‘This city has been ignored’: Yabucoa, ground zero for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, still reeling

‘This city has been ignored’: Yabucoa, ground zero for Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, still reeling

(March 11, 2018 – USA Today – by Rick Jervis) – YABUCOA, Puerto Rico – It has been nearly six months since Hurricane Maria roared ashore in this seaside community, considered ground zero for the storm. But in many corners of Yabucoa, it looks as if the storm hit just yesterday.

The baseball stadium, once the epicenter of activity in this city of 37,000, sits abandoned, its overhead steel beams still mangled like twigs. Homes are missing walls and roofs and about two-thirds of the municipality is still without power. The mayor and other local officials work out of a private home because City Hall is battered and boarded up.

“The eye of Maria passed right over Yabucoa,” said Edgar Casanova, federal affairs director for Yabucoa. “Yet, this city has been ignored.”

Maria entered Puerto Rico here at dawn on Sept. 20 with sustained 155-mph winds and continued across the island in its destructive, deadly march. The Category 4 storm killed more than 60 people, although some unofficial estimates have the death toll as high as 1,000, destroyed homes and knocked out power to most of the island.

Yabucoa bore the  brunt of the storm before it weakened over Puerto Rico’s mountainous terrain. Wind gusts here weren’t accurately measured because the storm destroyed local radar stations, but at least three tornadoes were observed around Yabucoa, said Gabriel Lojero, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in San Juan.

“That’s where it was the strongest,” Lojero said. “The southeast portion was where the most severe damage occurred due to winds.”

Concrete homes that withstood previous hurricanes were pummeled and City Hall was destroyed. After the storm, the hospital remained open using an old generator, but only from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. since city officials feared the generator would break from overuse.

 One evening last year, a woman showed up after hours. With the hospital closed, she died of a heart attack in the parking lot while awaiting an ambulance from nearby Humacao, Casanova said.

FEMA has since shipped in more generators and the hospital resumed its 24-hour status, Casanova said. But local officials have had to supply 19 generators on their own to keep the local water plant running, he said.

The lack of state and federal attention in Yabucoa has been painful, he said: “Everyone’s suffering.”

Most painful has been the pace of power restoration. Irma Torres, 75, washes her clothes by hand and hangs them on a line outside her small home on a cliff overlooking the Caribbean Sea. Maria tore off part of her roof and pushed the sea right up to her kitchen window.

FEMA awarded Torres $8,100 to replace furniture and other lost items. But the long, dark nights have been wearing on her, she said. At night, with a few solar-powered lamps scattered throughout the home, she sits in the dark with her husband, Jose Morales, who is blind, and thinks about the sea.

“I’m not well. I’m nervous,” Torres said. “I don’t sleep at night. I think too much. I’m scared that something else happens we don’t expect and I end up drowned at sea.”

Despite nearly 4,000 utility workers across the island working to repair the grid, remote areas like Yabucoa remain a challenge, said Col. Jason Kirk, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Task Force Power Restoration Commander.

About 150,000 customers remain without power across the island, down from more than 1.4 million immediately after the storm, he said. Challenges have included gaining access to remote areas that were blocked by storm debris, patching up damaged and outdated equipment and coordinating the efforts of five different entities involved in power restoration, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority and multiple crews from the mainland, Kirk said.

“This is of a magnitude beyond anything that’s been undertaken in the United States,” he said.

Kirk said he expects that close to 95% of the island will have power restored by the end of the month, but there still may be pockets where additional work is needed.

Up the mountain from Torres, Rafael Martinez, 59, spends long, dark nights in his brother’s storm-battered home. The storm peeled back a chunk of the home’s concrete-and-rebar-reinforced garage roof and punched holes in the roof over the kitchen and bathroom.

Water streams in during heavy rains, and Martinez is constantly pushing water out of the home with a mop. He eats meals at the home of a nearby relative, who has a gas stove, then returns at dusk to listen to the radio and fall asleep soon after nightfall.

The family has been denied federal assistance because they’re struggling to prove ownership of the home, an inheritance from their father.

Martinez said he occasionally sees crews and bucket trucks working on power lines at the base of the mountain but realizes it’ll be a while before they make their way up to him.

“Six months is a long time,” he said. “And who knows how much longer still.”