Nelson Maldonado had already gone days without running water or electricity, after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico.
On Thursday, he went to check on his wife’s 95-year-old grandmother, Rosa M. Torres, who was also living without power through sweltering heat and humidity.
She lives across the river from him, in the mountainous town of San Lorenzo, which lies about a 40-minute drive from San Juan.
To get there, Maldonado had to ford a river in knee-deep water, using a cable to guide him across. The concrete bridge connecting the two sides had collapsed and floated downriver in a flash flood triggered by Maria.
Maria pummeled San Lorenzo. Massive chunks of the bridge had drifted more than a football field’s length downstream. Roofs and sides were blown off homes. Hurricane winds ripped the paint off several buildings. Living rooms are now exposed to the elements. A school was littered with fallen trees as horses occupied the gymnasium, leaving piles of feces behind.
After the bridge washed away, San Lorenzo’s residents had two options: Ford the river or drive on a winding, hours-long road over a mountain to access food and water. But that requires gas, which is in extremely short supply across Puerto Rico. Dozens chose to cross the river and risk the currents.
“We need help,” says Maldonado.
The destruction and desperation in San Lorenzo illustrate Puerto Rico’s long recovery ahead and the island’s major problem: No way to get supplies to those most in need.
Nearly half the island still has no electricity. And 90% of cell service is still down, creating a communication and transportation nightmare.
Manolo Gonzales, a bar and restaurant owner, helped rig up the cable across the river. His business was on one side of the river, his children on the other.
“We need to pass by here,” Gonzales, a resident of San Lorenzo, told CNN at the river bank. “The other way is too far, two hours, three hours … the road is bad.”
Residents say a FEMA official came this week to survey the damage, but they haven’t seen any other official aid or assistance a week after Maria hit.
Maritza Rivera, a mother of three, says she crossed the bridge to walk two hours to the nearest supermarket. Wearing a Superman T-shirt, Rivera and her husband shlepped a couple bags of bread and rice back across the river on their return.
“You can’t get water anywhere,” nearby, River said, tearing up. “The gas stations are full, it’s really hard … the supermarket doesn’t have a lot of stuff.”
It’s also hard for Julia Rivera, who lost her roof while a wall crashed into a bedroom. Rivera, her husband, two adult sons and one of the son’s girlfriends are sleeping on mattresses outside the house for the foreseeable future in the hot, bug-filled air.
Rivera, 49, has lived her entire life in San Lorenzo, working at the local school now thrashed with fallen trees. For now, she has no plans to leave.
“Nothing has come here,” Rivera said, ticking off food, water and other items. “We don’t know if we’re going to go back to work.”