Residents of a Puerto Rican city south of the capital San Juan assess the impact of Hurricane Fiona as they grapple with the loss of “some very precious things.”
Hurricane Fiona turns into deadly Category 4 storm
Hurricane Fiona has become a Category 4 storm en route to Bermuda.
Claire Hardwick, USA TODAY
COMERÍO, Puerto Rico – Maria de Jesus Medina stands in her nightgown looking at her sodden belongings – a sofa and loveseat, a TV cabinet, two bedrooms, a stove, a refrigerator, clothes and boxes of personal items – all destroyed by a hurricane.
For the second time in five years.
As torrential rains poured down this week in this eastern central region of Puerto Rico, a nearby river and creek quickly overflowed, sending muddy water into Medina’s first-floor apartment and its neighbors.
“I’ve lost a lot of possessions, some very precious things,” Medina, 83, told USA TODAY in Spanish on Wednesday. “Almost all our food is spoiled.”
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Days after Fiona hit the area as a Category 1 hurricane, more than a million people were without power on Wednesday, said Keith Turi, FEMA’s assistant manager for recovery. And the Puerto Rico Aqueduct and Sewer Authority said of: 45% of its subscribers were still without water supply.
More than 1,000 people were in shelters Wednesday, said Brad Kieserman, vice president of operations and logistics for the Red Cross.
“That gives you an idea of how many people are still being displaced by the storm,” Kieserman said.
As reports of urgent health needs continue to grow, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra declared a public health emergency on Wednesday to assist Medicare and Medicaid beneficiaries, suppliers and providers.
Public health officials in Puerto Rico are working to ensure that residents who use electricity-dependent care, such as dialysis or oxygen, receive it.
Some health centers ran on generators and a cancer hospital had to transfer patients due to power problems, said Alexandra Lúgaro, 41, executive director of the nonprofit Foundation for the Center for Strategic Innovation of Puerto Rico and a former candidate for governor.
“(People) are very worried that they won’t be able to use their medical equipment or keep medicine in the fridge,” Lúgaro told USA TODAY.
So does Medina’s daughter, Jesusa Vilches, 60. A flood in Comerío damaged a small refrigerator where Vilches, who has diabetes, kept her insulin. Now she can’t keep it anywhere and hasn’t had a dose in days.
“We are not well,” said Medina. “It’s hard to keep it together, to try to get back up.”
Medina and her daughter said they were running out of food and drinking water. They don’t have a car, so it’s hard to make a trip to get ice cream, if that’s available at all. The main supermarket in the city, the Econo next to Rio de la Plata, was flooded on Sunday and closed for days. It reopened on Wednesday.
Medina said she had moved to the apartment in the Ariel neighborhood in what must have been a temporary move after Hurricane María destroyed her home further up the hill. She said officials had told her she would be staying in the apartment for 4 to 5 months. It’s been five years.
“They brought me here to a flood zone,” said Medina. “And, well, it was destined to flood again.”
Floods also entered the home of Nereida Rivera, 60, one of Medina’s neighbors in Comerío, about 30 miles south of the island’s capital, San Juan. She said a lot of her furniture is ruined. She passed the storm at her daughter’s house on the hill, then returned when her family helped her clear up mud, water and debris.
“What gets you emotionally is knowing how you had your house and how you like it,” Rivera said in Spanish. “You get sad because you’ve lost things of value.”
Her most urgent need, she said, is water so she and her husband can cook for their 8-year-old grandson, Jayden Ramos.
Rivera has a gas generator that she runs for a few hours a day, mainly to cool the fridge. But buying gas every day is a significant expense – one of many people face after a disaster.
“You have to buy gasoline. You have to buy canned food because other foods go bad. You have to buy water,” she said.
City officials still haven’t been able to assess damage to the main water treatment plant in Comerío, Mayor José “Josian” Santiago told USA TODAY. They are still waiting for the water to recede enough to inspect pipes that take water from Rio de la Plata.
For now, tankers will have to return for three hours to a neighboring municipality, Bayamón, to fill and return water to neighborhoods in Comerío. Each tanker has enough water for several dozen homes, he said, but there are about 7,000 homes.
“We are in the third day (after the storm), and the main problems are lack of drinking water and electricity,” Santiago said in Spanish. “After three days, people have used up the stored water.”
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In downtown Comerío, José Iván Romero, 44, owns and operates Farmacia Romero, about half a block from the banks of Rio de la Plata. On Sunday, the river rose within a few feet of the front door of his business.
“Thank God it didn’t make it to the pharmacy,” he said in Spanish.
With no electricity or running water, Romero takes medicine every day that must be kept cold in a cooler at his home in San Juan. He runs the pharmacy lights with a generator. But he has to shut it down every 90 minutes to cool down.
“If we run out of gas, we’ll have to close,” Romero said.
Romero also has a farm in the Paloma neighborhood of Comerío. He estimated that he lost about 20,000 plantain trees to wind damage during the hurricane.
It is the third time that his farm has suffered catastrophic losses. The first was during Hurricane Maria five years ago. Then came the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown restrictions that closed most outlets for the sale of its products.
Hurricane Fiona could be the last straw for the farm.
After inspecting the damage this week, Romero said he texted his wife, “I think it’s time.”
Contributing: Grace Hauck and Chris Kenning, USA TODAY