveries from Sunday to next Saturday, Rosselló said.
Much of the recovery reaching average people in towns like Naranjito is a result of Puerto Ricans helping each other.
Rebollo, whose tour company Aventura Total is temporarily out of business, said she has turned to assisting her neighbors try to find water and gasoline.
“Where I live, there’s a lot of old people living,” she said. “Sometimes they need medications. I help them.”
At a nearby health center, Centro de Salud Entegra en Narajito, administrator Felix Ortiz Baez said one of the most common ailments the staff is treating is gastroenteritis from drinking tainted water. People are also seeking treatment for pinkeye, cuts from chainsaws and machetes, and falls.
The water should be boiled before drinking it, but some people don't have the facilities or knowledge to do that, Ortiz Baez said, speaking a mix of English and Spanish.
The health center, which has never closed since the storm, has treated an average of 125 cases a day together with two sister facilities in the area. The clinic needs more diesel for its generator, bottled water and portable generators to give to families.
“We had a fairly robust plan for emergencies, but we weren’t ready for such a catastrophic event,” he said.
In the town, where homes painted green, blue, purple and white, dot the steep hillside among serpentine roads, Michelle Narvaez, 40, had just returned from grocery shopping. That entailed waiting in line for more than an hour and paying twice the usual price.
“When I cook, I cook a lot, but I can’t keep it because there’s no electricity,” Narvaez said in Spanish.
So she buys what she’s going to cook each day and feeds her neighbors, like Marta Rodriguez, 54, who sat on a nearby stoop.
Narvaez’s home survived the hurricane that turned her lush hillside into a landscape of sticks, but she said she won’t stay if things don’t improve soon.
“We need water and power,” she said. “I have a little one 4 years old, and he has allergies and asthma.”
At the Ruben Rodriguez Figuera vocational high school on the other side of the hill, 119 people turned the facility into a shelter, organized with military precision.
Sgt. Jose Castillo, 52, of the Puerto Rico National Guard military police, has run the place since Maria turned his home in nearby Comerio into a pile of sodden and splintered boards.
“I don’t have anywhere to go,” Castillo said in Spanish. “I lost everything. Only my military uniform. Apart from this, I have nothing.” So he walked to the shelter with his wife and said: “I’m yours.”
Drawing on his military background, Castillo made the shelter and its residents his mission. Standing in the school’s theater, he explained how he helped transform it into a storage room for donated goods, with clothing neatly sorted by gender and size. He described how he asked for volunteers among the shelter residents and organized them into teams to catalog donations, work in the kitchen and clean.
“No one’s going to clean other people’s dirt,” Castillo said. “That’s how we’ll take care of Puerto Rico.”
Follow Oren Dorell on Twitter: @OrenDorell
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