Satellite view of outdoor lighting conditions in Caguas, Puerto Rico, before Hurricane Maria struck, on 28 September 2017, and on 8 October 2017. Nighttime light data from NASA Suomi NPP — VIIRS. Photo: NASA

By Manuel Roig-Franzia and Arelis R. Hernández
11 October 2017

YABUCOA, PUERTO RICO (The Washington Post) – Late each night, Rafael Surillo Ruiz, the mayor of a town with one of Puerto Rico’s most critical ports, drives for miles on darkened roads, easing around downed power lines and crumpled tree branches — to check his email.

At the wheel of his “guagua”— local slang for an SUV — he sometimes finds a spotty cellphone signal on a highway overpass, and there he sits, often for hours, scrolling through messages. During the day, with no working landline and no Internet access, he operates more like a 19th-century mayor of Yabucoa, orchestrating the city’s business in an information vacuum, dispatching notes scrawled on slips of paper — about everything from balky generators to misdirected water deliveries — that he hands to runners.

On the other side of the mayor’s favorite overpass spot, one of the generators at the area’s biggest hospital has collapsed from exhaustion, and the frazzled staff has stopped admitting new patients. Deeper into the island’s mountainous interior, thirsty Puerto Ricans draw drinking water from the mud-caked crevasses of roadside rock formations and bathe in creeks too small to have names.

“We feel completely abandoned here,” Surillo Ruiz said with a heavy sigh.

It has been three weeks since Hurricane Maria savaged Puerto Rico, and life in the capital city of San Juan inches toward something that remotely resembles a new, uncomfortable form of normalcy. Families once again loll on the shaded steps of the Mercado de Santurce traditional market on a Sunday afternoon, and a smattering of restaurants and stores open their doors along sidewalks still thick with debris and tangled power lines.

But much of the rest of the island lies in the chokehold of a turgid, frustrating and perilous slog toward recovery.

When night comes, the vast majority of this 100-mile long, 35-mile wide island plunges into profound darkness, exposing the impotence of a long-troubled power grid that was tattered by Maria’s winds and rains. Eighty-four percent of the island is still without power, according to the governor’s office, and local officials in many areas are steeling themselves — with a sense of anger and dread — for six months or more without electricity.

Roughly half of Puerto Ricans have no working cellphone service, creating islands of isolation within the island, cutting off hundreds of thousands of people in regions outside the largest metropolitan areas from regular contact with their families, aid groups, medical care and the central government. Christine Enid Nieves Rodriguez, who has set up a community kitchen near the southeastern city of Humacao, has dubbed the new reality Puerto Rico’s “dystopian future.” [more]

Three weeks since Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico still dark, dry, frustrated

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