SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Left to fend for themselves after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico and forced them into a primitive existence, people in San Juan are taking to the streets to do what they say Caribbean people do best: “Inventar.” Figure it out.
No electricity? A mustachioed man in a white undershirt played traffic cop at an intersection. No ambulances? A daughter borrowed her brother’s SUV to race her frail mother from their home to a hospital. No debris removal? A physician and two neighbors borrowed garden tools to clear main thoroughfares on their own.
With the enormity of Maria’s destruction still unknown even to the overwhelmed Puerto Rican government, the capital’s storm-dazed residents are venturing onto clogging roadways while trying to bring some semblance of order to their bruised city.
Their task was so massive some just wandered the streets, gawking.
“Get busy!” implored Dr. Joseph Campos, a 52-year-old internist at the San Juan Veterans Administration hospital, tree-trimmer in hand as he and his neighbors cut down a tree partially blocking access to a highway. “Even if all you can do is pick up a single, little branch. I’m not eating, and I’m healthy, and I’m working. You don’t have to sit home stress-eating.”
After Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, flooding towns, crushing homes and killing at least two people, millions on the island face the dispiriting prospect of weeks and perhaps months without electricity. The storm knocked out the entire grid across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million, leaving many without power.
Residents of San Juan are venturing out into a city engulfed in chaos, with motorists clogging the streets and traffic rules completely ignored. There was no semblance of order. Pedestrians darted in and out of traffic. Some motorists ditched their cars on the side of the road when flood waters damaged their engines.
Countless roads were impassable, some neighborhoods largely cut off because of debris or flooding.
MARIA TO HIT U.S. FRIDAY
The National Weather Service said swells from Maria are expected to reach the coast of the Southeastern United States Friday.
"These swells are likely to cause dangerous surf and life-threatening rip currents along the coast for the next several days, even with Maria forecast to remain well offshore over the western Atlantic Ocean," the service said in the statement.
Forecasters said the eye of the Category 3 hurricane, which made landfall in Puerto Rico as a Category 4, will pass near the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeast Bahamas on Friday. A hurricane warning remains in effect for parts of the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the southeastern Bahamas.
Forecasters are not expecting Maria to impact New England, as recent weather models keep the storm out to sea. Some rain and wind could be expected, similar to what Tropical Storm Jose brought.
NEW YORK SENDS HELP
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is heading to the Caribbean for the second time in a week to get a firsthand look at the damage left behind by a hurricane.
The Democrat said he'll travel to Puerto Rico with New York state emergency response officials to help recovery efforts on the island ravaged by Hurricane Maria.
Cuomo's office said Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello asked his New York counterpart for emergency goods and services to help the recovery.
Cuomo's trip comes a week after he traveled to the U.S. Virgin Islands at the invitation of the territory's governor to see the damage caused by Hurricane Irma. Cuomo vowed to send New York aid to the devastated islands.
The U.S. National Hurricane Center said the eye of Hurricane Maria was approaching the Turks and Caicos islands early Friday, while rains and dangerous high waves are starting to subside along the northern coast of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
The Category 3 hurricane has maximum sustained winds near 125 mph, but gradual weakening is expected during the next two days.
The hurricane has ravaged Puerto Rico and people there face the prospect of going weeks and perhaps months without electricity.
RESIDENTS LOOK FOR WAYS TO SURVIVE
The loss of power has left residents hunting for gas canisters for cooking, collecting rainwater or steeling themselves mentally for the hardships to come in the tropical heat. Some have contemplated leaving the island.
Most areas outside metro San Juan remained unreachable Thursday, both by road and by phone. Campos had no news of his parents in western Puerto Rico and how they’d fared after the Category 4 storm knocked out power to the entire island.
“I know nothing,” Campos said.
Despite the loss of power and communication, some damage reports from across Puerto Rico trickled out Thursday. Three sisters were confirmed dead in a building collapse in the mountainous central region of Utuado, according to local press accounts, while authorities declared small communities across the island as essentially destroyed.
Rescue crews, some from South Florida and even New York, were fanning out to find those trapped in flood zones. The U.S. Coast Guard on Thursday reported rescuing a woman and two children from an overturned boat off the coast of Puerto Rico.
In the flooded neighborhood of Toa Baja, rescue crews in a helicopter saved Loida Rivera and her grandson and her granddaughter — they spent the night on the roof of her home avoiding flash floods.
They thought Hurricane Maria was over when winds died down. Instead, over a matter of minutes Wednesday, water consumed the two stories of Rivera's house.
“The surge was so fast,” she said once sheltered at the National Guard armory in Toa Baja. “I have never seen something like that. We waited for the helicopter, to get its attention, and they finally lifted us.”
As of Thursday afternoon, more than 4,000 people had been rescued by helicopter, trucks and boats by the National Guard, police, firefighters and municipal officials, according to Eulando Pinero, who was helping coordinate the firefighters’ rescue effort at the base.
Maria’s heavy rains and high tides grew the La Plata river over Toa Baja. San Juan’s urban sprawl has paved over flood plains, leaving the water nowhere to go. The overflowed La Plata created a lagoon over the devastated homes. In some areas, the river surged 14 feet.
Thursday afternoon, truckloads of new refugees arrived at the Toa Baja emergency operations center. Many carried dogs. Some cried and held onto their loved ones.
At the Pedro Albizu Campo school in Levittown, where neighbors also had to be rescued from roofs, the refugees included 14 women who live in a senior home. They said they had received no water, food, medical attention or security.
Refugees were kept track of on handwritten lists, which made it difficult to search the names.
“The water came up too fast,” said Angel Manuel Sierra, 54. His cement home survived Maria with some rain seepage from cracks in the walls, but he said he never expected the nearby La Plata river to overflow, its muddy waters covering him nearly to his knees before the Guard got him out after 9 p.m. Wednesday.
“Everyone spilled onto the street,” he said. “All my roosters died.”
He moved in with relatives in La Perla, a strip of ocean-side shacks along Old San Juan where the sea surged into the lowest-lying homes — and Maria’s gusts ripped through the rest.
“The wind took it,” 67-year-old Luis Torres said of the second floor of his mother’s wooden house. A stainless steel refrigerator stood amid the rubble, door open and occasionally rocking back and forth in the ocean breeze.
Overnight, Torres’ mother, 87-year-old Rosa, felt pressure in her chest. Last year, she suffered three heart attacks and a stroke, her son said. At 6 a.m. Thursday, his sister, 60-year-old Aleida, called for help.
The ambulance never came. Aleida, who had secured her car in an Old San Juan garage during the storm, started driving up the narrow slope to her mother’s house. Her battery died. Luis fetched his Suzuki Grand Vitara, also parked in high ground. The engine kept turning and dying — until it finally stayed on.
“Relax, mami,” he told Rosa before she drove off, maneuvering around chickens and stray cats.
“No one from the government comes here,” Campos said. A reporter had spotted a police patrol further south in the neighborhood moments earlier, but Campos said they didn’t drive by his place.
Campos ignored evacuation orders, saying he didn’t want to sleep on a cot in nearby City Hall.
“We’re safer here,” he said, pointing to his first floor, where the entryway was partly blocked by large chunks of his flipped roof and railing. A Dish Network satellite on the adjacent house, which Campos also owns, survived, though upside down.