(SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico) — When Hurricane Irma wreaked havoc upon Puerto Rico Wednesday night, the region and its people were already reeling from an economic crisis and infrastructure issues.
The news of widespread blackouts, a water crisis and the storm-related death toll was all the more devastating for the island.
And as Puerto Ricans face a certain slog to rebuild from Hurricane Irma, they also wait to see if another growing hurricane will strike.
“The next worry is the potential of this other Hurricane, Jose,” Cristina Salvesen, a dive instructor who weathered Irma with her two roommates in their concrete home in Vieques, told ABC News. “We’re keeping an eye on that and hope it doesn’t turn and hit us.”
Irma, a massive Category 5 storm, has socked the Caribbean, whipping up gusts of up to 185 mph and drenching many islands, including the U.S. and British Virgin Islands. The storm is poised to lower the boom again as it heads toward the Dominican Republic and Haiti.
While its fury has steered away from Puerto Rico’s main island, two of its smaller, less-populated islands to the northeast — Vieques and Culebra — were hit hard, according to official government assessments.
A woman died in her home after “making contact with an electric wall socket,” a 79-year-old “bedridden” woman in Manatí on her way to a shelter died after she was taken to a hospital and a man died after suffering a car accident in the municipality of Canóvanas while attempting to drive during the poor weather conditions, the Puerto Rico Governor’s Office said in a statement.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello said at a press conference Thursday that one million customers, representing 17 percent of the commonwealth, were without power. An estimated 50,000 people living in the U.S. territory don’t have access to safe water.
The governor has received a confirmation by the Defense Department to mobilize the Army National Guard come aid in the recovery. Shuttered government offices and schools are planned to reopen on Sept. 11.
Rossello asked for the Puerto Rican people to dig in for a long fight, where power problems could dog the region for up to four to six months.
“Now we have to get up and work harder than before,” he said.
Hours later, the governor retweeted footage of men who appeared to be power crews tending to damaged power lines.
— AEE (@AEEONLINE) September 7, 2017
Riding out Irma
Several hours before Hurricane Irma arrived to Vieques, dive instructor Salvesen, 33, who rode out the storm with her two roommates, said power went out.
“We’ve been without power since 8 a.m. [Wednesday] before the storm hit,” she said. “Once the wind started to pick up they turned off the power off,” she said.
Since her home faces the ocean, she could see lines of rising, “pretty nasty” 10-foot swells pummeling the shoreline. She thought about how Irma might eradicate the sea turtles.
“The sea turtles are in the middle of nesting season, and most of our beaches that have the nests were probably swallowed up by that 10 foot-plus swells,” she said.
While crabs are normally the main predator for these nascent creatures, this time it’s Mother Nature playing the villain.
“I’m concerned about the turtle babies and the nests washed washing away,” Salvesen lamented.
As the storm raged outside at around 5 p.m., she and her roommates fixed a pasta dinner on a gas stove, lit only by a kerosene lamp.
The following day, Salvesen said she ventured out in her car and the roads were strewn with timbered trees.
Many in her “close community” of Vieques were manually clearing a path, she said.
“Most people that I’ve seen were in good spirits and going out there to cut them with machetes,” Salvesen said.
When she stopped by a popular snorkeling spot near a jetty, she said it was completely swallowed by the ocean.
Salvesen saw seaweed jammed against signs staked well over ten feet above sea level.
But yesterday, she said, “it was all under water.”
Powerful when powerless
Meanwhile, in Guyanabo, attorney and mother Myriam Ocasio, her husband Fernando Zambrana and their two-year-old son Fernando lost power in the afternoon.
“Our electrical system was already in a dire situation, so power was out in my house before the hurricane began,” she said. “By 2 p.m. the power was gone.”
Trying to find a generator was hopeless, she said because she “didn’t have a chance to get in the long lines.”
When Irma struck in the early evening she and her husband tried to calm her toddler son’s nerves by turning the scary situation into a fun time.
“I just tried to explain to him that we are going to hear loud noises and a lot of rain and make it fun,” she said, noting how they played with the flashlights when lights went out. “We’re used to hurricanes because most of us have grown used to them, of course not to this magnitude.”
Since the storm, Ocasio, 34, has turned her food blog PuertRicoEats into a beacon for locals who cannot cook and need to find food.
“I’m using the blog right now to inform people where they can go to eat,” she said. “Now it’s just taken a turn and it’s a public service.”
While the capital San Juan may not have been in the eye of Irma, already stretched resources and services are still maxed out.
ABC News reporters encountered two college students — one from the U.S. and another from Canada — in the city, who had been stranded in St. Thomas during the throes of Irma. They were flown to safety in San Juan by a U.S. Coast Guard chopper.
One of the young women suffered a bad fall and her face was bloodied. They were unable to reach a hospital on St. Thomas because of damaged roads and spent the night in an ambulance, she said, and boarded a Coast Guard helicopter the next day that transported them to San Juan.
The next day, when they tried to see a doctor, they said they were initially turned away. Dozens of Good Samaritans were attempting to bring food to storm victims, they said.
Money woes and statehood dreams before Irma
Compounding Irma’s impact in Puerto Rico is the fact that the economy was already anemic.
The island’s territory, which in June voted overwhelmingly to become the 51st U.S. state, has been in a 10-year economic recession based largely on heavy borrowing and eliminating tax incentives, and according to the Associated Press.
The government instituted furloughs and there’s been a small diaspora of a half-million Puerto Ricans to flee to the U.S. mainland in the past decade.
The storm is further raising the issues of the current economic struggles.
“I think people were already aware of how bad the economy was, but this put the fear of god in them,” Ocasio said. “We are in a dire situation.”
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