MOROVIS, Puerto Rico – Three days before Christmas, Doris Martinez and daughter Miriam Narvaez joined their neighbors in a line outside city hall in Morovis, a town of 30,000 people still living without electricity in the mountains of central Puerto Rico a month after Hurricane Maria battered the U.S. island.
They waited two hours under the searing sun for their twice-a-week handout — 24 bottles of water and a cardboard box filled with basic foods such as tortillas, canned vegetables and cereal.
Martinez, a 73-year-old cancer survivor, balanced the water atop the food and picked her way up a steep hill to the home where she lives alone, washing and wringing out her clothes by hand and locking herself in at night, afraid of robbers. Her 53-year-old daughter loaded her food and water into her car and drove off to the public housing complex where she would then have to wait with dozens of other neighbors in another line to cook on one of six gas burners in the administrator's office.
"Things are not good," Narvaez said as she headed toward home.
This is life in Puerto Rico more than three months after Maria destroyed the island's electrical grid. Gov. Ricardo Rossello promised in mid-October to restore 95 percent of electricity delivery by Dec. 15, but normality remains far off. Puerto Rico's Electric Power Authority says its system is generating at 70 percent of normal but it has no way of knowing how widely electricity is being distributed because the system that measures that isn't working.
A study conducted Dec. 11 by a group of local engineers estimated roughly 50 percent of the island's 3.3 million people remained without power. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has said it likely won't be until May that all of Puerto Rico is electrified.
Local and federal officials blame the rough terrain and extensive damage for delaying restoration of a power infrastructure that was in dire need of maintenance due to Puerto Rico's 11-year-old recession. A growing number of Puerto Ricans say officials didn't prepare for the hurricane and didn't activate a mutual aid agreement with power companies on the U.S. mainland quickly enough.
Government crews reconnected a handful of areas in Morovis over the weekend for the first time since the storm, but in the hundreds of neighborhoods and towns without power this holiday season, people are alternately despairing, furious, resigned, and sometimes in disbelief that the United States remains unable to help restore power to its citizens more than 90 days after a natural disaster.
A little after noon, Arelis Navarro steps out of her nail salon to restart her car. The hood is open, and Navarro, 38 weeks pregnant, has connected an inverter to the battery and plugged in a cluster of extension cords, lights and a fan for her salon.
"You have to make the effort because as you can imagine, I have debts to pay, a daughter to maintain and another one on the way," she says as she taps some powder on a woman's nails to prepare them for an acrylic artificial set.
Down the hill, past the town's plaza and up another hill, 50-year-old Maria Rivera watches her husband and two friends remove broken furniture and soggy sheets from their home, which was destroyed by the storm. It is 2 p.m., and the three men toss the debris into a truck one of them owns. City officials never showed up to clear the debris, and crews with the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency did not come until this month to assess the damage.
Tears moisten Rivera's eyes as she gazes at what remains of the home where she lived for 19 years with her husband and three children.
"I haven't been able to assimilate everything that has happened," she says, adding that she spends most of the day bracing for darkness. "When night falls, you start growing anxious, depressed. Everything has changed ... Sometimes I go to places that have power and I tell my husband, 'I don't want to go back.'"
By 4 p.m., some generators in Rivera's neighborhood start rumbling as darkness approaches on the shortest day of the year. A teenager bounces a basketball and takes a couple of shots on a court before heading home, while several men wrap up reconstruction efforts at a roofless home that federal crews fitted with a blue tarp just two weeks ago.
Nearly 1,000 homes across Morovis lost their roofs and 90 percent of residents have not received federal assistance, Mayor Carmen Maldonado says. She expects it will be several more months before power returns to the entire town. Overall, more than 200,000 homes were damaged in Puerto Rico by the storm, whose destruction will cost an estimated $95 billion to repair.
Darkness creeps across Morovis, and 56-year-old Jose Luis Gonzalez wipes sweat from his brow as he finishes helping rebuild a home in the Barrio Patron neighborhood, where people spent two months without water after Hurricane Maria hit with winds of up to 154 mph. They relied on a nearby creek for bathing and washing clothes. Men visited the creek at 5:30 p.m. every day and women took their place a half hour later. One person was designated to guard the entrance as people disrobed. Water service finally returned in November.
"Don't think I haven't felt like crying," Gonzalez says, adding that he has flashbacks to the day of the storm. "Every time I close my eyes I see chaos ... I still hear the screams in my head."
Every night he takes six pills for depression and back pain. He says a relative who lived across from him took his own life three weeks after the hurricane. No note was left, but government officials say they are counting some suicides as part of the official death toll because people across the island have become so desperate amid the destruction left by the storm. The governor also recently ordered a review of all deaths reported since Maria amid accusations that the official death toll of 64 undercounts the true toll.
At 6 p.m. it is nearly dark in Barrio Patron. The mother of the man who killed himself appears on a darkened balcony surrounded by tiny, solar-powered Christmas lights and a Puerto Rico flag fluttering lightly in the breeze. Neighbors around her strike matches and start lighting candles that they place in bedrooms and bathrooms, a warm if flickering glow filling their homes. Those with generators walk over to extension cords where multiple cellphones are plugged and check on the batteries' status. Not that they use them often; cellphone service in Morovis remains spotty.
Nearby, 29-year-old Wilmary Gonzalez ushers her three young children into their darkened home. The light blue glow cast by a tarp donated by a church to cover half their roof has already dissipated. The other half of the roof is slabs of recycled zinc that Jose Luis Gonzalez pieced together for the family, along with broken pieces of wood to create makeshift rafters with jagged edges that jut out at random angles. FEMA has not given them any assistance.
"You always have to have a smile on your face because if not, the kids get sad," Wilmary Gonzalez says, tears welling in her eyes.
She waits with her kids and a tiny lantern for her husband, Carlos Oliveras, to close his barber shop and return to a home with only a table, four chairs and a couple of mattresses. The rest was lost in the storm.
Around 8 p.m., a pair of headlights cuts through the darkness and her husband steps out of the car. He connects an inverter to his car battery and hoists his youngest daughter, 2-year-old Yeinelis, so she can push the button that activates an LED strip donated to the family that Oliveras has secured to the front door. It casts a harsh fluorescent light over the family's nearly empty kitchen and living room.
Oliveras heats himself some rice and beans that his wife takes out from a small and heavily scuffed red-and-white cooler where water and eggs are tucked next to a bag of ice. "My new fridge," she says.
Neighbors in Barrio Patron and other parts of Morovis start blowing out candles and turning off generators as they go to bed around 9 p.m., having nothing else to do in the dark.
On the horizon, the glow of lights in other municipalities creates silhouettes of the towering mountains that surround the darkened town.