SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—On this American island still suffering terribly from mighty Hurricane Maria’s devastating impact, the feeling of despair and anxiety is now mixed with fear at night, when looters rule the streets.
Hector Velez owns one of the seven gas station near San German, a municipality on the southwest part of the island. Half of the rooftop of his gas station was stripped away by Hurricane Maria but the storm didn’t cause most of damage he now has to deal with.
“Why would they do that to me? Everyone knows me around here. I’ve always been nice to my clients,” Velez told The Daily Beast as he looked at shattered windows and emptied food racks.
After seeing all the damage his station suffered from looters, Velez decided not to open, punishing everyone in the community, many of whom were looking desperately for gas.
“It breaks my heart, but I need to be calm about this. I can’t believe how people are so harsh. Is this nobody’s land now?” Velez wondered, and estimated that he will have to invest about $17,000 to reopen.
Another business owner who is fed up with the authorities, or the lack of them, is Marcelo Feliciano, who witnessed the looting of his restaurant.
“Since the [CCTV] cameras are not working, I come by often, and yesterday I caught them,” Feliciano said.
Incidents like these are common in the capital, where men carrying bats and clubs have been seen on the streets during curfew hours. The mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulin Cruz, told WAPA Radio, “We highly advise everyone not to be on the streets at night. It is not safe,” warning that reports of looting are on the rise.
“That is definitely something I don’t want to hear. Especially when the only lighting I have during the night is candlelight,” said Bianca Nevarez, who lives in Bayamon, where the scenario is much more tense since 13 prisoners escaped while they were being transferred to another criminal facility after the Category 5 storm caused severe damage in the prison. “We have captured eight of them, so five are still on the loose,” Ramon Rosario, secretary of Public Affairs of La Fortaleza told The Daily Beast.
Rosario added that 21 arrests have been made across the metropolitan area as a result of those breaking the curfew, which now runs from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. No expiration date has been set.
“We will leave it active until the emergency period that we are suffering settles,” said Governor Ricardo Rosselló, noting that anyone caught on the streets during curfew hours will face up to six months in prison.
Hurricane Maria snatched away all the green from Puerto Rico’s mountains and it’s projected to do the same with the faith and hopes of those who lived through it. Five days have passed, now, since the unprecedented storm caused mayhem in “La Isla del Encanto.”
Last night, Ricardo Rossello, the governor of the Puerto Rico, called on the Pentagon to provide more help. He said there were helicopters and planes nearby that they need to be allowed to use. “Whatever relief package we have, whatever impact we have, we are U.S. citizens," Rossello told Politico. "We shouldn’t be the lesser for it."
Puerto Rico's non-voting member of Congress, Jennifer Gonzalez, said there are 7,000 federal government officials on the island. FEMA administrator Brock Long is scheduled to visit on Monday and the agency said it has already provided more than 1 million meals and liters of water, respectively. Two Marine Corps ships that were deployed to Houston and Florida for hurricane relief are also assisting.
Before having their power or running water restored, the vast majority of the 3.4 million residents are asking authorities to prioritize the re-establishment of the communications system.
“Mom, can you hear me?… It’s me Mom, it’s Laura. I’m fine, I made it…” a young woman shouted as she knelt on the ground, listening to the voice of her mother across the line after her family was torn apart, virtually, by the catastrophic Category 5 storm.
This is a culture that has gotten used to being connected—with others on the island and off of it. The internet is ubiquitous, cellphones even more so. And then, suddenly, none of that worked. The storm came, and took with it our contacts in the outside world, and the lack of communication creates a post-apocalyptic feeling on the streets.
In the midst of flooded highways covered with fallen trees, groups of people—sometimes hundreds of them—stop and gather around, holding up their phones to an antenna in hopes of making contact with their loved ones.
The Daily Beast drove through the northern part of the island and found that Dorado, Bayamón, Cataño, Guaynabo, San Juan, and Carolina are the only cities that have reception out of the 78 municipalities.
In the first days after the storm a curfew was in effect from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., but that didn’t stop people from making a four-hour drive from the southern region of the island up to the north to try to make a call. (It doesn’t help that cops wasted their time getting people off the highways during curfew instead of patrolling the streets where looting was under way.)
With 100 percent of the power grid in ruins, landline phones do not work and the main TV stations have gone off the air. The Department of Energy said it is assisting Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to restore power.
For those living abroad the anxiety is as bad, if not worse. Family members in the diaspora attempt to make contact with locals via WAPA Radio, the only station that is transmitting at full strength.
“I can’t listen to the radio anymore. It reminds me a lot of when 9/11 occurred in New York and people were asking for a trace of their families,” said one listener, Jonathan Alvarez, as a woman called with a long list of names of people who she hoped would be alive.
As of Saturday, the death toll rose from 7 to 9 fatalities linked directly with Maria, Rosselló confirmed. Among them, two sisters swallowed by water and muck in their backyard in Utuado.
The number is still on the rise. According to the National Weather Service some areas of Puerto Rico received more than 38 inches of rain by Saturday, and the deluge went on, producing harsh conditions and complicating rescue work.
Many prayers were focused on Quebradillas, a coastal municipality whose almost 90-year-old river dam started to crack, provoking the evacuation of 80,000 people who never knew their lives were in danger.
Governor Rosselló had warned early on there might be a blackout for four days. But on the fifth day little had improved.
Truth is, not even the governor has enough signal, making the flow of information with the media scarce. He has not been able to establish communication with all the municipalities.
“To all the mayors, if you are hearing this, please do the best you can to come and see us in the Puerto Rico Convention Center where we have set up an emergency command station,” Rosselló urged via WAPA radio.
“We’ve got a long way to go in terms of getting communication. We were just trying to recover from Irma, now we have to start over and this time is a lot worse,” Sandra Torres, president of the Telecommunications Regulatory Board, said during a news conference. Torres estimated that 85 percent of the system was down. “Since the antennas rely on electricity, we have to wait for a ship from the U.S. to bring us batteries to get them back up,” she said.
Fuel, and a plate of hot food, are also considered rare commodities. As the sun rises, thousands rush to the streets willing to make a line of up to four hours for a bucket of gasoline.
“Tensions are really bad in gas stations. We have reports of fighting and arrests have already been made,” Rosario told WAPA. He also confirmed that reports of looting were on the rise.
Some fast food restaurants are beginning to reopen. People waiting an hour for a hot plate has become a norm.