People in Puerto Rico cluster along roadways to bathe and do laundry using water sent down from higher elevations in PVC pipes. Some collect water to take home, for flushing toilets and cleaning. Photo: Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo / The New York Times

By Caitlin Dickerson
16 October 2017

CHARCO ABAJO, Utuado, P.R. (The New York Times) – When Hurricane Maria swept away the bridge that led in and out of Charco Abajo, a remote village in the mountainous inland of Puerto Rico, Carlos Ocasio and Pablo Perez Medina decided that they could not wait for help to arrive.

When the wind and rain calmed, the welder and the retired handyman climbed off the edge of the bridge and jumped down onto a pile of debris. They crossed the Vivi River, whose waters had risen to their chests, and walked several miles to a hardware store, where they bought a cable, a metal harness and wheels.

They built a pulley that now spans the gap where the bridge once was, and attached a shopping cart, after removing its legs and wheels, which they have been using to transfer food, water and supplies across the divide. Though aid groups began to arrive a week later, the two men, both 60 years old, raised a sign to describe how it felt in Charco Abajo immediately after the storm. It reads “Campamento de los Olvidados,” Spanish for “Camp of the Forgotten.”

Nearly a month after Maria devastated this island commonwealth, life remains a struggle. Even as some assistance has arrived, residents have learned to improvise without power or running water, especially those who live in remote areas, who waited the longest for help from emergency responders and for whom recovery is the farthest off.

The winding roads that once paved a lush, tree-lined route from San Juan, the capital, to Utuado now appear post-apocalyptic. Leafless, branchless trees, denuded by Maria’s winds, are tangled around one another and spill out into the highway. Rock formations, once covered with vegetation, have been stripped bare. Permanently windblown palm trees look like half-shaven heads. And houses that were once tucked neatly into the hills are now roofless, irreparably damaged wrecks sliding down the sides of them.

All that remains of the many wooden, one-room houses that once dotted the hills here are tall and narrow three-sided concrete structures that were built to protect bathroom plumbing, and which are now surrounded by piles of rubble.

Examples of the creativity of people living in the mountains are on display across the countryside. All day and night, people who live in the mountains cluster along roadways to bathe and do laundry in places where locals have redirected water from higher up that spews out of PVC pipes. They fill empty bottles and buckets, which they use to clean their homes and flush toilets.

But for some, the situation is more fragile than it is for others.

More than 100 bridges in Puerto Rico were damaged by Maria and 18 have been closed indefinitely, according to Ivonne Rosario, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s transportation department. An unknown number collapsed during the storm, leaving entire communities like Charco Abajo stranded. [more]

Stranded by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans get creative to survive

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