Almost two months after Hurricane Maria battered Puerto Rico, residents are still dealing with a lack of water and electricity and the struggle to find food. These seem to be the only topics on people’s minds anywhere you go in Puerto Rico right now. Despite some improvement in urban areas, lack of water, electricity and food is a major problem for hundreds of thousands of families.
Recently, Red Cross workers visited Barrio Florida in the San Lorenzo municipality. The rain that fell was not a surprise. A dark gray sky threatened from early in the day. A multitude of colored umbrellas opened while Red Cross volunteers unloaded relief boxes. As raindrops began hitting the legs of people standing in line, conversations seemed to revolve around the same topics: water, electricity and food.
"Today there is no water or electricity in our neighborhood," commented a woman dressed in black, her hair tied in a bun. "We haven’t had any electricity since the hurricane. Water comes and goes. " "It’s your namesake’s fault," her friends scoffed, referring to Hurricane Maria.
Maria Marrero, the woman in black, is used to that joke. The rain was a blessing for her that day. She would be able to refill her gallon jug with the precious liquid. "When the water goes out”, she explained, “we have to go to town with our buckets."
While waiting in line to receive supplies from the Red Cross, Barrio Florida residents shared their difficulties openly and light-heartedly, using humor to cope with the magnitude of the disaster.
Shy at first, a little girl stepped forward: "My school is closed, because there is no electricity. The hurricane also blew away our water tank, so I have to go out and search for water with my mother.” When asked where she goes to look for water, the girl’s mother intervened, "Wherever we can!"
"I have a nine-month-old baby, water is difficult to find," confirmed Charon González, another resident. "One of my neighbors fills drums from a spring."
Maria recalled the Red Cross had visited them earlier with water filters. “They worked”, she said. “The water that comes out from the filters comes out much clearer than that of the drums!”. “Yes”, added Cecilia Como, a radiant lady next to her. “The Red Cross filters were a success!”
The little girl added, "Before the hurricane, my mom used to wash clothes in the washing machine, now I have to help her wash them by hand." "The hardest to wash are blue jeans!" exclaimed Maria Marrero. Her friends burst out laughing and agreed.
As the rain stopped, the conversation about laundry became livelier. "Look at my fingers!" said a lady, showing how the water and bleach had worn out her fingers. "All the beautiful drawings on my nails from my manicure are gone", added Cecilia Como, who went on to explain, in her own words, the method used in her community to wash clothes. "We use that 'thing' they use to flush the toilet to wash the laundry; we buy new ones of course. Then we disinfected the clothes with bleach and we put them in an industrial mopping bucket, but instead of rinsing the mop, we press the lever and rinse the clothes! See what we had to invent!”
Since the historic blackout caused by Hurricane Maria, washing clothes by hand has become everybody’s job, including men. "Sure I help my wife, how could I leave her alone with that. Everyone has to pitch in!" said Don Miguel, who came with his son to collect the water and food offered by the Red Cross. Then he added mischievously. "The water is very useful, am I entitled to a double ration for helping my wife wash clothes?"
The Red Cross made a second stop in the Tacho Gómez neighborhood. The views are impressive. But there too the residents are finding it difficult to cover their basic needs.
Don Jesus approached the truck on a motorized wheelchair: "I live with my daughter. She is the one who takes care of me. [Before the hurricane] We couldn’t manage to put boards over the windows to protect our house. She couldn’t lift them." A feeling of helplessness overtook him as he lowered his head and looked at his wheelchair. "It is difficult for me to get ice to keep our food fresh, we have to wait in long lines. But what I need most is a generator to charge my wheelchair. We do not have a car and without my wheelchair, I cannot go anywhere. "
"We are getting tap water here on and off, but we can’t drink it," said Rosa Perez, a friendly and smiling great-grandmother, as a Red Cross volunteer carried her supplies up the road. Doña Rosa is living with her sister since the hurricane damaged the roof on her house. "When it comes, we only use the tap water to bathe and wash the laundry. But we can use the Red Cross water to drink and cook. "
"If I could choose the type of relief aid, what would I choose?" She paused for a moment to think. "Well, I would choose what the Red Cross is giving me, everything is good!" But what Doña Rosa appreciated the most was the food offered by the Red Cross. "I can share it with my sister, we are both widows and we live alone. The price of food has increased a lot!" Other residents had complained that the price of rice had gone up four times and vegetables were now out of reach for many.
Not far from the truck, she showed us what was left of their garden, a pile of trees and plants laid waste on the ground. "There used to be breadfruit, bananas, mangoes, avocados, guavas. Little cilantro and sweet chili plants. The storm took them all away. There is nothing left, nothing."
Doña Rosa remained pensive. "My mother used to tell me that when she was pregnant, they prepared mojito for her with the water from vegetables crushed with garlic and cilantro, and a dash of oil. We have gone back to those times, when there was no light; there was no water; there was no food. Like when I was born, during the war. "