MAUNABO, Puerto Rico -- Before Hurricane Maria tore through the rest of this island, it came to Mayor Jorge Márquez’s home.
The storm ripped through improvised plastic shutters, shook the windows and sent his panicked family, including his grandchildren, scurrying to a bathroom to hide. For four hours, as the fiercest of Maria’s winds roared through his mountain town in southeast Puerto Rico, Márquez kept the wind from forcing itself in by pushing a dining table hard against the front door.
At the end, when the winds finally died down, he stepped outside to glimpse at the damage to the town he’s run for nearly two decades. Tattered roofs littered the ground. Snapped trees mangled power lines. The local hospital was lost. The town’s funeral home was gone.
The easy part of the storm was over. The real agony had yet to begin.
“Everything we’ve built over 16 years, destroyed in a single day,” he said Tuesday, pausing to fight back fresh tears.
A month has passed since Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and the island continues to operate in emergency mode, struggling to do even the basics: save lives, protect property, provide drinking water, turn on the lights. Time ticks away in a hazy state of permanent disaster, a catastrophe born from the worst storm to cross Puerto Rico in 85 years — and of a slow recovery by the federal, state and local governments.
The blame for the unsatisfactory response, the Miami Herald and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism found, lies with bureaucracies that were unprepared for a collapsed communications system and overwhelmed by the logistical challenges of aiding an island left with no corner unharmed. Even the White House appeared indifferent to the needs of 3.4 million American citizens 1,000 miles from its shores.
Above all, strapped finances that plunged the island into an economic tailspin long before any winds arrived left the state government so thinly stretched it could not maintain its power grid or afford extensive preparations for a monster storm –– much less pay for the sort of recovery that would be demanded in the mainland U.S.
Forty-eight people died, though that’s likely a significant undercount.
Much remains to be learned about the recovery flaws Maria exposed. But disaster managers already know the historic storm -- which has required more FEMA food and water distribution than any other disaster -- will force them to rethink how they approach a worst-case scenario that ordinary plans were ill-equipped to deal with in the systemic breakdown that followed landfall.
“If this response had been perfect, you still would have very significant suffering and destruction, no matter what, because of the storm,” said U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who pushed early on for more military involvement. “But I do think some days were lost.”
Photo credit: Pedro Portal, el Nuevo Herald