Hurricane Maria has moved on from Puerto Rico and was passing the Turks and Caicos Islands Friday morning as a Category 3 storm. But the devastation it caused will disrupt life on the island for the next six months, possibly longer, as the cash-strapped US territory struggles to rebuild its power grid and other crucial infrastructure that was completely destroyed by the storm, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal.
More than 95% of Puerto Rico’s wireless cell sites are currently out of service, according to the FCC. That is worse than the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out 56% of the island’s wireless network. Federal Emergency Management Agency Administrator Brock Long said restoring electricity to the island “could take weeks or many, many months.”
But the damage goes beyond cell towers. The most powerful hurricane to hit the US territory in almost a century hobbled the island's telecommunications system, destroyed its power grid and left communities facing widespread devastation. Puerto Rican authorities have warned the island’s 3.4 million residents that the island faces a difficult and expensive path to recovery from Maria. As the territory rushes to provide initial relief to its struggling citizens, Abner Gómez, executive director of the island’s emergency-management agency, said residents should be prepared to sustain themselves without aid for 72 hours, given the severity of the damage, the obstacles to reach people and how thinly stretched government resources are.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the agency is working with telecom providers to help get the communications networks back online. About a week after Irma hit, all but 6% of Puerto Rico’s cell sites were back online.
“Unfortunately, getting Puerto Rico’s communications networks up and running will be a challenging process, particularly given the power outages,” Mr. Pai said.
In an interview aired on the only radio station left that could still broadcast across the island, PR Gov. Ricardo Rosselló described the situation on the island as a crisis. Flooding and mudslides are a “giant problem” especially in rural, mountainous areas, he said, adding that damage to the island’s infrastructure was enormous and the cost to fix it will be “humongous.”
But in a heartening demonstration of resilience, residents of San Juan - the Puerto Rican capital, which experienced flooding throughout most of its downtown area, including its financial district - are banding together to compensate for the loss of essential services. Left to fend for themselves, San Juaneros took to the streets Thursday to "figure it out," the Miami Herald reports.
"No electricity? A mustachioed man in a white undershirt played traffic cop at a Santurce intersection. No ambulances? A daughter borrowed her brother’s SUV to race her frail mother from the La Perla neighborhood to a hospital. No debris removal? A physician and two neighbors borrowed garden tools to clear main Condado thoroughfares on their own.
With the enormity of Maria’s destruction still unknown even to the overwhelmed Puerto Rican government, the capital’s storm-dazed residents ventured outside Thursday, clogging roadways while trying to bring some semblance of order to their bruised city."
One doctor chided his neighbors for not pitching in, criticizing them for coping with their problems by "stress eating."
“Get busy!” implored Dr. Joseph Campos, a 52-year-old internist at the San Juan Veterans Administration hospital, tree-trimmer in hand as he and his neighbors cut down a tree partially blocking access to a highway. “Even if all you can do is pick up a single, little branch. I’m not eating, and I’m healthy, and I’m working. You don’t have to sit home stress-eating.”
Countless roads were impassable, some neighborhoods largely cut off because of debris or flooding. Most areas outside metro San Juan remained unreachable Thursday, both by road and by phone. Campos had no news of his parents in western Puerto Rico and how they’d fared after the Category 4 storm knocked out power to the entire island. Despite the loss of comunication tools, some damage reports from across the island have trickled out. Three sisters were confirmed dead in a building collapse in the mountainous central region of Utuado, according to local press accounts, while authorities declared small communities across the island as essentially destroyed. The official death toll in Puerto Rico has risen to 10. Across the Caribbean, Maria caused the deaths of 30 people.
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 4,000 people had been rescued by helicopter, trucks and boats by the National Guard, police, firefighters and municipal officials, according to the Herald.
Mr. Rosselló ordered an overnight curfew from Wednesday to Saturday and banned liquor sales. The move appears to be an effort to prevent looting and to maintain security. After Hurricane Irma, there were reports of incidents of looting in St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, some of the British Virgin Islands, and in St. Martin.
Fortunately for the cash-strapped island, Trump declared a major disaster in Puerto Rico on Wednesday and ordered federal assistance for 54 of the island’s 78 municipalities, including grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses. FEMA has hundreds of staff members in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands conducting initial impact assessments and helping to get seaports and airports open, said Mr. Long, the agency’s administrator, in an interview Thursday.
While the damage to Puerto Rico was unprecedented and severe, it pales in comparison to the total destruction that Maria brought to the tiny Caribbean island of Dominica, which saw its agriculture-based economy totally wiped out, along with towns, roads, forests and its communications and electricty infrastructure.