As Puerto Rico Struggles to Recover from Maria, Burst Dam Brings More Suffering

September 25, 2017

In San Juan, it was as if Hurricane Maria left everyone to fend for themselves.

Two days after Maria hit, electricity and mobile phone service was nonexistent in the capital and across most of Puerto Rico, which was already buckling under the financial fallout from the nation’s largest municipal insolvency. On Friday, San Juan’s main arteries were cut off by waist-high pools of filthy water and dangerous piles of debris. Desperate motorists searched for dry stretches of asphalt, only to be forced to turn around and drive the wrong way up highway ramps.

In Isabela, on the northwestern tip of the U.S. commonwealth, a dam failed, causing flash flooding downstream, the National Weather Service reported via Twitter. Authorities scrambled to evacuate thousands of residents. Governor Ricardo Rossello said all available resources were being dispatched to the communities near the Guajataca River.

“The citizens of Isabela and Quebradillas, if you’re watching, if you’re listening, please evacuate for your own safety,” Rossello told reporters in San Juan. “We understand that there is a structural failure” to the dam.

There were no immediate reports of casualties from the area around the dam. But Maria’s death toll across the Caribbean climbed to at least 27 on Friday, including six in Puerto Rico, according to the Associated Press.

The burst dam was another reminder that Maria’s costs, both human and financial, have only begun to come into view. This much is certain: the U.S. territory, bankrupted by runaway debt, now confronts an even deeper economic crisis.

Four months after the island’s government sought protection from creditors, the odds of a speedy resolution to its wealth of problems now appear to be dimming. President Donald Trump said Thursday he plans to visit the island and declared Puerto Rico a disaster zone, which helps clear the way for federal assistance.

In San Juan, many people tried to return to their homes, wondering what was left. Hermelinda Lopez, a 68-year-old retiree, made it back to her house of 20 years by catching a ride in a sport-utility vehicle through knee-high waters. Then she caught a glimpse of shattered windows and damaged walls.

“I feel extremely nervous,” she said, trying to get inside her waterfront condo. “I don’t know what has happened inside my home — all of my things, many memories.”

In the historic Old San Juan area, a normally bustling tourist center, cobbled street were deserted as a curfew approached. In the city’s financial center, Hato Rey, debris blocked streets and stoplights were toppled.

This is the legacy of Puerto Rico’s worst storm in nearly a century. Hurricane Maria’s maximum sustained winds of 155 mph and torrential rain compounded the destruction that another hurricane, Irma, left just two weeks ago.

For those who made it to San Juan’s airport, which restarted commercial service Friday, getting out could be a challenge. At one open terminal, the leaking ceiling created huge puddles on the floor.

And forget about business. ATM screens were black, relegating commerce to cash. People milled about everywhere, as if everyone except emergency personnel were out of work. With many schools badly damaged and roads impassable, parents seemed resigned to their children spending weeks at home.

Maria made landfall in the southeastern part of the U.S. territory Wednesday. The storm may cause $45 billion of damage across the Caribbean, with at least $30 billion of that in Puerto Rico, said Chuck Watson, a disaster modeler at Enki Research in Savannah, Georgia.

The economic destruction seemed evident at every turn around San Juan, including tourism, one of Puerto Rico’s biggest industries. Crowds of people who could afford it sought a dry bed in any hotel with a generator. But few, if any, were taking people in, citing a lack of undamaged rooms. A worker at a boarded-up Hampton Inn claimed they were closed until 2018.

“This is going to take a long, long time to restore,” Jenny Sotomayor, a 65-year-old retiree, said as she walked along Isla Verde, home to several hotels that cater to the island’s tourism industry.

Topics USA

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