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Puerto Rico after the storm: what we know about its hurricane recovery

Puerto Rico after the storm: what we know about its hurricane recovery


Puerto Rico is still in the dark, and communications are still down

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Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
A home in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico that was destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Hurricane Maria whirled through Puerto Rico almost a week ago, but we still don’t know the full extent of the devastation that the Category 4 storm left behind.

The hurricane hit the island with winds spinning at 155 miles per hour, tearing down power lines and cell towers. More than 11,400 people remain in over 150 shelters throughout Puerto Rico, says Delyris Aquino, a spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). The Associated Press reported a higher number on Sunday, writing that there are more than 15,000 people in shelters. The death toll also continues to rise: at least 16 people were killed by the storm, The AP says.

Here’s what we know so far:


More than 3.4 million US citizens are still almost entirely without power as the debt-ridden Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority continues to assess the damage. The problem isn’t that Hurricane Maria knocked out power plants, the Department of Energy tells The Verge, it’s that the storm took out most of the 2,400 miles of transmission lines that carry electricity from the plants to major population centers.

As of Monday afternoon, three hospitals have been connected to the grid, Aquino tells The Verge. These include the the Hima San Pablo Hospital, and the Centro Médico Hospital in San Juan. “We’re doing a lot of work here, so the situation is getting better and better,” Aquino says.

Communication and travel

With more than 91 percent of the cell towers down across the island, people are still desperately trying to contact loved ones. “We receive a lot of requests, thousands of requests per day” for updates about people who were in Puerto Rico when the storm hit, Aquino says. “There are a lot of people concerned about their families.” She recommends that people use the American Red Cross Safe and Well website to let family and friends know they’re safe.

Roads blocked by debris have also prevented emergency personnel from contacting six of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, Aquino said on Monday afternoon. The government of Puerto Rico and the US Army Corps of Engineers are working on clearing the roads to try to get to areas isolated by the storm.

Airports, including the San Juan airport, are also reopening — but with limited capacity, Puerto Rico-based journalist Rafael Lenin López tweeted. Hundreds of passengers were still stranded in San Juan Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport on Monday, trying to get on the next available flights, Reuters reports.

A handful of Puerto Rico’s ports have been reopened during daylight hours only, according to the latest situation report from the Department of Energy.

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
People cluster around a free Wi-Fi zone to let their loved ones know they’re safe.
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

Food and water

With ports and airports incapacitated for almost a week, food remains scarce in Puerto Rico. (The island imports most of its food.) Some supermarkets have reopened, but they’re lined with empty shelves, and it may take some time for the stores to restock.

Roughly 44 percent of people in Puerto Rico still lack drinking water, according to the Department of Defense. (FEMA’s Aquino, who’s based on the island, says she, too, is without water.) A team from the Environmental Protection Agency arrived in Puerto Rico yesterday to make sure that hospitals have clean water, FEMA reports.

The storm also destroyed about 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s crops in just a few hours. That’s a $780 million hit to the island’s agricultural industry, according to The New York Times.

Puerto Rico Faces Extensive Damage After Hurricane Maria
People line up around the block to get gas after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico with no power.
Photo by Joe Raedle / Getty Images

The Arecibo Observatory

The eye of Maria passed very close by Puerto Rico’s Arecibo Observatory, a giant radio telescope operated by the National Science Foundation, which has a main dish that stretches 1,000 feet in diameter. The telescope is used to detect radio waves, and it’s helped astronomers discover everything from the first exoplanets to neutron stars. The observatory has been critical for SETI, or the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, and it’s also been showcased in numerous films, including Contact and the James Bond movie Goldeneye.

All the staff who remained on site at the observatory during the storm have been reported safe, but the telescope sustained some damage. An antenna that hangs suspended above the dish broke off and fell onto the dish, damaging some panels, says Alessondra Springmann, an asteroid and comet researcher at the University of Arizona, who has been in communication with Arecibo staff. This 430-megahertz line feed measures about 96 feet long, and a recent picture of the observatory shows that about 75 percent of it seems to be missing. The antenna is used for planetary radar, and it’s one of the main instruments used to study a part of Earth’s atmosphere called the ionosphere. “It’s a pretty versatile tool,” says Springmann. “Of course that can be replaced, but it takes time and money.”

If segments of the dish have been damaged, they’ll need to be replaced and realigned, too, to make sure they properly reflect radio waves. However, the full extent of the damage in the dish is not yet known. “Preliminary assessments are that the damage is less severe than for many other parts of Puerto Rico,” a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation said in an email to The Verge. The NSF doesn’t know when damage to the dish will be fully assessed or when science observations will resume: these are secondary priorities to the recovery of Puerto Rico’s population.

The Guajataca Dam

Early reports indicated that the massive influx of stormwater from Hurricane Maria had cracked Puerto Rico’s Guajataca Dam — leaving a 34-inch fissure, according to The New York Times. (El Nuevo Dia reports a 24-inch crack, and the US Army Corps of Engineers did not respond to repeated requests for clarification.)

The dam holds about 11 billion gallons of water, and concerns that the dam might fail prompted the government to urge the 70,000 people who live nearby to evacuate. (Local officials told the AP that the number of people in harm’s way was likely smaller.) A flash flood warning remains downstream of the dam.

The US Army Corps of Engineers sent a team of experts to assess the damage, Aquino says. “What they’ve been doing is reducing the amount of water that the dam has right now,” she says, in order to decrease the pressure on the cracked portion. “With the reduction of the water that is in the dam, they have been able to keep it in a safe situation.”

The Army engineers found the dam “intact but in need of reinforcement to ensure stability,” according to an update from the DoD.

What to do

If you want to help people affected by Hurricane Maria, Vox rounded up a list of organizations that you can donate to, including local charities such as ConPRmetidos. The New York Times has also compiled a list of organizations, but urged doing your own research. To help, Vox reviewed some best practices to keep in mind when donating money to charity.

Update September 26th, 9:30pm: Updated to include the Department of Defense’s estimates about the percentage of people without water, and the US Army Corps of Engineers’ assessment of the Guajataca Dam.