Trapped in the mountains, Puerto Ricans don't see help, or a way out

Washington Post

The day Hurricane Maria swiped through these mountains, the loose, wet dirt started to tumble and roll. It broke through the gate and through the door. It moved with ferocity and determination. It covered and filled everything.

"It looked like chocolate," said Ferdinand Ramos, a 63-year-old retired police officer whose home was directly in the path of massive landslides. The viscous mud crashed into his living room and kitchen, leaving a shin-high sludge.

Then, for almost nine days, Ramos and Norma Jimenez and members of their extended family were trapped on their property. No one came to help. Their home on the remote outskirts of this town 60 miles southwest of San Juan became a prison.

Even after they cleaned up inside, they had no way to leave — the mud, broken trees and chunks of debris had piled up outside. On Thursday — eight days after Maria had passed — a municipal utility worker cleared their street.

The family had almost run out of drinking water. Their isolated community of Caonillas had received no aid from the local or federal government, residents said. And they had no way to make the perilous trek to town; the winding roads had been obliterated and six of the family's cars had been stored in a garage that collapsed, crushing five of the vehicles and sending a sixth sliding down the mountainside and into a river.

So their daughter decided to try hitchhiking to town, desperate for bottled water for her month-old premature baby, Diana. As Jimenez, 62, waited for her daughter to return, she rocked 6-pound Diana in her arms, kissing the infant's forehead.

"She left this morning and still hasn't come back," Jimenez said.

An unknown number of families are still trapped in this part of Utuado, much of which is inaccessible nearly two weeks after the storm. From the air it is clear why: Mountaintop houses are surrounded by landslides, shredded structures are scattered down mountain slopes, and residents in some areas could be seen waving frantically for help as a helicopter passed.

Some of the homes are so remote and in such rugged terrain that getting to them requires extraordinary effort by helicopter or all-terrain vehicle. Pilots can't land in many nearby spots, making it unclear how authorities will reach people before the road infrastructure is repaired, which could take months. Residents are cut off from civilization, in some places at least a four-hour walk to the nearest store.

If aid and essential resources have been slow to reach Puerto Rico as a whole, getting help to isolated communities such as Utuado has been taking even longer. In these rural neighborhoods, tucked between mountain ranges and nestled along murky river beds, there is no telecommunication. Some residents recounted coming across Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, none carrying aid — only search-and-rescue teams seeking assessments.

These are the U.S. citizens for whom the mayor of San Juan has been crying, the people who say they have been forgotten and betrayed by their government in Washington. President Donald Trump has been declaring the federal government's role in Puerto Rico a success, but the people here see things very differently as they struggle to survive.

"In the towns I represent, there are people who have no water," said an emotional Sen. Nelson Cruz Santiago, who represents the island's southern region. "In Utuado, there is an area where the bridge was washed out and people are screaming from the other side for help. We can hear them, we can see them, but we can't help them."

At least three people died in mudslides in Utuado after Maria hit on Sept. 20. Many residents of the Caonillas neighborhood worry that if it rains again, the mountains and roads could buckle even more and come after them again.

Hector Ruiz, a utility worker hired by the Utuado municipality to clear its roads, is often the first outsider to encounter stranded families. With a large excavator on Friday, he cut through a mountain that had fallen over Highway 140.

He estimated that it will take at least one more month to make the entire highway in Utuado accessible. Ruiz said he came across a community of about 50 homes surrounded by a broken road on one side and a lake on the other.

"They can't get out either way," he said.

Ana Rosa Cruz escaped from one of those isolated communities on Friday and was walking through Caonillas with her nephew. She emerged from a road covered with tall mounds of broken trees and mud. She was out of breath and exasperated, her shins covered in scratches and gashes from the trek.

Cruz, 58, had walked for about two hours just to reach an accessible road. She was carrying empty gasoline containers and had about an hour to go to reach her destination. Since the storm, Cruz had been staying at her mother's home, which had been cut off by landslides. About nine families live there, but dozens more live even farther into the area, she said, miles away from anything.

Her mother, who has circulation problems, had enough fuel to use her generator for only two more days. She and her neighbors are forced to drink "water from the mountain or from the sky," she said.

"If she gets sick, we can't get her out," Cruz said of her mother, noting that she has seen helicopters but none of them have stopped. "We just wave goodbye, because there's nothing else we can do."

For Lisandra Torres, 43, who lives down the road from Jimenez and Ramos, her family's sedan is too low to the ground to make it up the muddy, rugged route — only a four-wheel-drive SUV would even have a chance. Torres walked for three hours to get to the center of Utuado on Thursday, seeking food and water. Her extended family is almost out of cash, so Torres tried to pick up their benefit checks from the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children — known as WIC — to purchase food and diapers for her grandchildren. But the WIC offices in their town were closed.

"If my babies get sick, I need to buy medication," said her daughter, Lizbeth Coraliza, 24.

A relative tried driving her sister, Angelica Coraliza, 26, to a minimart Friday in a different sedan. That car got stuck four times because of mud and road damage, and other drivers had to help. When they finally made it to the store, they found that it was sold out of water.

The Coralizas, like many other families in the Utuado area, can reach mountain springs. The cloudy water works for bathing and cleaning, but many said they wouldn't risk drinking it and definitely wouldn't give it to infants.

Jimenez's daughter might not have a choice.

The young mother has been struggling to breast-feed her newborn, probably because she is stressed and not getting enough to eat, Jimenez said. If they can't find bottled water, the family will have to start boiling water from the mountain to add to the baby's formula.

And the shortage of food is increasingly grim. Fuljencio Guzman and his 12-year-old son, Kelvin, lost their home, its wooden structure devastated. They are staying next door at Guzman's mother's house.

A pantry showed the family's only remaining nourishment: one can of beans, a few cans of tomatoes, saltine crackers and a few potatoes.

Even if they could reach the nearest grocery store, they have no cash to buy food, and no banks or cash machines in town are functioning. The Guzmans are limiting themselves to one meal a day, the father said. About 1 p.m. Friday, Kelvin ate some Chef Boyardee and rice — probably his only meal until Saturday.

Another resident, Migdalia Guzman, said she thinks the U.S. government doesn't realize there are communities up here, away from the cities and the television cameras.

"I think they think no one is here," Migdalia Guzman said. "But there are a lot of people here."

The storm loosened massive boulders in the mountain slope directly above Migdalia Guzman's home, where she lives with her children. She worries that additional rain could cause another catastrophe.

"We would all die," she said.

When she saw a local government official around town on Thursday, she was told that she should move to a different home because of the risk.

"We don't know where to go," she said.

On Friday afternoon, thunder clapped and dark clouds started rolling in over the mountains. It began to rain.

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