Residents of La Perla, Puerto Rico, work to clear out the debris left in the wake of Hurricane Maria as they await aid from federal agencies. (Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

Stunned Puerto Rico begins to dig out after Hurricane Maria

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Gregmarys Garcia stood atop the home she shares with her two sons, ages 5 and 3, and five relatives. The house was surrounded by thigh-high water.

The family had stockpiled bottled water and food, packing their freezer with ice. But when Hurricane Maria hit, they lost water and, like the rest of Puerto Rico, power.

Now, in their neighborhood of Las Palmeras in San Juan, whole blocks had been turned into islands. Garcia’s block was inundated, including the family’s three cars. They relied on a neighbor’s battery-powered radio for news.

“The governor said it’s total destruction in Puerto Rico, but the worst is in the west and east,” she said.

And the worst wasn’t over.

At least 4 to 8 inches of additional rain were expected Thursday, with up to 35 inches in isolated spots, according to Mike Brennan, a specialist at the National Hurricane Center.

“That will exacerbate the ongoing flash flooding situation that’s occurring over that entire island,” he said on Twitter.

Maria, the strongest storm to strike Puerto Rico in more than 80 years, reduced homes to heaps of splintered wood and crumbling cement, turning streets into rivers of churning brown water and left wide swaths of the island without power.

“Typically, the rain and flooding is the principal cause of deaths,” Gov. Ricardo Rossello warned during a Thursday briefing. “If you don’t have to be out in the streets, don’t.”

The full extent of the damage in Puerto Rico remained unclear, as dozens of areas were still incommunicado late Thursday. Rossello said restoring power and communication networks was a top priority, and he acknowledged the frustration of islanders unable to reach family and friends — including the governor himself.

“I haven’t been able to communicate with my parents,” he said.

Maria had moved out of the area Thursday but remained a Category 3 storm, expected to approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the southeastern Bahamas overnight, according to the National Hurricane Center in Miami.

For several days, Maria has pummeled the Caribbean, killing dozens, including at least 15 people in Dominica, where Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit said 20 more remained missing Thursday.

President Donald Trump described Puerto Rico as “absolutely obliterated.”

“Puerto Rico is in very, very tough shape,” Trump said ahead of a meeting Thursday at the U.N. General Assembly, adding that he’s working with Rossello on the recovery.

Trump signed a federal disaster declaration for the island of 3.4 million people.

On Thursday weary and shell-shocked residents began the long process of cleaning up.

In the oceanfront settlement of La Perla, several dozen people picked their way down hillsides strewn with debris to salvage what they could from the wreckage.

At the foot of Fort San Cristobal, just outside the walls of Old San Juan, Diego Rivera chopped at a palm tree with a machete. The fort had survived since the 1700s. All around was disorder.

Rivera, who grew up here listening to elders tell stories about the explorers who discovered and christened the area La Perla, or “The Pearl,” gestured to the mix of shingles, glass and lumber studded with rusty nails that littered the hillside under gray skies still threatening rain. Everything felt damp.

“We have to start cleaning this stuff, throw it away. The government hasn’t done nothing,” he said.

Rivera was clearing a path to the flooded cinderblock house where he weathered the storm. Winds tore at the metal hurricane shutters as he huddled inside, panicked. Transformers exploded outside. He tried to flee, but the downed palm tree blocked the door, leaving him trapped for about 10 hours.

The retired construction worker escaped unharmed, but his house was still full of water, the cement ceiling crumbling. Neighboring homes of his mother, sister and niece were roofless, stripped bare by violent winds that lashed the shanties clustered above a narrow strip of beach.

Downhill, neighbors were clearing the main road. Shirtless men pushed aside stalled cars, examined ruptured water pipes as women tucked back downed power lines and swept up shattered glass.

A parking garage had collapsed on several cars. Restaurants were no longer selling mofongo and fried plantains; their doors were blocked by downed roofs. The local health center and Head Start office were covered with pieces of adjacent buildings. A sign in the park warning residents to keep the area clean had been knocked down.

Rivera said his relatives were staying in emergency hurricane shelters with hundreds of others displaced by the storm.

“All Puerto Rico is damaged,” he said, but, “we lost everything here.”

Flash flood alerts sounded all day in the capital of San Juan, which saw spotty rain. Airports in San Juan, Aguadilla and Ponce were shuttered and a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. remained in effect for the island.

Near San Juan airport, drivers struggled to make their way around flooded highways and downed trees.

Across from Garcia’s house, a few restaurants and an ATM machine were operating, with long lines. But most businesses were still shuttered, some of their windows broken by looters overnight.

Standing on a flooded street next to a park strewn with downed trees, Maribel Rodriguez said the area needed the curfew imposed by the governor.

“It’s a good idea because yesterday it was stressful: People went right in the grocery store and took everything,” said Rodriguez, 47.

She worried about relatives elsewhere in the city, who she couldn’t check on without phone or internet service. Like Garcia, she depended on a neighbor’s radio for news. Her supply of food and water was already dwindling.

Her wife, who works at Chili’s restaurant, wasn’t sure when it would reopen. She held a blue barrel they had just salvaged from floodwaters and hoped to use it to collect rain.

Across the island, people were banding together.

Pedro Rivera said one elderly woman with a heart condition needed medical attention after the storm. Neighbors called an ambulance, and when it wasn’t able to reach the village due to blocked roads, they helped her up the hill so she could be taken to a hospital.

Rivera pointed to a man cracking the limbs of a downed tree to clear a side street.

“It will rise again,” Rivera, 46, a cook at nearby Fresh Bistro, said of his neighborhood. “We are a village. We will raise ourselves.”

Elsewhere, 8-year-old Jovanio Lopez returned with his mother Thursday after evacuating before the storm to find their home flooded. The bathroom roof was gone. “The house broke. Everything broke,” the third-grader said. “It stinks inside.”

They left to stay with friends, taking what they could save, including books and his game of Monopoly.

Neighbor Sonia Viruet, 61, said the government should send crews to La Perla immediately. Beside her, a neighbor in work gloves was making slow progress gathering fallen shingles.

“We need help restoring the community. First, we need help cleaning. We can try to do it ourselves, but it will take too long,” Viruet said.

Joseph Cotto took his family of six — including a 1-year-old son — to a shelter during the hurricane, but returned after the storm to help rebuild, and make space in the shelter for those in greater need.

“There are people who don’t have roofs. We wanted to make room for them. We have a house,” he said — although it, too, is damaged and without utilities.

Cotto, 31, a laborer for the city’s public work’s department, figured it would take at least two months to restore power and water. On Thursday, he cleared roads and hauled sea water from the bottom of the hill to run his toilet.

Far down the hill near the water’s edge, neighbor Victor Iban helped others examine damage to their homes. It was his aunt who had to be taken to the hospital, where he said she was recovering Thursday.

Iban, 51, survived the storm in his cement apartment, which was relatively unscathed. The handyman planned to stay to help rebuild and said he believed the government would eventually send workers to help.

“It’s just the first day. They always come, bit by bit,” he said.

For Iban, like many of his neighbors, evacuating La Perla was not an option.

“Here I was born,” he said, “and here I will die.”

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