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‘The worst hurricane I’ve ever seen’: Locals react to devastation in Puerto Rico

Agnieszka Serbia, of Ashburn, said no one knew just had badly Hurricane Maria would devastate Puerto Rico. Courtesy Photo/Agnieszka Serbia
More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, people are still without power or water, wondering where their next meal will come from or how they will get vital medications. As the national attention begins to shift elsewhere, Loudoun residents and Puerto Ricans everywhere are left questioning how the island will recover.

“They tried to prepare as best they could, but they didn't know what to expect,” said Ashburn resident Agnieszka Serbia of her family and friends in Puerto Rico.

Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20 as a high Category 4 storm with winds of 155 miles per hour. It was the strongest hurricane to hit the island since 1928. Although the residents of Puerto Rico are no strangers to hurricanes, the devastation was unlike anything they'd seen.

Some residents never regained power after Hurricane Irma hit the island, but after Maria, the entire island lost power and communication. Serbia has friends who have yet to hear from their parents. She herself has yet to hear from an uncle – an experience felt by Puerto Ricans everywhere, like Ashburn resident Jose Gonazelz-Rodriguez.

With communication slowly being restored, all that's left to do is wait. Serbia said this week most of her relatives in Mayaguez, Bayamon, Toa Baja and San Juan still don't have electricity but they now have water. While the metropolitan areas of the island are beginning to get some relief, more rural areas of Puerto Rico have yet to see any aid.

Getting gasoline or diesel has become the greatest concern, as most families use generators for power. Since landlines are down, residents rely on cell phones, but to charge them must use their cars which uses up gas or could affect car batteries – a risk many are afraid to take, Serbia said.

Serbia's also heard of long lines to get into grocery stores, and when family members finally get in, all that's left are staples like rice and tuna.

“You cannot live off rice that long,” she said.

Many hospitals are also without power and using up gasoline and diesel to power generators. Serbia said she would like to see Puerto Rico's most vulnerable populations like the sick, elderly and the children taken care of first before any talk of reconstruction begins.

Though Puerto Rico has received aid from the U.S. government, federal workers are often slowed down waiting for orders. Ships with supplies were also stuck in ports waiting on orders or waiting to pay taxes as part of the Jones Act, and therefore cannot get help to people who need it right away.

Gonzalez-Rodriguez is part of the National Guard effort in Puerto Rico. He said roads are still blocked by fallen trees and debris, which also slows down the humanitarian efforts. Entire municipalities have not gotten help or supplies, Gonzalez-Rodriguez said. Still, both Gonzalez-Rodriguez and Serbia say the local government is doing the best it can.

“The level of destruction is catastrophic,” Gonzalez-Rodriguez said. “This is by far the worst hurricane I have seen in my lifetime.”

In addition to the frustration of not being able to hear from loved ones, trying to get people off the island has become another headache. Plane tickets have become difficult to find and of those available, the prices have become unattainable for many of the island's residents.

Serbia has heard of one-way plane tickets being as high as $3,000. One=way direct flights from San Juan to Dulles that were around $100 before Maria have now been replaced with $800-$1,000 one-way flights with more than one stop.

Regional efforts like Unidos Por Puerto Rico DMV, based in Chantilly, are still taking donations and coordinating with National Guard units at Joint Base Andrews to send supplies. On Tuesday, the group sent its fourth shipment of 25,000 pounds of water and 18,000 pounds of food and medical supplies. The group, which began as a small grassroots initiative, has become the largest movements for aid in the D.C. metro region and is still accepting volunteers and much-needed supplies.

In addition to wind damage across the island, some Puerto Ricans have lost the entire homes to flooding and mudslides. Entire neighborhoods have been wiped out, leaving thousands displaced, dozens dead, half the island without clean drinking water and entire towns without communication.

“For me, it's surreal, like watching something you see somewhere else, not on your island,” Serbia said.

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