Puerto Ricans Describe Utter Devastation A Week After Hurricane Maria: ‘We’re Breathing’

One woman's grandfather, who lives in the center of the country, relies on dialysis to clean his blood. Powerless to get to a hospital, he hasn't had the procedure in six days.

"He's stuck in his house in the middle of the island because there are no roads," she said. "We really need a helicopter at this point."

The problems are the worst for the elderly and people with disabilities. Stanchich said one of her neighbors, an elderly woman who recently had a knee replacement, was released from the hospital two days ago. But the rehabilitation center she was supposed to go to for physical therapy is closed. And Stanchich's building has no elevator, meaning the woman, who lives alone, would be stuck.

Stanchich said she begged the hospital staff to let her stay. When they resisted, Stanchich asked if another rehab center could take her. The staff had no phone access, so they showed her the locations of other facilities on a map.

"They said: 'Here's the other center. You can go there and ask,'" Stanchich said.

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(Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

People with diabetes and other life-threatening diseases who rely on refrigeration to keep their medications stable are extremely vulnerable. While at the hospital, Stanchich said she came across a woman in the hallway who was crying and "pleading for ice because her husband's insulin was out."

Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of diabetes in the US. The latest estimates suggest that roughly 16% of Puerto Ricans have diabetes, compared with about 10% of the rest of the US population.

Insulin, the hormone that regulates blood-sugar levels and can be taken intravenously, must be refrigerated and can be kept at room temperature (up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit) for only 28 days, according to the Independent Diabetes Trust. Even evening temperatures in Puerto Rico have exceeded that level most days since the storm.

"The problems are compounded by the fact the heat and humidity are overwhelming, even by Puerto Rican standards," Diego Ramirez-Bigott, a longtime resident of the Ocean Park neighborhood of San Juan, told Business Insider via Facebook message after our call with him was dropped.

Basic services are interrupted

It's not just food and water that are lacking — most of the island's schools are shuttered, along with many of its gas stations. Without electricity, many ATMs do not work, so people cannot withdraw money.

A bank near San Juan opened temporarily for the first time since the storm at 9:30 a.m. on Monday.

"People were lined up around the block at 6 a.m.," Stanchich said.

Lines for gas also stretch as far as the eye can see in many places, sometimes causing traffic jams. "We were going to the hospital to visit a friend and we're of course low on gas — we have a quarter tank — and people are waiting hours and hours on the gas lines," Stanchich said. "Some people ran out while they were in line."

"We were going to the hospital to visit a friend, and we're of course low on gas — we have a quarter tank — and people are waiting hours and hours on the gas lines," Stanchich said. "Some people ran out while they were in line."

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(People waiting to buy gasoline in Caguas, Puerto Rico.Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

Emergency supplies have been shipped to some areas, but most have yet to be distributed because of road closures. Sotomayor, who has been keeping up with the situation on social media, said she had seen reports of food and water at the ports, but that it was "a matter of distribution — the roads are destroyed."

Networks of resilience

Despite the dire circumstances, people are coming together to find joy and relief where they can.

After a nighttime curfew was imposed in San Juan, Stanchich said she saw people crowded around to listen and dance to some live music that broke out on the spot.

"We're breathing," she said. "Everybody's doing their best."

Sotomayor said she had also been astounded by the messages of hope and resilience she saw seen on social media. Puerto Ricans both on and off the island are sharing information to help deliver aid and respond to emergencies. (The Puerto Rican population living stateside, otherwise known as part of the Puerto Rican diaspora, is estimated at over 5 million.)

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(Men carrying a container of water in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico.Reuters/Carlos Garcia Rawlins)

"The 'diasporicans,' as we call ourselves, have been the ones connecting people and connecting news across towns," Sotomayor said. "I think for the first time the diaspora has really created this really powerful network to engage in a meaningful way."

On Sunday, Sotomayor finally learned that her parents and grandparents were safe. Her mother drove for four hours to get enough cell signal to call an aunt in Washington, DC.

"She just told my aunt: 'Look we don't know anything. You guys know a lot more than we do,'" Sotomayor said.

has been largely silent about what Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, has called a humanitarian crisis." data-reactid="171">Many Puerto Ricans have been dismayed by what they see as an insufficient response from President Donald Trump, who has been largely silent about what Puerto Rico's governor, Ricardo Rossello, has called a humanitarian crisis.

On Monday, the president acknowledged the situation amid a stream of tweets about the National Football League, saying, "Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble."

said on Tuesday that Puerto Rico's situation was much more difficult to handle than one in Florida or Texas because it was "in the ocean."" data-reactid="173">He said on Tuesday that Puerto Rico's situation was much more difficult to handle than one in Florida or Texas because it was "in the ocean."

Trump said at a joint press conference with Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. "It's out in the ocean — you can't just drive your trucks there from other states."" data-reactid="174">"It's the most difficult job because it's on the island, it's on an island in the middle of the ocean," Trump said at a joint press conference with Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy. "It's out in the ocean — you can't just drive your trucks there from other states."

Sotomayor has been one of many Americans voicing frustration with Washington's response.

"Our president is tweeting about the NFL, and then other people are like, 'Oh, your cruise is ruined,'" she said. "But actually, 3.4 million US residents live there. People don't really grasp that it's home for us."

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