SAN LORENZO, Puerto Rico (Reuters) – In the Puerto Rican village of San Lorenzo, where Hurricane Maria destroyed the two-lane concrete bridge connecting residents with the outside world, 95-year-old Rosa Maria Torres waits to be rescued.
“If they don’t move her out of here, she’s going to die,” Carmen Santos, Torres’ granddaughter, said on Thursday.
San Lorenzo remains without power or running water and Santos wants to get her bedridden grandmother, who has developed a festering skin ulcer on top of her anemia and thyroid problems, out soon. She has gone to the capital, San Juan, four times since the storm struck on Sept. 20, traveling by car on a two-hour detour over a perilous mountain road, looking in vain for someone who can airlift Torres.
Before the storm, a hospital was only a 15-minute drive away in the town of Morovis. Without the bridge, the only way out is wading across a river knee-deep now that floodwaters have receded, or detouring by car on the mountain road. Santos did not think her grandmother would survive either option.
Like many remote villages in Puerto Rico, San Lorenzo is contending with a silent public health crisis in the wake of the strongest hurricane to hit the island in decades: isolation.
One villager, dependent on dialysis treatment, was placed in a water barrel and pushed across the river by his neighbors. For the final few yards, he was carried on another man’s back, locals said, and then loaded into a waiting ambulance.
Santos says she is frustrated by the U.S. military helicopters that regularly fly over San Lorenzo, droning like overgrown mosquitoes. Why, she wonders, cannot one of them whisk away her frail grandmother?
“This stinks,” Santos said tearfully, leaving the stifling room in which her frail grandmother lay so as not to upset her. “I‘m powerless.”
No one can say when – or if – the bridge will be rebuilt, but it is unlikely to be a high priority on an island with so many needs after the hurricane. Fuel supplies remain limited and electricity and cellular phone service are still out in much of Puerto Rico.
“People are desperate,” said San Lorenzo police officer Luis Burgos, who now lives in a nearby town.
His parents still reside in San Lorenzo and after Maria hit, he set out at 7 a.m. to check on his parents, walking until he arrived at the village at 5 p.m. They were OK, he said, but their house, on the brow of a hill overlooking the river, was destroyed.
Burgos said his mother broke down when she saw him.
“I feel very sad” for them, he said, surveying the village’s twisted roofs and stripped vegetation. “I‘m young but they’re not.”
Marelys Hernandez, a 26-year-old housewife, forded the river on Thursday to visit her mother, fretting about the rain that was predicted to fall.
“If it rises, there they will stay,” Hernandez said, gesturing toward the river.
Maria Pagan, 35, wonders how many people will continue to live in the village if repairs are not made soon. She said U.S. officials came and took measurements after the bridge fell but nobody had returned and there was no word about plans to rebuild.
With schools closed until at least January and their main link to the world broken, many village residents, Pagan said, are considering fleeing to the mainland United States.
“They’re going to leave Puerto Rico,” she said.
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Reporting by Gabriel Stargardter and Hugh Bronstein; Photography by Carlos Barria; Editing by Sue Horton and Bill Trott