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9.21.17 2:10 PM ET
LA PERLA, SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Anyone who has watched the video of “Despacito,” the most-streamed song of all time, has seen the life, the color, the passion of La Perla, the San Juan neighborhood where it was filmed.
From the waves crashing across sun-drenched rocks to the pastel alleys, the laughing intimacy of the barbershop and the sensational dancing—those who have watched the video on YouTube alone 3.7 billion (with a B) times have a pretty good idea what this place looked like and felt like—until Hurricane Maria blasted through here on Wednesday.
With the whole island blacked out, 3.4 million slept in darkness, and only when the curfew lifted at six in the morning on Thursday, and the flooding of the city streets began to subside, were reporters able to make it to this community between the battlements of Old San Juan and the jagged rocks of the shore.
Maria showed no mercy. The devastation is almost total. Trees were uprooted, the roofs ripped off houses, walls splintered, some of the graffiti murals shattered.
"The Puerto Rico and the San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there," San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told NBC News. And few places in the country—at least few that we know of so far—could make that point more vividly than La Perla.
Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters
As scores of people searched through the wreckage, a handful of journalists, including Pablo Venes reporting for The Daily Beast, spread out through the settlement talking to survivors, but communications were constantly interrupted by the lack of electricity, dying batteries, toppled cell phone towers, and badly disrupted internet communications.
Venes, in a very brief phone conversation, reported that the neighborhood was “destroyed.”
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Middle East bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed a retired construction worker named Diego Rivera who had been blocked inside his house by a fallen tree and had to ride out the storm for 10 hours behind his hurricane shutters.
There’s a line in “Despacito” where Luis Fonsi sings about making love on the beach in Puerto Rico “until the waves scream, ‘Oh Lord!’” (“Hasta que las olas griten ‘Ay Bendito!’”) But as the waves and wind screamed on Wednesday it was the people who were crying and praying.
As Pablo Venes reported on Wednesday evening just before the curfew, anxiety and despair had quickly become a norm among Puerto Ricans as the catastrophic winds of Hurricane Maria left 100 per cent of the island without power and largely incommunicacado.
"I haven't heard from my parents since yesterday. This has gotten out of control. I don't know what to think," Yaliset Rivera told The Daily Beast, sobbing and holding up her cell phone searching for signal outside her home in Guaynabo, a municipality located 10 minutes from San Juan, one the few places with any reception at all.
"I should have spent the night with them. Now I have nowhere to go because the roads are flooded.”
Those who manage to receive signals try to stay away from social media, but inevitably watched the images that came across. In the Roberto Clemente Stadium, a refuge, people hugged and comforted each other as videos of Maria's destruction surfaced .
"This is near-apocalyptic. I find it hard to believe that this video was taken in my community," Luis Rojas tole The Daily Beast.
According to officials, more than 11,000 people and 580 pets were in shelters. There initially were not reports of deaths. But in a population of more than three million, that is very few, and there are mounting concerns people injured or killed in outlying communities may go unreported or undiscovered for some time.
Even when the winds subsided the rivers were bursting over their banks and flash floods blocked roads.
"Eighty percent of the homes in my neighborhood known as Juana Matos were completely destroyed," Felix Delgado, mayor of the city of Catano on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, told WAPA Television.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló urged President Donald Trump to declare the whole island of Puerto Rico a disaster zone. Even as Hurricane Maria made its way across the U.S. commonwealth, Trump had already declared disaster zones in 10 municipalities that had previously suffered devastation from Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile, some of the most famous musicians from Puerto Rico, but far from the howling winds, took to social media. “I cannot sleep,” Ricky Martin wrote in Spanish on Twitter. “My mind is in Puerto Rico with my people. We are strong. We will rebuild. United.”
Luis Fonsi, who sang “Despacito” with Daddy Yankee, and remixed it with Justin Bieber, took to Instagram: “It’s horrible what’s happening right now on the island,” he wrote in Spanish on Wednesday. “It’s very sad to read the messages from my family. There is a lot of work to do …,” he wrote beside a picture of the green island in the clear blue sea with the legends: #PrayForPuertoRico and, in Spanish, “God bless my land.”
Pablo Venes reported from Puerto Rico; Christopher Dickey reported from France.
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