People cross a bridge what was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread, severe damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grids as well as agricultural destruction after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through.
Brian Jimenez had burned through dwindling supplies of scarce gasoline on a 45-minute drive in search of somewhere to fill his grandmother’s blood thinner prescription. He ended up in Fajardo, a scruffy town of strip malls on Puerto Rico’s northeastern tip, where a line of 400 waited outside a Walmart.
The store had drawn desperate crowds of storm victims who had heard it took credit or debit cards and offered customers $20 cash back – a lifeline in an increasingly cashless society. Store employees allowed customers in, one by one, for rationed shopping trips of 15 minutes each.
Then, at noon, the store closed after its generator croaked and before Jimenez could get inside to buy his grandmother’s medicine.
“Every day we say, ‘What’s the thing that we need the most today?’ and then we wait in a line for that,” said Jimenez, a 24-year-old medical student from Ponce, on the island’s southern coast.
By Saturday, 11 days after Hurricane Maria crippled this impoverished U.S. territory, residents scrambled for all the staples of modern society – food, water, fuel, medicine, currency – in a grinding survival struggle that has gripped Puerto Ricans across social classes.
For days now, residents have awoken each morning to decide which lifeline they should pursue: gasoline at the few open stations, food and bottled water at the few grocery stores with fuel for generators, or scarce cash at the few operating banks or ATMs. The pursuit of just one of these essentials can consume an entire day – if the mission succeeds at all – as hordes of increasingly desperate residents wait in 12-hour lines.
As criticism mounts about a slow disaster response by President Donald Trump’s administration, residents here in Fajardo said that had seen little if any presence from the federal government. Across the island, the sporadic presence of the Federal Emergency Management Agency or the U.S. military stood in sharp contrast to their comparatively ubiquitous presence after hurricanes Harvey and Irma recently hit Texas and Florida.
The severe shortages have thrown even relatively affluent Puerto Ricans into the same plight as the hundreds of thousands of poor residents here. The broad humanitarian crisis highlights the extreme difficulty of getting local or federal disaster relief to a remote U.S. island territory with an already fragile infrastructure and deeply indebted government.