Living tough for many in PR

BY SUSAN KIM | UTUADO, P.R. | October 29, 1998


UTUADO, P.R. (Oct. 29, 1998) -- The night Hurricane Georges struck

Puerto Rico, Raymond Rivera was in the worst possible place -- his home.

What's left of the one-room concrete dwelling is still perched on the bank

of the Vivi River in the mountains of west central Puerto Rico.

Rivera was born and raised in Utuado. He has heard the moan of high

winds many times, just as he's seen the river rise and the torrential rains

fall. But Hurricane Georges, he says, is the worst yet for this town.

"I know these waters very well," he said. "I swam in this river when I

was five years old. But I've never seen water come down from the mountain

like that. The river came like a lion and didn't leave anything behind it."

Hurricane Georges dumped 25 inches of rain over Utuado on the night of Sept. 21, flooding the Vivi and Quebra Grande rivers and sending seven feet of w

ater and mud straight through Rivera's front door.

That night Rivera was laying in his hammock bed inside, listening to

battery-powered radio reports of the storm and to the howling wind outside.

"Finally I just opened the door, and it hit me back in the face. The

water behind it came rushing into the house," he said, gesturing around

him. He still lives here.

A new hammock is hanging, but the rest of the house is bare. All of

Rivera's belongings were swept away by raging waters. "Here is where the

stove was, here the TV, here a little wooden table with chairs I had built

myself."

The storm left Rivera with one pair of shoes, a pair of pants, a shirt,

and $7 in his pocket. "I have a few dollars in the bank," he said. "I also

have a shop here in town. I was a refrigeration technician. I lost every

tool, every part."

The week before the hurricane, Rivera had seeded his lawn and had

constructed 20-feet of a 5-foot-high retaining wall along the river bank.

The wall was demolished. What was once Rivera's yard is now a pit of mud.

National Guardsmen are still dredging the river and clearing debris with a

bulldozer.

A month after the hurricane, things still look bleak to Rivera. "To tell

you the truth, I don't know what I'm going to do," he said. "I'm glad I

didn't die in the storm, but now I'm afraid I will anyway."

Rivera has applied for funds from the Federal Emergency Management

Agency (FEMA), and FEMA representatives have already visited his property

to assess the damages. His request -- one among tens of thousands called

into FEMA during the storm's aftermath -- will be processed by the

over-burdened agency. Rivera should receive aid within two weeks.

"But what until then?" he asks.

In Utuado and other mountain communities in western and central Puerto

Rico, Rivera's story is most people's story. Downed power lines lie in

heaping tangles on the roadside. Broken water lines protrude from the

hillside, and makeshift temporary pipes route water from the mountaintops

to people who wait in line with containers below. The road through the town

simply ends where the river has washed it away.

The bright red clay of new mudslides, some as wide as 200 yards, shows

up on mountainsides for miles around Utuado. The slides are full of roofs,

whole trees, parts of cars, shards of homes, and lost belongings -- a baby

carriage, a knitted quilt, broken dishes, a refrigerator door. Homes teeter

on the edge of new precipices created by mudslides that occur almost daily.

A normal afternoon rain could send the houses -- and the families living in

them -- over the edge.

Families spend most of their time outdoors. One woman hangs clothes off

the porch railing while two children play at her feet. Another family cooks

over an open fire. In another yard, a loose cow grazes on piles of upturned

brush. Some people have simply gone, hanging signs on their doors in case

family members come looking for them.

Across the mountains, small crops of plantains, cheyote, and coffee look

torn and bedraggled. Although these crops are not large Puerto Rican

exports, domestic consumption is enough to keep small farmers in business.

Now it will take as long as three years for them to recover.

As the National Guard continues to haul away debris, and the Red Cross

dispenses emergency aid, church organizations are trying to organize a

long- term response.

Shirley Norman, a Church World Service disaster response facilitator

from Pa. who has spent nearly a month in Puerto Rico since the hurricane,

compared Utuado to an Appalachian community in Pennsylvania or West

Virginia. "The hurricane devastated self-employed people and small

farmers," she said. "And people in the mountains are used to making a

living on their own. They don't want to ask for help, or they aren't

familiar with the process of applying for help."

"We need volunteers who are willing to travel to these areas, to listen

to people, and to take them what they need to get back on their feet."

Because mountain roads were inaccessible, Norman was unable to travel

Utuado until three weeks after the storm hit. When she saw the conditions,

the community became a priority.

"For weeks, the newspapers have said that those in concrete houses were

fine, but when you're sliding off the mountain, concrete doesn't help. Some

people in the larger cities have no idea of what it's like here."

Posted: Oct. 30, 1998


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