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'All Puerto Rico is damaged … we lost everything here'

By Molly Hennessy-Fiske • Sep 21, 2017 at 4:40 PM

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Hurricane Maria reduced homes to heaps of wood and cement in the oceanfront settlement of La Perla, where hundreds of people picked their way down the rocky hillsides strewn with debris Thursday to salvage what they could from the wreckage.

At the foot of an ancient fort, just outside the walls of Old San Juan, Diego Rivera chopped at a palm tree with a machete. He was clearing a path to the flooded cinderblock house where he weathered the storm, winds tearing at the metal hurricane shutters as he huddled inside, panicked. He tried to flee, but the downed palm tree blocked the door. He was trapped for about 10 hours.

The retired construction worker escaped unharmed, but his house was still full of water, the cement ceiling crumbling. Neighboring homes of his mother, sister and niece were roofless, stripped bare by powerful winds that lashed the shanties clustered above a narrow strip of beach. Down the hill, neighbors were clearing the main road. Shirtless men pushed aside stalled cars and examined ruptured water pipes as women tucked back downed power lines. The damage was overwhelming. A parking garage had collapsed on several cars. Restaurants like Al Sabor de Sonia y Algo Mas were blocked by debris. A sign warning residents to keep the area clean had been knocked down.

Rivera, who grew up here listening to elders tell stories about the explorers who discovered and christened it La Perla, or “The Pearl,” gestured to the mix of shingles, glass and lumber studded with rusty nails that littered the hillside.

“We have to start cleaning this stuff, throw it away. The government hasn’t done nothing,” he said, in part because the power grid was down along with cellphone communications, straining an already frayed public works system.

“All Puerto Rico is damaged,” he said, but, “We lost everything here,” including utilities, which residents don’t expect will be restored for weeks, if not months.

Rivera’s relatives were staying in emergency hurricane shelters with hundreds of others displaced by the storm.

“I have to get a place to stay. No water, no electricity, no nothing. Just waiting for FEMA to see what happens,” Rivera said.

Thousands in Puerto Rico have been living without power since Hurricane Irma struck earlier this month.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Maria was the “most devastating storm to hit the island this century, if not in modern history.”

The island’s energy grid took such a severe blow from Maria that restoring power to everyone may take months, he told CNN.

The U.S. territory has been through a long recession and is deeply in debt and has a state-owned power grid that is “a little bit old, mishandled and weak,” Rossello told “Anderson Cooper 360.”

“It depends on the damage to the infrastructure,” he said. “I’m afraid it’s probably going to be severe. If it is … we’re looking at months as opposed to weeks or days.”

Flash-flood alerts sounded all day in the capital, which saw spotty rain. The National Weather Service in San Juan tweeted that the island was “completely under a flash flood warning. If possible, move to higher ground NOW.”

While storm winds subsided as the hurricane moved to the northwest, heavy rain in the central mountains also brought added flooding.

The island’s airports remained closed, and a curfew was in effect from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

President Donald Trump tweeted a message to Rossello that the U.S. government is “with you and the people of Puerto Rico. Stay safe!”

Pedro Rivera, a longtime La Perla resident, took his French bulldog Buddha for a walk past a car whose windshield had been shattered by a hunk of cement ripped from a neighboring home. A neighbor’s chickens and geese, released by the storm, passed by.

“It will rise again,” said Rivera, 46, a cook at nearby Fresh Bistro. “We are a village. We will raise ourselves.”

He said the most pressing needs are utilities and clear roads, in case of emergencies. At least one elderly woman with a heart condition needed medical attention after the storm, he said. Neighbors called an ambulance, and when it wasn’t able to reach the village due to blocked roads, they helped her up the hill so she could be taken to a hospital where relatives said she was recovering Thursday.

Rivera pointed to a man cracking the limbs of a downed tree to clear a side street.

“We will clean it, bit by bit,” Rivera said.

Officials told him local government was getting help from federal agencies and emergency crews coming from New York to help restore utilities could arrive as soon as this weekend.

Neighbor Sonia Viruet, 61, said the government should send crews to La Perla immediately. Beside her, a neighbor in work gloves was making slow progress gathering fallen shingles.

“We need help restoring the community. First, we need help cleaning. We can try to do it ourselves, but it will take too long,” Viruet said.

Far down the hill near the water’s edge, Victor Iban helped a neighbor examine damage to his home. Iban, 51, survived the storm in his cement apartment, which was relatively unscathed. The handyman planned to stay to help rebuild and said he believed the government would eventually send workers to help.

“It’s just the first day. They always come, bit by bit,” he said.

For Iban, like many of his neighbors, evacuating La Perla was not an option.

“Here I was born,” he said, “and here I will die.”

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©2017 Los Angeles Times

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