Home Top News For Ravaged Vieques, Solitude, Once an Allure, Is Now a Curse

For Ravaged Vieques, Solitude, Once an Allure, Is Now a Curse

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VIEQUES, P.R. — Solitude used to be an allure of life on this island apart from an island. Fish shacks served grouper pulled straight from the sea. Wild horses roamed the twisting roads. Tourists flocked to the beaches and glowing bays of an area left undeveloped for decades when it was a Navy bombing range.

Now that solitude is a big problem. The 9,000 people living on this island eight miles east of the Puerto Rican mainland have been largely cut off from the world for 11 days since Hurricane Maria hit, with no power or communications and, for many, no running water. People scan the skies and the sea hoping to sight the emergency aid that has been arriving drip by drip, on boats, in helicopters or in the bellies of eight-seat propeller planes.

“We’re on this island, we can’t get off it,” Aleida Tolentino, 56, said on Saturday, as she gazed out over the brown hillsides of uprooted trees and branches stripped of every leaf, with rain rolling in from the east.

The grinding lack of electricity and communications services has created archipelagos of isolation across Puerto Rico. Dozens of towns and neighborhoods, from the coffee-growing mountains to the industrial shoals of the capital, are now virtual islands unto themselves, stranded by destroyed roads, downed cables and splintered cellphone towers.

On Vieques, people line up in the main plaza in the Isabel Segunda neighborhood to use one of four donated satellite phones to try to call their relatives. They wait an hour for a donated bag lunch of Pringles, applesauce and raisins.

The local ice factory is not working, so when a refrigerated ice truck rolls off an arriving ferry, people follow it through the tree-strewn streets. When water starts to flow out of someone’s tap, neighbors and relatives rush over with bottles and buckets. People debate how long it will take to get electricity or phone service restored. Six months? A year?

The mayor of Vieques, Victor Emeric, said no residents were killed or gravely wounded during the storm, but as the situation drags on, some have been evacuated for medical reasons, by helicopter or ferry or the propeller planes that dip in and out of the island’s tiny airport.

Mr. Emeric spoke in a darkened municipal office slick with water, next door to a tiny room where a cluster of officials from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Air Force and other agencies crowded around laptops and radios. The Coast Guard is also here, bringing in aid, and Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said on Sunday that he would visit the island and its neighbor, Culebra.

“Very little help has come in,” Mr. Emeric said. “You have to have a little patience.”

Volunteer groups are organizing to provide the community with updates and wrangle private relief flights, and a handful of nonprofit groups are on the ground here. The Humane Society of the United States normally focuses on animal care, but when its workers arrived, the situation was so dire they started organizing humanitarian flights to bring in diapers, water, baby food and other supplies for people.

Some residents have already fled the island, worried about spending months without power and about how they would get medical care if the island’s only hospital runs out of diesel for its generator.

Tammy Simpson sat in line at a pharmacy in Isabel Segunda, waiting for an insulin prescription. Her doctor left the island because of ill health, she said, but for the moment she would not follow him.

Ms. Simpson said she had run out of cash, and there were no open banks or working teller machines on the island where she could get more. So how could she pay for anything? Even if she made it to San Juan, where would she stay, when every hotel was full? Where would she escape to when every outbound flight was packed? At least here in Vieques, she and her daughter had a supply of rice, tomato sauce and canned foods.

“I can’t really go anywhere,” she said.

Marco Calzada sat nervously nearby, waiting to get more insulin for his diabetic father, who was down to his last dose.

“If he doesn’t have that, he will collapse,” Mr. Calzada said.

Even death is an emergency. On Saturday morning, Marlon Esquilín, the funeral director in Isabel Segunda, opened the doors of his hearse to pull out the black-bagged body of an older woman who had died of natural causes the night before.

Someone stole his generator, so he has no power to embalm bodies, and no way to keep them cold in storage. The hospital’s backup generator was also stolen, he said, so he cannot keep bodies there either.

“I need caskets,” he said. “How the hell am I going to attend to family members if I don’t have caskets? We have to get rid of bodies, quickly. I can’t embalm. I can’t do anything.”

Melany Diaz, 22, said it took her three days to get over-the-counter medicine for her 2-year-old daughter, Edlianysha, who developed a harsh cough in the wake of Maria. The storm ripped apart the family’s wooden house, scattering children’s clothes and strollers into the mud.

“We lost everything,” Ms. Diaz said on Saturday, just back from the hospital with her daughter and the medicine.

She stood in the mud of what was once a front yard, as neighbors and family members pulled apart pieces of plywood and tossed ruined furniture and planks onto the ground. They were hoping to salvage enough wood to patch up the gaps in the corrugated roof of one room that survived the storm. Water pooled on the floor and dripped from the ceiling, but Ms. Diaz said they hoped to be able to make it livable while they figured out what to do next.

She had lost her job as a front-desk clerk at a local hotel because of the storm, and said she had no idea when she might have work again. Friends and relatives had offered a pickup truck and their labor, but that was about all the help she had received so far, Ms. Diaz said.

“Not government, not nobody from nowhere,” she said. “It’s hell.”

She fed her two daughters Cheerios and powdered milk for breakfast on Saturday morning, and had $50 in cash left. She did not know what she would do when the money ran out, but she was determined to stay.

“This is my home,” she said. “I raised my kids here. I pray that I’ll stay here. This is all we have.”

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