By Samantha Schmidt and Daniel Cassady
23 September 2017

SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO (The Washington Post) – In the northern Puerto Rican town of Vega Baja, the floodwaters reached more than 10 feet. Stranded residents screamed “save me, save me,” using the lights in their cellphones to help rescue teams find them in the darkness, the town’s mayor said.

In Loiza, a north coastal town that already had been ravaged by Hurricane Irma, 90 percent of homes — 3,000 — were destroyed by Hurricane Maria just days later. In communities across the island, bridges collapsed and highways were severely damaged, isolating many residents. In Rio Grande, officials had yet to access a number of families stuck in their homes, three days after the powerful storm made landfall.

When speaking about his town’s destruction, Ramon Hernandez Torres, mayor of the southern city of Juana Diaz, took a long pause, his voice catching and his eyes filling with tears.

“It’s a total disaster,” he said.

Hurricane Maria pounded the entire island of Puerto Rico on Wednesday, but the scope of the damage had been speculative and unclear since, in large part because towns across the U.S. territory have been completely off the grid. Though images from the air showed incredible destruction, mayors were unable to reach central government for leadership and help because communication was impossible. No telephones, cellphones, or Internet. No power. No passage through roads that had been washed away or blocked with trees and power lines.

But on Saturday, for the first time in days, mayors and representatives from more than 50 municipalities across Puerto Rico met with government officials at the emergency operations command center here in the island’s capital city. Many of the mayors learned about the meeting through media reports over satellite radio the night before. One mayor said his staff was informed after a man ran to his offices with a note telling him to make his way to San Juan.

Approximately 20 other mayors across the island still have not been able to make contact with government officials, leaving major gaps in the broader understanding of the damage Maria left behind.

The mayors greeted each other with hugs and tears, and they pleaded with their governor for some of the things their communities need most: drinking water, prescription drugs, gasoline, oxygen tanks and satellite phones. The entire population remains without electricity. Families everywhere are unable to buy food or medical treatment. Roads remain waterlogged, and looting has begun to take place at night.

Aerial view of the Ocean Park community in San Juan, Puerto Rico, which was underwater on Friday, 23 September 2017, after Hurricane Maria. Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / The Washington Post

“There is horror in the streets,” San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said in a raw, emotional interview with The Washington Post. “People are actually becoming prisoners in their own homes.”

“Whenever I walk through San Juan,” Cruz said, she sees the “sheer pain in people’s eyes. … They’re kind of glazed, not because of what has happened but because of the difficulty of what will come,” she said. “I know we’re not going to get to everybody in time. … Two days ago I said I was concerned about that. Now I know we won’t get to everybody in time.” [more]

‘If anyone can hear us … help.’ Puerto Rico’s mayors describe widespread devastation from Hurricane Maria

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