The entire island of Puerto Rico, home to 3.4 million Americans, is looking at potentially more than a month without power and has seen its agricultural sector decimated; from above, the island is now “a completely different color” due to lack of vegetation. A FEMA spokesperson told ABC News that over 4 million meals, 6 million liters of water, 70,000 tarps and 15,000 rolls of roof sheeting have been sent to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, with additional supplies, and the USNS Comfort, en route; as of right now, however, it’s not enough to prevent widespread suffering and chaos.
Several days in, people are now “gasping for air” in the heat, the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, told ABC News.
“We need to get our shit together because people are dying,” Cruz told CBS News in another interview. In Manati, a town on the north shore, a crying mayor told the Associated Press on Sunday that “hysteria is starting to spread” for lack of fuel and fresh water.
“It’s extremely stressful from this side, that you can’t do anything, but your hands are tied,” Vernnaliz Carrasquillo, 39, explained to Jezebel in a phone call. “I wish people would care a little bit more.” Carrasquillo, an assistant professor of engineering at Eastern Michigan University, reached out to Jezebel to connect us with her sister Yahaira Marie Carrasquillo, who runs a nursing home with 11 elderly patients in Caguas, a city in eastern Puerto Rico that news reports have described as “hard hit” by Maria. Caguas apparently received more rain in a day (39.67 inches) than Seattle usually gets in an entire year.
After several attempts, we were able to get in touch. “I’ve heard that there’s a lot of help coming from the United States to here, but that help isn’t coming to our homes,” Yahaira Marie, 36, told Jezebel in an emotional interview. The nursing home roof collapsed during the hurricane, flooding the building, and the generator her family just bought has broken down. Caguas, she said, was “completely destroyed.”
Ecleen Caraballo, social editor for Jezebel and Splinter News, conducted the following interview in Spanish. It has been lightly edited for space and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Tell me a little bit about what it’s been like for you after Hurricane Maria hit Caguas.
YAHAIRA MARIE CARRASQUILLO: Horrible. Horrible. At the moment they say that there’s gas but the lines are endless, and they give you a $10-15 maximum per person. And the private electric companies are nowhere to be seen on the streets. We don’t see that anything is being done to fix the electric [grid] or people who are without water. There is no help. We don’t see any help, and there’s not enough police on the streets to verify that everything’s okay, so there are people who are going out to the streets to rob. Actually, just few moments ago, a few armed people went to a gas station to steal gas for their cars at gunpoint. Plus, food is limited. If you go to a bakery, they give you a pound of bread per family.
I have a nursing home and our entire kitchen was ruined. The ceiling caved, the refrigerator was ruined, the stove… everything. We had a generator and it got ruined yesterday. It’s new, and it’s ruined. We can’t turn it on, and so now we have no electricity for our residents here. We have people who are bedridden and we have people who depend on oxygen and there is no help.
The level of desperation and anxiety on the streets is horrible.
Is there running water?
Some people do have it, and some don’t. Here at our nursing home, we just got water yesterday. But we still have no electricity.
Have you spoken to neighbors and friends in the area? How’s the situation on their end?
The same. Everyone is full of uncertainty. To go into the supermarkets, the few that are open, you have to form an enormous line to get in, and they let you in in groups of five and someone watches over you to make sure that no one steals anything. You can only pay with cash, and it’s very limited in terms of what you can buy. We just got pampers for the patients today.
Has anyone come to offer help?
No. No one has come to help. Nothing. Not even to fix the kitchen, which is what we need. We need help to be able to buy a new stove and kitchen and get back to our usual day to day things.
And have you been able to communicate with authorities?
Well, the telephone lines are really bad. We tried to call and the calls aren’t going through. We went directly to the emergency center and they basically didn’t do anything, they just told [us] that “everyone is going through the same thing.”
How do you feel about the way you’ve been treated/the response you’ve gotten from local authorities as well as aid from abroad?
The truth is that I don’t know. I’ve heard that there’s a lot of help coming from the United States to here, but that help isn’t coming to our homes. It’s going to the hospitals and perhaps the shelters. It goes to specific people, not the general population. And so that’s what everyone is worried about because there are people who are donating a lot of money, artists who are donating millions of dollars. In different states, they’re collecting resources. But the truth is, those things never get to people’s homes directly. It goes to shelters and perhaps hospitals but it doesn’t get to me. The little that I’ve gotten is from family members who have brought things over to us, because I lost half of everything that I bought before the hurricane hit; it all got wet. Everything that wasn’t non-perishables got ruined.
And when the hurricane hit, did you expect more aid?
Of course. At one of the press conferences, the governor said that the nursing homes would be a priority. But when we went to the emergency center and told them we don’t have electricity, we don’t have gas for the generator, we have people in bed who depend on oxygen 24/7—they basically said, “We have the same problem, we don’t have gas for our police cars.” In other words, what is being said on TV and on the radio is completely different from what’s actually happening.
Tell me a little bit about that reality. What is Caguas like now in comparison to what it was before?
Oh, Caguas is destroyed. Completely destroyed. Cement pots are broken from the root as if they were wood pencils that you break in half. There are practically no trees, and if there are any left, they have no leaves. Homes without roofs and people living there not being rescued…
How do you see the reconstruction process going?
No idea. No idea.
I imagine you haven’t had the room to think about that yet.
Not at all. Not yet. There’s no way. [Crying] We just sit there and look.
Tell me a bit about your nursing home.
It’s named Casa de Emmanuel, Dios con Nosotros [Home of Emmanuel, God With Us]. We have capacity for 13, and currently have 11. They’re good for the moment. They’re a bit disoriented and a bit anxious, but overall they are good. We try to keep them as busy as we can when we can.
Do you have children as well?
Yeah, they’re 12 and 13. And I have my husband as well.
I imagine that it’s difficult to have them, as well as the residents at the home, depending on you.
Yeah, it’s horrible.
In this moment, what’s your priority?
The nursing home, because they really depend on us. With my kids, luckily my mom is here in Puerto Rico and so she helps us a lot with them. But our home was also hit and suffered some damages so we’re trying to resolve everything at home and at the nursing home.
What do you need most right now?
We need to fix the kitchen because if we don’t fix that, this home is uninhabitable. Imagine, we have residents whose family members haven’t even checked in to see if they’re okay. They only have us. So, a roof for the ceiling is our biggest need. And, obviously, when the roof caved in the fridge and stove got ruined, so that’s the priority.
And were you able to communicate with the rest of your family?
Yeah, we’re the only ones with signal right now—my husband and I—and so we’ve been in charge of calling the rest of the family to make sure they’re okay.
I know people who have not yet been able to reach family and friends in PR right now. What would you say to people who are still waiting?
Wow. Well, only God can help us in these times. Because there’s no way… it’s hard. No matter where you look, there’s destruction. It’s exhausting.
I know it may not feel like it right now but, you’re strong. Thanks for everything you’re doing. Lastly, aside from the kitchen—for those who aren’t able to be there physically to help you out, how can they help?
I don’t know… Money? Money, so that when banks re-open, we can start the rebuilding process.
Since first publication, this post has been updated with photos, all courtesy Yahaira Marie Carasquillo.
Correction: In a previous version of this post, Carrasquillo said there is a $10 minimum for gas; she told us she had meant to say $10 maximum, adding that in some places it’s $15. This also previously read that bakeries were allocating one pound of bread per person; it’s actually one pound of bread per family.