Latin AmericaPuerto Rico

‘Everything Was Lost’ for Puerto Ricans in Hard-Hit Coastal Town of Arecibo

When Hurricane Maria ripped through Martell, a neighborhood in this northern coastal town, the river swelled, rushed through the windows and doors of homes and swept away the life residents once knew.

“The nights are very hard because of the heat, the wet mattresses,” Ana Toribio Vargas, 62, said in Spanish from her home. “We thought about sleeping tonight on this little mattress our friend brought us, but it’s not easy to sleep on a wet mattress and then with the suffocating heat.”

It’s been two weeks since the monster storm blasted through Puerto Rico, and residents in hard-hit areas far afield from metropolitan San Juan, such as those in Arecibo, want to move forward. But they are stifled by the slow restoration of cellphone service, electricity and safe drinking water.

Toribio Vargas and her 33-year-old daughter rode out the storm in a nearby shelter. After staying a few days with a relative, they returned to their flooded home.

“Everything was covered with water and mud,” Toribio Vargas said. “Everything was lost. Everything.”

“There were so many tree trunks and branches that the river had brought that I couldn’t even open my door,” she added. “We couldn’t do anything.”

They’ve been cleaning out what little Maria left behind. While running water came back on Tuesday, it is dirty and unsafe to drink.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m living in a nightmare,” she said through tears.

The cement homes near the Rio Grande de Arecibo bare flood lines 7 to 8 feet high. While the water has receded, it left floors, walls and even appliances caked in mud.

On Wednesday, Edwin Cortes Medina, wearing vinyl galoshes in the sweltering heat, lifted a metal sheet from his driveway and carried it to a pile in the median of the street outside his home. He repeated the chore again and again, removing soaked debris that arrived from elsewhere and damaged furniture.

“This is the first time I’ve ever seen anything like this in my whole life,” said Cortes Medina, 47. “This whole community of about 200 houses, they lost everything.”

His partner, Emilia Burjosa Rivera, said when they first came to survey the damage a day after the storm subsided, they found their fridge overturned by floodwaters and all of their belongings ruined, including photographs of her children as babies.

“It was horrible, I burst out crying,” Burjosa Rivera, 45, said in Spanish. “Now I’m tolerating it and assimilating it, but it’s not easy.”

Inside their home, the mud was about an inch thick on the floor. A mattress lay in the front room. The invasion of mud and water in her children’s room, where a “Do Not Enter” sign was plastered on the door, had left a jumble of clothes and debris dumped on bunk beds. Just a few days ago, there was still water in the house.

They are trying to salvage what they can and have been living with Burjosa Rivera’s mother in a home for the elderly in another part of Arecibo.

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