HUNGRY FOR HOPE

Starving Puerto Rican Towns Sharing Food, Eating Plants, and Waiting for FEMA

One woman was left with a can of tuna, another family ate from their garden. One mayor says 5,000 residents face starvation.

UTUADO, Puerto Rico—Hunger was never in Minelba Irizarry’s house, but Monday the only thing left in her kitchen pantry was two bottles of water and a can of tuna.

Utuado is a small town located in the central mountainous region of Puerto Rico where roads have been nearly impassable since Hurricane Maria struck three weeks ago. Even with the help of the Armed Forces, delivering food and other basic necessities has been almost impossible.

“It's been hard, really hard to find food these days,” Irizarry said. “People are suffering a lot and I have lost all the food I saved for two weeks,” she said while washing the dishes and keeping a close eye outside her window to see if FEMA would bring another round of fruits, bottled water, and noodle soup packets.

“FEMA should come anytime now,” Irizarry told Sebastian, her 9-year-old grandchild that stood on the porch as if a starter pistol was about to go off, ready to race to a truck and beat the hunger.

Fifteen minutes later, a white pickup truck drove down the street and Sebastian rushed out to compete with another dozen of people who tried to carry as many supplies as their hands could hold.

There wasn’t enough food to go around. Those who came late left empty handed.

“I have lost all the food I saved for two weeks.”
— Minelba Izirarry

In Yabucoa, east of San Juan, the mayor says his residents are starving.

“There are people who are suffering from hunger in my town and I have ran out of supplies,” said Rafael Surillo, estimating 5,000 face starvation.

“I received food yesterday but it only lasted for few hours. I don't know how the central government is handling the food distribution, but they got it mixed up,” he said while driving around town to deliver water.

Hunger was evident on the road with Surillo. In one home the only meal a family had to eat for the next days were yuca and plantains grown in her backyard.

“We are lucky because we harvest our own food, but it has come to a point where we are reducing the portion sizes significantly. I can’t imagine people who rely on supermarkets,” said Dailin Rosado, mother of three children.

Not  everyone has a field to grow crops. Carlos Flores, the secretary of Puerto Rico's secretary of the Department of Agriculture told The Daily Beast that hurricane Maria caused $1.8 billion in losses to the farmers, leaving the island to rely almost entirely on imported food.

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“The import of food is currently at 95 percent on and it will remain that way for the next six months,” Flores said, adding food usually takes a week to arrive since it is delivered by sea.

Hungry locals who have visited groceries are limited to how much they can buy and there has been a surge of prices.

“It's been brutal. We have no power, no water and no money,” said Justina Rivera, 77, eating cereal a neighbor gave her. “This was my breakfast and now lunch.”

There have also been reports of price gouging by businesses. Some stores were selling six pack of water bottles for $8. “We are aware of the price surge and have already sued over 100 stores that have spiked up their prices,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello said Monday. Rossello also told The Daily Beast that he asked the Department of Justice to investigate food distribution and price gouging.

Help has come to Arecibo thanks to the National Guard. Sister Claribel Camacho, director of Hogar La Milagrosa, home to 14 girls that have been taken out of their homes because of abuse, said they got 54 cases of water and 96 cases of meals ready to eat, and 12 boxes of medicine.

“We have waited so long for this,” Camacho said.