City Puerto Ricans in ‘terrible destruction’ after Hurricane Fiona despair over city’s initial exclusion from aid

SAN GERMÁN, Puerto Rico – Jorge Luis Rivera, his wife and two young daughters were trapped for two days inside their home after Hurricane Fiona hit their farm, knocking down large trees and dragging down water from flood, asphalt and hard-earned crops on the sloping road in front of their property.

“It became a river, it took all the earth with it, all the asphalt. It took it all,” Rivera, 36, said in Spanish, speaking from his farm on Friday afternoon.

Landslides cut off Rivera’s farm, where it still lacks electricity and water, until heavy machinery arrived to try to clean up the destruction. Even some of the machines were damaged in the process, he said.

In San Germán, a municipality in southwestern Puerto Rico, families were trapped as tall trees in the area fell under the weight of Fiona’s winds and heavy rains, collapsing and cutting off roads. Some houses have suffered heavy damage and are without electricity and water.

Yet San Germán is among 20 municipalities initially excluded from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s request for individual assistance, based on the declaration of major disaster requested by the Governor of Puerto Rico and approved by President Joe Biden on Thursday. Most of the towns excluded were in the Southwest region, where Hurricane Fiona entered and left untold devastation.

Puerto Rican officials insist that more municipalities can be added to the major disaster declaration and request individual assistance once they have more information about the damage.

According to Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State, Omar Marrero.

“Almost All Lost”

But the residents of San Germán were frustrated that they could not immediately request individual help.

Rivera’s crops were “almost all lost,” he said, as he climbed the green and brown wreckage of Finca Ilán Ilán, part of Puerto Rico’s agroecological movement for sustainable agriculture. His calf-high boots were covered in mud, and he carried a machete to smash his way safely through all the debris.

Gone are the hundreds of avocados, coffee, eggplants, zucchini, and other crops that Rivera produces and sells to the community, primarily to nearby restaurants. What’s left is also wasted, as his regular customers have no electricity or water to reopen their businesses.

Jorge Luis Rivera, 36, a farmer in San Germán, Puerto Rico, who lost most of his crops to Hurricane Fiona.Daniella Silva/NBC News

“I try not to come here often, it depresses me too much,” he said, shaking his head and looking away from the wreckage of his crops. He estimates it could take him months to get power back, as it took more than five and a half months for power to return five years ago after Hurricane Maria.

The family’s generator broke down and to save what was left of the crops to feed his family, he hooked up his fridge to his car as a makeshift power source.

Nearly half of the 1.5 million electricity customers were still without power six days after the Fiona caused an island-wide blackout On Saturday morning, around 683,000 electricity customers had their electricity restored, which is about 47% of all customers, according to the Puerto Rican government’s emergency portal. Most customers who have been reconnected to the grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage.

Seventy-eight per cent, or 1,035,743 customers, had their water service restored by Saturday morning, according to the Water and Sewer Authority. As of Thursday, nearly 440,000 of these customers are served by temporary generators powering some water bombs. About 292,000 customers (22%) still have no water.

“Until FEMA comes along, I don’t know how we’re going to handle this”

Adrián Vázquez Bandas, 24, said in Spanish that residents of his hometown were extremely frustrated and upset by the exclusion of FEMA assistance.

“I go out here every day and I see the need out there,” said Vázquez Bandas, an agronomist and community organizer in the southwest region of the Instituto para la Agroecología, a local nonprofit that supports agroecological collectives. “Over here we have cables on the ground, collapsed bridges. I go out with my saw, drill, screws to clear the way if I come across any fallen debris trees.

The day before, Vázquez Bandas had helped install blue tarps in the homes of eight families who live near him.

“Although we are able to provide them with the materials they need to repair their roofs, all they can do is put up these blue tarps,” he said.

Many farmers in the southern and western regions lost all their crops. Despite the dismal result, Vázquez Bandas said his first instinct was to come out and help.

“They worked as emergency volunteers, cleaning up debris, setting up blue tarps,” he said. “They tell me they’d rather go out there and help than stay on their farms and mourn their loss.”

On Friday afternoon, 69-year-old Carmen Vázquez Ramos stood inside what was left of her wooden house as rain poured down in San Germán. Part of the house was destroyed by the storm, the mangled remains of its thin metal roof covering what was once a small wooden structure painted a brilliant sky blue. The washing machines disappeared with it, and the bathroom and kitchen were also damaged.

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