CHARCO ABAJO, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Maria swept away the bridge that led in and out of Charco Abajo, a remote village in the mountainous inland of Puerto Rico, Carlos Ocasio and Pablo Perez Medina decided that they could not wait for help to arrive.
When the wind and rain calmed, the welder and the retired handyman climbed off the edge of the bridge and jumped down onto a pile of debris. They crossed the Vivi River, whose waters had risen to their chests, and walked several miles to a hardware store, where they bought a cable, a metal harness and wheels.
They built a pulley that now spans the gap where the bridge once was, and attached a shopping cart, after removing its legs and wheels, which they have been using to transfer food, water and supplies across the divide. Though aid groups began to arrive a week later, the two men, both 60 years old, raised a sign to describe how it felt in Charco Abajo immediately after the storm. It reads “Campamento de los Olvidados,” Spanish for “Camp of the Forgotten.”
Nearly a month after Maria devastated this island commonwealth, life remains a struggle. Even as some assistance has arrived, residents have learned to improvise without power or running water, especially those who live in remote areas, who waited the longest for help from emergency responders and for whom recovery is the farthest off.
The winding roads that once paved a lush, tree-lined route from San Juan, the capital, to Utuado now appear post-apocalyptic. Leafless, branchless trees, denuded by Maria’s winds, are tangled around one another and spill out into the highway. Rock formations, once covered with vegetation, have been stripped bare. Permanently windblown palm trees look like half-shaven heads. And houses that were once tucked neatly into the hills are now roofless, irreparably damaged wrecks sliding down the sides of them.
All that remains of the many wooden, one-room houses that once dotted the hills here are tall and narrow 3-sided concrete structures that were built to protect bathroom plumbing, and which are now surrounded by piles of rubble.
Examples of the creativity of people living in the mountains are on display across the countryside. All day and night, people who live in the mountains cluster along roadways to bathe and do laundry in places where locals have redirected water from higher up that spews out of PVC pipes. They fill empty bottles and buckets, which they use to clean their homes and flush toilets.
But for some, the situation is more fragile than it is for others.
More than 100 bridges in Puerto Rico were damaged by Maria and 18 have been closed indefinitely, according to Ivonne Rosario, a spokeswoman for Puerto Rico’s transportation department. An unknown number collapsed during the storm, leaving entire communities like Charco Abajo stranded.
Down a series of dirt roads that are still covered with mangled trees, fallen power lines and fiber-optic cables, Charco Abajo is home to about 120 people, mostly adults who are retired or unemployed, and a few children.
At 47, Lilia Rivera hobbles at the pace of someone decades older. She speaks in a whisper because her vocal cords are partly paralyzed. And she is hypersensitive to allergens — the slightest whiff of smoke, chemicals or perfume can cause her throat to close.
Her remote location and health problems, caused by exposure to pesticides, have made her doubly vulnerable to Hurricane Maria’s destruction.
“At the beginning, I was asked if I wanted to leave,” she said, sitting with her cane resting in her lap in her light-filled living room on a rural hillside in the Utuado municipality. “But wherever I go, the environment needs to be controlled. That doesn’t exist in a shelter.”
Despite having been trapped in their homes for three weeks and subsisting on dwindling reserves of bottled water and ready-to-eat military meals, some residents are surprisingly at ease. On the day they were visited by a reporter, they were quick to point out that other Puerto Ricans were living in worse circumstances, though it was hard to imagine whom they could have been talking about.
Marilyn Luciano, who has taken on the unofficial role of village secretary, went door to door to check on her neighbors. She chatted casually about her son who lives in Florida and was recently married.
Luciano said that the laid-back spirit of people who live in the mountains of Puerto Rico is what is helping them weather the storm. “This is what we do,” she said. “It’s who we are.”
Even Rivera and her family were hesitant to complain. She, her husband, three children and one grandchild all live together and were born and raised in Utuado.
Her husband, Leonardo Medina, a retired distribution worker in the pharmaceutical industry, was busy chopping fallen trees outside their home when they were visited by a reporter. After the family lost power, he connected Rivera’s oxygen tank to a car battery, which is now powering it through an inverter.
Medina said that if his wife’s health were to begin to deteriorate, he knew that his neighbors would not hesitate to help him carry her across the river.
Rivera chimed in. “We Puerto Ricans are fighters and hard workers,” she said, “My life depends on it.”