A sedan is buried in congealed mud on an impassible road where the Rio Caguitas overflowed in the mountainous community of Bairoa. A guardrail is missing, exposing a perilous drop to the riverbank.
On highways near San Juan, bowed street lights dip low enough to take roofs off trucks, and rain pools formed Sept. 28 where debris blocked drains. A gauntlet of parked motorists made mobile-phone calls in rare pockets of connectivity; others sat in half-mile-long gas lines snaking around ramps.
With aid for the Hurricane Maria recovery passing through docks already heaped with about 10,000 containers, a major obstacle is restoring the U.S. commonwealth’s 600 miles of major roads, the circulatory system of a bankrupt economy and a battered body politic.
“We need loads of brigades to restore the power lines, to clean the roads,” said Matilda Cordoba of San Juan, who works for Crowley Maritime Corp.’s supply hub there. “To go across the island and go through the mountains? Impossible now.”
Alejandro de la Campa, whom President Donald Trump designated last week as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s coordinating official for the recovery, said priorities included delivering fuel and other commodities, restoring electricity and getting communications systems working.
More than 10,000 federal civilian and military personnel are on the island, Homeland Security Adviser Thomas Bossert said at the White House. The Army Corps of Engineers has taken over efforts to restore power, he said, including bringing fuel for generators and getting it where it’s needed.
John Rabin, FEMA’s acting regional administrator for the area, said personnel were “driving through the woods, cutting paths to get to municipalities.”
As of Sept. 28, eight of nine airports on the island had opened and five of six priority seaports were functioning, according to the U.S. Defense Department. The Northern Command, which is overseeing operations, said Thursday that it expected eight flights delivering food and water, generators, medical supplies and communications gear to land that day.
The triage of road repair is designed to keep those links open. Marines and sailors from the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit were clearing a path to a site where two towers control all flights coming into San Juan.
“If those towers lose fuel to their generators, air operations going into San Juan will cease altogether,” said Second Lieutenant Samuel Stephenson, spokesman for the unit, which had 150 people on the ground in Puerto Rico and another 600 Marines waiting offshore.
The civilian container yards that in normal times supply consumer goods are moving about only 5% of the typical daily volumes as a trickle of trucks begins to maneuver gingerly across the 3,515-square-mile island.
“FEMA cargo has been flowing, so that’s not the big issue,” said Cordoba. “The private clients are unable to pick up their cargo, either because they suffered damages at their buildings or personally, or the truckers haven’t been able to get to work because they have suffered damages.”
Governor Ricardo Rossello said last week that truckers don’t have to follow the 7 p.m. curfew. In fact, they’re encouraged to travel at night when the roads are free of traffic.
Truckers Saul Rivera and Carlos Diaz were leaning against the chain-link fence at the Port Authority in San Juan, waiting in an unmoving line to refill their vehicles.
The highways are fine except for low-hanging cables and the menacing poles, they said. But they had to be careful not to hit the top of their truck. Some expressways are down to two lanes. A truck can pass, though it’s a tight fit.
Diaz drove to Ponce on Wednesday. The bridge was broken, so he had to take a bypass on a rural road. The detour that would usually take 10 minutes took an hour.
“I’ve never driven like this before,” Diaz said.
Jayuya and Aibonito, in the central mountains, are almost inaccessible.
“You have to be really brave,” Rivera said.
In Bairoa, Jorge Reto Guzman said if he and his neighbors pull through, they will have themselves to thank -- not the federal government. The 42-year-old fireman was sitting on an intact section of the guardrail in the community about 30 kilometers south of San Juan.
Interviews with half a dozen neighbors on this 200-home stretch of rural, mountainous Puerto Rico -- marked simply as the “Old Road” at the turnoff -- showed no one had seen or heard from FEMA. Guzman said neighbors themselves used their hands, machetes and chainsaws to clear the road and hauled away trunks in vehicles including a minivan.
Neighbors get together in the afternoons and pool resources to make rice and beans with a protein and, when needed, they give each other lifts into town.
“I feel forgotten, because no one has even asked about us,” said Hector Manuel Gomez Marabe, 63. “Not even to see how we’re doing. Nothing, nothing, nothing.”
By Jonathan Levin, Jordyn Holman, Christopher Flavelle and Daniel Flatley