In Puerto Rico mountains, more than muddy roads delay relief efforts
As civilian and military officials work to bring supplies to 'forgotten' residents of Puerto Rico's hard-hit hinterlands, personal and partisan rivalries over who gets to claim credit for delivering the relief are slowing the process.
| Utuado, Puerto Rico
If it weren’t for her daughter, Silvia Maldonado is not sure how she could have made it.
Living through the two back-to-back hurricanes that brought life to a standstill in her mountain-nestled settlement of 300 residents was bad enough.
But it’s the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria that has the tidy elderly woman feeling overwhelmed: a month and counting of initially damaged services, and then the knock-out of no electricity, no water, and, she says, no sign of help from the civilian and military authorities buzzing around the flood-bashed streets and mud-caked roads of Utuado, a central Puerto Rican municipality of 35,000 people.
“We feel forgotten,” says Mrs. Maldonado, begging pardon for weeping as she revisits what is now simply referred to across Puerto Rico as “la situacion.”
“My daughter was able to fill some jugs of water for me today,” she adds, “but no, we don’t see help coming for the people in Mula,” the Utuado village she calls home.
Such sentiments of abandonment are frustrating for the civilian and military officials moving mountains – sometimes literally collapsed mountainsides – to get everything from food, water, and medicines, to batteries for lamps and tarps to cover roofless houses, to the hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans who need them.
“It’s painful for us when we hear of people who are feeling like the help isn’t coming, when our attitude is we’ll do what it takes to reach everyone – if a helicopter is needed to access the most remote settlement, I’ll call one up,” says Staff Sgt. José Echevarría, who is in charge of the 250 soldiers, airmen, military police, and engineers from Puerto Rico and the United States assigned to Utuado’s National Guard armory in the storms’ wake.
Working alongside the Puerto Rican National Guard are Katrina-tested engineers from Louisiana and – giving them a periodic assist – airmen and helicopters from New York (home to many Puerto Ricans) and Pennsylvania who are down helping the island effort.
“What we say here is that today is better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today,” he says, adding, “but we know we still have a long way to go.”
Every day brings with it new stories of daunting predicaments and unmet needs in most of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities. Many isolated communities remain out of contact with the outside world, so when people from those areas get out, they bring with them stories of devastation and pleas for help.
A growing concern across the island is what could be the public health fallout of people without potable water supplies using the waters from streams for drinking, cooking, and bathing.
But Utuado – a collection of dozens of far-flung mountaintop and ravine-hugging settlements connected by narrow roads to the central town – has its own particular challenges, ranging from topography and demographics to politics.
Indeed, the state government has designated Utuado as one of the island’s 15 municipalities most affected by Puerto Rico’s worst disaster in modern history.
Utuado already faced daunting straits before the storms.
Many young people set their sights on the capital San Juan, about 70 miles out of the mountains to the northwest, or even farther afield to the mainland US, leaving behind a population that is about two-thirds senior citizens. The area’s main economic activities, agriculture and a nascent adventure-tourism industry, offered limited employment opportunities. The distances between rural settlements made delivering services difficult.
But after Maria, the Category 5 hurricane that roared through Puerto Rico three weeks ago on the heels of Irma, those problems have been sharply exacerbated, local officials say.
“This is an agricultural zone – coffee, plantains, some citrus – and we’re developing some nature tourism, so you can imagine the economic impact of storms that took out so many trees and roads and flooded so many fields,” says Michael Abid Quiñones, the Utuado district’s representative in the island’s 54-seat assembly.
Indeed, island officials and economists estimate that 80 percent of the island’s crops were lost, and that tourism, Puerto Rico’s bread and butter, will fall off sharply, for months at least.
Overall, an economy that was already experiencing annual declines will shrink further, economists say – encouraging more young people to leave and hasten the decline of towns like Utuado.
Mr. Quiñones is keenly aware of these challenges, but he and other officials here say that for right now their focus has to be on meeting immediate needs – getting tarps to as many as 7,000 houses in the district that lost roofs, power generators to priority sites like elderly residential centers, and food and potable water to the far corners of Utuado.
The challenge would be big enough if it stopped there, but Utuado has another problem holding things back – a long-smoldering skirmish between Puerto Rico’s two main political parties that has burst into flame in the wake of the storms.
In what might look to outsiders like a mini version of the well-publicized spat between President Trump and San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz over the quantity and effectiveness of federal aid to Puerto Rico, the mayor of Utuado and the National Guard here are hardly speaking.
Why? It appears to boil down to politics, and who will be able to claim credit for delivering aid when next year’s elections roll around.
Officials and some residents alike attribute at least some of Utuado’s slow delivery of aid to political conflict: Puerto Rico’s National Guard takes its marching orders from the island’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, who hails from the conservative New Progressive Party, while Utuado’s mayor is from the left-leaning Popular Democratic Party – the same party as San Juan’s mayor.
“I really think the attitude should be that during these times we don’t have political parties, we have Puerto Rico our home, and we are Puerto Ricans,” says Quiñones, who is from the governor’s party. “But I have to admit that the political situation is having a negative impact,” he adds, “it’s affecting people because it’s slowing things down.”
Military officials here express growing exasperation over the impact they say politics is having on their mission. The way the Puerto Rico relief effort is organized, with the military acting in support of the civilian Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA – works well when the local civilian authorities are on board, they say.
Where it doesn’t seem to work seamlessly is in cases like Utuado.
Noting that he holds an all-hands-on-deck meeting every 48 hours to assess progress and shortfalls and to plan the next two days’ aid deliveries and recovery projects, Staff Sergeant Echevarría says, “We have a standing invitation out to the mayor, we need him and his assets there, but he’s only come once. We all need to put the people first,” he adds, “there will be plenty of time for politics later.”
The Monitor tried repeatedly over several days to reach Utuado Mayor Ernesto Irizarry for comment, but was unsuccessful. One Utuado native who declined to discuss the mayor’s motivations directly did note that some members of the mayor’s political party are leery of new initiatives out of the governor’s wife’s office. The programs are being publicly promoted as projects of the “first lady,” and are being implemented with the assistance of the Puerto Rican National Guard.
One of those programs, dubbed “Stop & Go” and creating one-stop centers for phone calls, device charging, and carry-out hot meals, is set to be in full operation in Utuado this week.
Yet out on the streets and mountain roads of Utuado, politics are the last thing on people’s minds.
Idania Gonzalez and Laura Pérez, each with a daughter in tow, are hugging a fence across from the National Guard, trying desperately to capture the armory’s wifi signal so they can reach family on the mainland.
“You have to pay cash for everything, but the ATMs are down and the banks are closed. You can’t even use food stamps, because the [card] terminals aren’t working,” says Ms. Pérez, adding, “Pretty soon this is all we’ll have to eat,” and she pretends to chomp down on her arm – to the girls’ delight.
In another Utuado neighborhood, Jeannette Garcia supervises her husband, Roberto, as he prepares to repair his in-laws’ damaged roof. The Garcias flew down from New York, where they live, to Jeannette’s childhood home as soon after Maria as they could.
“It breaks my heart to see the island in this condition, but I do feel like people are helping each other out,” Ms. Garcia says. “And it does seem like help in the form of everything people need is starting to arrive.”
Over the mountain from Utuado in Arecibo, municipal workers are busy handing out FEMA-provided tarps to residents who were able to get to a distribution center to sign up for one.
“The mayor’s office got these tarps, and today we’re distributing 135 in just this zone of Arecibo,” says Sigfredo Torres, who works in the municipality’s finance division during the week but has been spending weekends distributing aid.
“As you can see, there is tremendous need for these tarps,” he says, as he hands one to Dorca Montalbo Román, who lost her entire roof and has been unable to live in her home since Maria. The 20x25-foot tarp she received won’t make her home habitable, but she hopes it will allow her to cover a portion and save some belongings.
Back in Utuado, Jeannette Garcia says she understands why people feel overwhelmed by their post-Maria plight, but she says she’s also doing her best to help her parents see that not all is disaster in their town.
“When we heard that people with no water were bathing in the river, I said, ‘Hey Mom, didn’t you used to tell me that you washed in the river when you were a girl?’ ” she says.
With no electricity for air conditioning and TV, Garcia’s parents have noticed that people are out more visiting with neighbors and sharing the suddenly precious supplies they do have: batteries, potable water, a crunchy lechon de cerdo, or roasted pork.
“When my mom said the neighborhood seemed livelier since the storms, that more kids are outside playing now instead of sitting inside the house with TV or a computer, I said, ‘See Mom, it’s not all bad, in some ways it’s like your good old days.’ ”