For the second time in five years, a major hurricane hit the island of Puerto Rico this week when Hurricane Fiona devastated areas that had only recently been rebuilt and left 80% of homes and businesses in the dark, and many without running water.
This happened as the island was still rebuilding after the deadliest natural disaster in 100 years on the island, Hurricane Maria, which killed about 3,000 people in 2017 and destroyed the island's electrical system.
President Joe Biden approved a major disaster declaration for the island as it begins its very slow recovery from the damage inflicted by Fiona, which included landslides and flooding that washed away houses and destroyed critical infrastructure like bridges. The declaration will help people access emergency individual and public assistance for residents affected by the storm.
Several residents were able to communicate with USA TODAY Opinion about how they are doing, and what they need in the coming days, weeks and months.
'After Hurricane Maria, I left Puerto Rico. I guess I just couldn't handle one more.'
Elba Santos is the mother of Angie Noemí González Santos, who was one of USA TODAY’s Women of the Year for 2022. Elba took her three grandchildren, Angie's kids, to live with her in Connecticut after Angie was murdered by her partner, Roberto Felix Diaz, in January 2021. Felix Diaz eventually confessed to her murder and led police to where he had thrown the body in a ravine after strangling her to death.
When we reached out to Elba to see if she could help us get in touch with family on the island, she told us that she and her three grandkids, Angie's kids, had been saving up to go visit Angie's grave in Puerto Rico. The whole family had planned to chip in a little for the four plane tickets. But now that won't be possible. Because of the devastation on the island, the family will have to use any resources they have to fix their homes and get through the difficult months ahead of them. Elba isn't able to afford the tickets on her own because of the meager wages she makes with her small catering and pastry business.
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It's a reminder that the devastation doesn't just affect people now, it also affects plans they had for the future.
"After Hurricane Maria, I left Puerto Rico. I guess I just couldn't handle one more. Being in the states after Hurricane Fiona was kind of like reliving the same thing with the difference that this time I was the one trying to reach my family. It was scary because I was over here looking at videos and pictures people would take and post on Facebook. My family was scared and I was giving them updates about what was going on until, of course, they were out of cellphone batteries."
'We went almost five days without work. We still don't have water or electricity.'
Ivelisse Morales is Elba's 37-year-old cousin and the godmother of Roangelix (Angie's 15-year-old daughter). She wrote us using the messaging service WhatsApp, from the town of Barranquitas, where Elba is also from.
"I am really upset that I can't help my cousin, Elba, and even sadder because she (Roangelix) is my goddaughter and I can't fulfill her wishes (of coming back to see her mom's grave). We were committed, me, my husband, my siblings and my parents, to helping them but this situation with (Hurricane) Fiona is making it impossible.
"We went almost five days without work. We still don't have water or electricity, and we are spending a lot of money having to buy pre-prepared food, gas for the car and for the generator that we have to use. We thought we were going to give her a big surprise, but not being able to now is really sad."
'We cannot complain; we are the lucky ones.'
Cara Rosenthal is an attorney from Florida who has lived in Puerto Rico with her husband and her three children for more than five years. She is a legal consultant with a background in disaster response and recovery services, who also co-chairs the Lovely Little Einsteins Preschools located in San Juan and Vega Alta.
"Thankfully, we are fine. Our neighborhood fared well, with no big flooding or mudslides. We weathered the storm on generator power and luckily received water back from the municipality before our cisterns ran dry. Of course, we and several others who camped up with us had to conserve water usage for most of the week. But we absolutely cannot complain. There are many people who are still digging debris out of the way.
"My friend in Aguadilla is dealing with her mother’s flooded apartment and absolutely no water supply. Generators and cisterns are not the norm here; such luxuries are cost prohibitive for most residents. And so much of the island, particularly more rural areas, have really suffered. Even in the metro area where many have had power and water restored, the supply is inconsistent. Traffic lights are out in most areas. There are several road closures. Public schools remain closed and no date to reopen has been announced.
"This is a testament to the resilience of the people. The experience of having dealt with worse. And also the awareness that there is always someone who has it worse around here. The bottom line is that proper disaster response and recovery services and pre-event planning should have been implemented in such a way that a Category 1 storm should have had little lasting impact. Repairs to infrastructure that should have been made post-Maria remain incomplete and unattended. The people are left to suffer.
"Claro (one of the largest telecommunications services companies in Puerto Rico) just announced they will be shutting down cell towers. As an operator of a preschool here, communications have been spotty with staff as it is. Now, it will be worse. Local restaurants and businesses are struggling to keep food and perishables. Today, coffee shops that had been open and running solely on generators had to shut their doors.
"The roads in downtown are clear, dangers and hazards are limited. And yet, life cannot fully resume because necessities that better-modified infrastructure and pre-event (hurricane) planning could enable remain disabled. And still, everyone here in downtown will still all agree, we cannot complain; we are the lucky ones.”
'I still have a little food.'
70-year-old Marta Oritz is Elba's mother and lives in Barranquitas, the same town as her niece, Ivelisse.
"Well, everything that I had in my refrigerator and freezer was ruined. At least today the lights went back on. But we still don't have running water and my husband has to look for water to be able to clean and bathe. I still have a little food, not much since there was no electricity and we couldn't buy anything.
"It's hard (to find water to drink) because the water I use is rainwater. And because of my health condition, I can't carry water. I have to look for someone to carry water when my husband isn't home. In one leg I have had seven thromboses, I have arthritis, heart conditions and high blood pressure. I have been very anxious without electricity and without water."
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Carli Pierson, a New York licensed attorney, is an opinion writer with USA TODAY and a member of the USA TODAY Editorial Board. Follow her on Twitter: @CarliPiersonEsq
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Puerto Rico still mostly without electricity, water, after Fiona.