Weeks after Irma, Puerto Rico’s south still thirsty and waiting in line

Two weeks after Hurricane Maria changed Puerto Rico, people on the deeply bruised south side of the island are sweaty, thirsty and waiting in line.

While Black Hawk helicopters buzzed above San Juan and President Donald Trump visited the bustling northern capital this week, at a Banco Popular in Ponce, the largest city on the southern coast, hundreds of people stood in the midday sun hoping to get cash before it ran out, or before the precarious computer system went down.

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Three lines threaded through the parking lot Tuesday like queues at Disney World – one for the ATM, one to go inside the bank and one for municipal workers. A bent old man sold sweet frozen slushies from a push cart. Kids played as parents waited because there was no school and no one knew when there would be again.

No one tapped on smartphones made useless by Maria, and few cared that the president had landed.

“Your typical Puerto Rican out there with no means could care less that Trump is here, even if they know he’s here,” said Victor Hernandez, a South Palm Beach resident who returned to his homeland this past week hoping to expedite supplies to the southern coast. “It’s not like he’s showing up to the Port of Ponce with three ships of water and food.”

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So much sand was pushed into the port on the southside of the island, it was unknown until Saturday night what kind of ships could bring in supplies. On Tuesday, its gantry canes still stood quiet.

The daily schedule for many on this side of the island is a morning inventory of needs, and a calculation of what can be gathered before curfew goes into effect at 9 p.m. Usually, it’s only one or two things, and those things are usually gas and water.

The bank is a day-long effort. Without electricity, Internet or cell service, stores can’t take debit or credit cards. Having cash is everything.

Some people at Banco Popular clutched colorful umbrellas Tuesday to shade them from the searing equatorial sun. Under a bright red one with a crooked tine was Joel Albino, 29, and his 1 1/2-year-old son Jayden.

PHOTOS: Hurricane Maria damage in Puerto Rico 

“It’s been really difficult,” said Albino, who had moved forward about 50 feet in more than an hour and said he sets aside about seven hours for a bank run. “If I need water or gas, I go each morning and get in line, but water has all but disappeared.”

Gas lines are running three to four hours, Albino said. Sometimes he gets in a line only to find out that there is no gas and people are just waiting in the off chance that a fuel truck arrives. Getting water means waiting in line at a store that is letting only a handful of people in at a time.

“Every day I have to go somewhere else looking for water,” Albino said. “When people hear there is water they start running. People go crazy when they see the water. And by the time you get there, there is none.”

Before Maria, Albino said he would drink about a gallon of water a day, two if it was hot and he was working outside. Now he limits himself to one bottle of water a day.

“Water? Don’t even bother looking for it. Ice? Don’t even bother,” said Jorge Gonzalez, 54, who stood about 80 people ahead of Albino in line Tuesday. “You can get two cans of spaghetti, two cans of tuna fish, but the main thing, water, you can’t find.”

Gonzalez was upset that neighborhood stores he’s frequented for decades wouldn’t give him credit when his cash ran out.

“They say on the radio we are going to get help, but it’s like we are on our own,” he said.

On Tuesday, Banco Popular was allowing generous withdrawals of $500, for those who had $500 in their account.

Puerto Rico has a 12-percent unemployment rate and about 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty level.

And while the focus has been on San Juan, less populated areas relied on a patchwork of aid this past week. A rabble of rescuers. A battalion of energy-bar gobbling Good Samaritans. A Palm Beach gardener. And an assortment of celebrities.

“This is quite amazing for America,” said Scott Lewis, founder of West Palm Beach-based Eagles Wings Foundation and a Palm Beach County landscaper. “This is not a Third World country, this is America. These are U.S. citizens.”

Lewis is working with Victor Hernandez to speed aid to the south.

Ramon Hernandez, mayor of the 50,000-person town Juana Diaz, said many of his residents complain they are paid by direct deposit, but either the money isn’t making it into their accounts, they can’t get to the bank to take it out, or their bank isn’t open. Where lines form that seem unusual, like outside of a convenience store with little food left, it’s usually people waiting for the ATM or waiting for someone to fill the ATM with cash.

“That is the reality of people,” Hernandez said.

On Tuesday, the first signs that the federal government might be digging deeper to help southern Puerto Rico showed at the Mercedita Airport near Ponce where an employee said the military was setting up shop and two helicopters were seen taking off.

At hard-hit Santa Isabel, resident Maria Franco, 18, helped hand out food Saturday during a messy distribution with a ragtag line. There is a method to keep people moving so that a crowd doesn’t become a mob — use a school bus loop, for example — but the town volunteers don’t know that.

The meals were from the third small donation the town had received, although Franco wasn’t sure where it came from, FEMA or the Red Cross.

“It’s been hard because we are receiving food but not enough for everyone,” she said. “Sometimes there are too many people and we can’t keep track of who is taking what.”

She said the town donated juice, and she and other volunteers delivered it in the heat to more remote areas. Some people were happy, others were not.

“They said, ‘It’s been this long and you are just bringing juice?’” she said. “But it was cold, it was cold juice.”

At a Tuesday handout of shoebox-size FEMA food boxes — cereal, milk, three fruit cups, bread, a breakfast bar and one each of a salty and sweet snack — Santa Isabel residents came and went with their share in the same haphazard, but mostly calm, way. It was one box per family.

Each person got two 16-ounce bottles of water.

Bryan Rodriguez, 23, said he would leave Puerto Rico if he could.

“I love Puerto Rico, this is my country, but it is getting desperate,” he said.

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