Life Without Power
Two powerful hurricanes devastated Puerto Rico in September. They created a humanitarian crisis for the island’s 3.4 million U.S. citizens that has persisted for three months. Power restoration is at a crawl because the grid collapsed, the utility is bankrupt and the logistics are daunting: Crews and supplies have to come from the mainland, and then make their way into rugged interior areas like Utuado. Many roads remain impassable, and hundreds are still isolated.
The deluge of rain created mudslides that toppled transmission lines, broke water pipes and pushed homes down hills. The family that lived in this house escaped just in time. The green lushness has returned to the mountains, though it is broken by huge gashes of mud.
Afraid that the slope supporting her house would collapse into the lake below, Maria Ortiz Viruet moved two doors away, to her mother’s house. She is a veteran public school teacher who has weathered storms of all kinds. But nothing prepared her for this darkness.
Like most teachers across the island, Maria reports to work each day at an empty school.
No power and no water mean no school for many of the territory’s more than 1,000 schools — and total disruption to the lives of tens of thousands of children. They have lost their daily routine of classes, friends and meals.
Most have not been to school at all this fall. With each passing day, educators realize they are waiting for students who may never come back.
Maria can’t get used to the emptiness.
Instead of class work, children get lessons in catching mountain water to do the wash. On the mainland, school districts in Florida, Texas, New York and New England have absorbed thousands of students who don’t want to fall behind. But those who stayed — including Maria’s son, Jesús, 18 — are about to lose an entire semester.
What he does know: Nearly every day, the generator needs some kind of fix. When it breaks down, out come the candles and flashlights.
The buzzing of fuel-powered generators is inescapable. Their din is the new background noise of the night, the motors roaring to life all across the island at dusk.
Expensive to buy and fill, smelly and dangerous, the machines were never intended to be a substitute for public electricity.
A household can limp along on a generator, but it has been perilous for Puerto Rico’s elderly and infirm to rely on the machines for months on end.
Many of them need power just to breathe. Since the storm, there has been a surge of deaths from pneumonia, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and breathing disorders compared with the same period in 2016. The toll could rise over 1,000, some estimate.
All the advances of modern medicine are useless without electricity. How to run oxygen machines and nebulizer treatments? How to sterilize equipment and refrigerate medicine?
Thousands of the chronically sick live at home and are too poor or too frail to keep a generator filled and running. The fumes can trigger more breathing problems. It falls to family members and community health workers to improvise and soldier on.
Aixa Jiménez, a home hospice nurse, spends more time caring for her patients, including Margarita, 94, who has Alzheimer’s disease. Helping Margarita live with dignity and keeping her clean and comfortable are more complicated since the hurricane hit.
The Spanish verb “to struggle” is bregar, but it means much more on this island.
When Puerto Ricans use this word, as they do constantly post-Maria, they are describing gritty determination. It’s the deeply cultural will to not just survive scarcity and hardship but also to use creativity and humor to thrive within it. On busted power poles and crumbling overpasses are Puerto Rico’s flag and this scrawled message: “Yo no me quito,” or “I won’t give up.”
That spirit has propelled people to devise river crossings where bridges are washed out. Neighbors have formed brigades to clear roads with machetes and run cables from a single generator to light several homes.
But no amount of community resourcefulness can string electric line and rebuild highways. It took nearly two weeks for the territorial government and U.S. agencies to deliver relief to the hardest-hit communities. Politics and bureaucratic squabbles continue to bog down recovery.
While they wait on government, Puerto Ricans are demonstrating what they mean by bregar.
Time Passes By
Three months after Maria, basic survival seems more like subsistence. The residents of Rio Abajo were cut off from food, water and supplies when the bridge to their rural homes collapsed. They had to get across the river.
For many Puerto Ricans who make their homes in population centers, the storm’s aftermath has been equally merciless. In coastal regions like Yabucoa, the upheaval touches every facet of city life.
Life Without Power
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