Puerto Rico begins hurricane recovery with most of island still without power and water

Hurricane Fiona is expected to hit Bermuda hard as a Category 4 storm. But when it saturated Puerto Rico earlier this week, it did plenty of damage as a Category 1 storm and set back the modest progress made in the five years since Hurricane Maria. William Brangham reports on the impact the storm has had on communities across the island.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hurricane Fiona is expected to hit Bermuda hard as a Category 4 storm as early as tomorrow.

    But when it saturated Puerto Rico earlier this week, it did extensive damage as a Category 1 storm and set back the modest progress made since the island was hit by Hurricane Maria five years ago.

    William Brangham reports on how the storm has affected communities across the island.

  • William Brangham:

    Just days ago, these lakes between houses were in fact roads. Since then, Hurricane Fiona has moved on from Puerto Rico, leaving the island and its residents to reckon with the damage left behind.

    For Zulma Vazquez, the memories and fear she felt five years ago with Hurricane Maria came rushing back.

  • Zulma Vazquez, Puerto Rico Resident (through translator):

    When Maria happened, it was nighttime, and only my mom and I remained. She was 93 years old, bedridden, disabled. And we almost drowned. I couldn't leave her. I thought this was going to be the same or worse.

  • William Brangham:

    She had finally rebuilt her roof before Fiona hit. And, this time, it withstood the storm. She was one of the lucky ones. Many homes across the island were badly damaged.

    Vazquez lives in the fishing town of Los Naranjos in Vega Baja. It is located in the wetlands between the Cibuco River and a natural reserve. Founded by freed slaves over 100 years ago, it is a tight-knit, family-oriented community.

    Carla Medina (ph), one of Vazquez's neighbors and mother of two, has to sweep up the Fiona's mess. The storm dumped an estimated 20 to 30 inches of rain across the island. The Cibuco overflowed its banks, and sent two feet of water into her home. To save what she could, Medina stacked furniture on top of her bed.

    During the storm, she fled to her mom's house because it is on higher ground.

    Ricardo Laureano works on flood control and other projects here. He says, in a warming, these kinds of disasters will only become more common.

  • Ricardo Laureano, Independent Reef Researcher (through translator):

    People need to start being more aware of how we need to manage climate change. We can extend our lives if we do a good job restoring the ecosystem. That's what we need here.

  • William Brangham:

    Marisa Rojas, a local community leader, says the aftermath of these storms is always the real challenge.

  • Marisa Rojas, Community Leader (through translator):

    One of the biggest impacts are the floods. Many times, people don't even know where it is going to come from. During Maria, the effect was the next day, not during the hurricane.

  • William Brangham:

    For many, it will be a long and bumpy road to recovery. As the sun goes down in Los Naranjos, volunteers distribute food and drinking water for those who need it. About 40 percent of the island still doesn't have potable water. But this aid isn't enough to calm the greater feeling of gloom here.

  • Vicente Girona Gonzalez, Puerto Rico Resident (through translator):

    We have no water, no electricity. We are in the ends of time.

  • William Brangham:

    It is even worse on the other side of the island, where the storm has left its mark on Yauco. Located in the southwest, it was one of the hardest-hit towns.

    Cesar Ramos just bought a house here about a month before Fiona badly damaged it.

  • Cesar Ramos, Puerto Rico Resident (through translator):

    We were told that this area was flood-prone, but not to this magnitude. And what we are dealing with now, that surprised me. We were not prepared.

  • William Brangham:

    Now, having strengthened into a Category 4 storm, Fiona is making its way north. Heavy winds have damaged Turks and Caicos, after dumping heaps of rain on the Dominican Republic. It is set to hit Bermuda next.

    But the communities Fiona has torn apart along the way are now left to pick up the pieces.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I am William Brangham.

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