An American Abroad

Tarping in Chupacabra Country

We met at 9:30 Saturday morning at a Thai restaurant in Santurce. The eight of us loaded up three SUVs with water filter kits, tarps, tools, a generator, gasoline, diapers, OTC meds, and water.

I lashed a ladder to the roof rack of the 4Runner and we were off, caravanning east on Puerto Rico 66.

In half an hour we reached Canóvanas, a town of about 50,000 people. Its claim to fame is that the chupacabra, a ferocious mythical animal, supposedly exsanguinated and killed 150 farm animals and pets there in 1995. City officials promoted chupacabra tourism to the cryptozoological community after that, but it never really caught on. I guess if you advertise that sort of thing, you eventually have to produce a real live chupacabra or people lose interest. Anyway, I spent the whole day there and was disappointed that I didn’t glimpse a single blood-sucking monster (unless you count city officials and other politicians).

We parked in a very poor neighborhood, split up into teams, and began walking door to door, taking a disaster census and trying to get some sense of who needed what. We enlisted two neighborhood boys, Alejandro (age 11) and Javier (age 10) as our guides.

As usual with kids that age, they knew the neighborhood, its people, and their secrets remarkably well. After a while, I turned over my camera to them. Many of the pictures below were taken by them, not me.

Canóvanas got hammered by Hurricane Maria. El Caño, the neighborhood we were in, was particularly vulnerable to her destructive power. At one edge of it lies an expanse of wetlands, separated from El Caño by a polluted stream. Opposite that are steep hillsides dotted with houses. When the storm hit, the wetlands and the stream overflowed dramatically. Houses were flooded up to their ceilings by water rising from below and pelted from above by winds, water, and mud rushing down the hillsides.

Personally, I’d rather take my chances with a chupacabra.

We found a number of houses that had been destroyed and abandoned.

We also found people who had the ubiquitous blue tarps over what remained of their roof, but who were still living in horrible conditions. Rotten floors. Black mold over everything. Missing walls. Sodden furniture.

We saw many houses with fresh-washed laundry hanging out to dry. I thought maybe Saturday was a traditional laundry day until one resident explained to us that they had just gotten their city water service restored a few days ago. For the two and a half months before then, washing clothes had been nearly impossible. And of course electricity there is still a distant memory.

There was a strong sentiment among the relief workers and the residents that political arrogance and infighting was to blame for the condition of the neighborhood. Many of the people who live there are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “The mayor sees no reason to help us, since we can’t vote for her,” one man told me.

Relief workers complained that the mayor of Canóvanas has tried to turn their efforts into political events and has even blocked people from receiving help.

As if to underscore the prevalence of disaster politics, while we were working in the poorest part of Canóvanas, a big helicopter flew overhead and deposited New York Governor Cuomo and Puerto Rican Governor Rossello at a big whoop-de-doo hosted by the mayor in the center of town (far from where we were working). “There were maybe 15 local people there,” one disgusted aid worker told me later. “It’s all politics, a backdrop. They all congratulated each other on what great work they’re doing, but they’re not doing shit for these people.”

After we’d done our initial assessment, we all met up again to decide what to do.

One team assembled and passed out water filters. Even though city water is back on, most people don’t believe it’s safe to drink. Another team continued exploring the neighborhood and tried to get a sense of where the most acute needs were.

The team I was with went to the home of a lovely 72 year old Dominican woman named Camelara. The corrugated roof of her house had been damaged in the hurricane and water was leaking into her bedroom every time it rained (which, on a tropical island, is pretty often).

It took the four of us the better part of the afternoon to secure her roof. We had to remove a large, heavy floodlight that was mounted up there. It was far too heavy to walk down a ladder with, so I hacked off a dangling length of coax from a nearby utility pole, tied it around the floodlight, and gently lowered it to the ground. One of our team used a sawzall to trim back some trees that were overhanging and brushing against the roof. Duct tape was applied to the edges of the corrugated metal so that they wouldn’t rip into the tarps as they dangled. Then we laid 1x3s on the tarps directly over the rafters (which we couldn’t see, but deduced the position of from the layout of the fasteners that held the corrugated steel). Using power screwdrivers, we screwed down through the 1x3s, the tarps, and the corrugated steel into the rafters.

It was hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. My face got fried to a lovely pre-melanomic hue and my shirt was soaked through. And I was the one on our team doing the least amount of work. The guys who did the lion’s share must have felt like they were being simultaneously baked and fried.

Finally we finished, brought our tools and supplies down, and sucked down ice water and beer our group leader brought for us. Carmelara dragged some chairs out of her ramshackle house and we sat down to talk, rest, and take stock of a job well done.

Camelara was witty, talkative, and warm. She thanked us repeatedly and insisted that we should come back next weekend and she would make hamburgers for us. The generosity runs both ways here.

The eight of us reassembled and caravanned into town for a meal, beer, and shots at a local restaurant. We drove back to San Juan, offloaded the ladder, tools, and remaining supplies at the Thai restaurant. I got back to my apartment about 7:45 and was taking a cold shower within minutes. Even though I’d eaten at the restaurant, I fixed myself a large second dinner and was asleep before 10:00.

United for Utuado

It was 60 days after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico. After an 80-minute drive from San Juan, 17 of us rendezvoused in Utuado, a down-at-the-heels town in central Puerto Rico.

The owners of a fabric store there allow United for Utuado to use their shop as a staging area for relief work. CP Smith, the man behind the organization, gave us our mission orders and reviewed the specs on the water filtration systems we were to give away.

Then we loaded my 4Runner and three other SUVs with the filters, MREs, packs of OTC meds, Pedialyte, diapers, toiletries, and medical supplies.

Our team consisted of Angel, a gastroenterologist; Francisco, an internal medicine physician; Dee, a restaurant owner and force of nature; and Khalah, a computer programmer who handled nav and comms. I was the wheelman and general factotum.

We crossed the remaining river bridges that dot the town and headed up from the valley into the mountains.

It was raining. The roads were bad, deeply potholed stretches of crumbling pavement barely wider than the truck.

Downed electric lines littered our path. We just rolled over them.

We passed many houses that had been destroyed by the hurricane. These were somber reminders that people here had died in the storm and its immediate aftermath.

As we wound our way up, we traversed portions of road that had been washed out by rain and mudslides. Their edges were defined by sheer drops down the mountains. I worried that the remaining roadways might have been undermined by rushing water; I hugged the mountain as much as possible. Conversation in the truck slowed as we motored upward. The 4Runner rarely got out of first gear.

More than one person we talked to en route told us that not long ago, a car had slipped off the edge of the road and rolled down the mountain, killing all but one member of the family inside. After that, one of the doctors got out of the 4Runner and walked across a particularly dubious-looking stretch of cliff-edged pavement. Whether this was out of genuine concern for his hide or a humorous attempt to scare the rest of us I couldn’t work out.

Our primary objective was to distribute and install water filters and teach people to use them. The heart of these devices is a cylinder about the size of a bratwurst. Inside each is a bundle of carbon nanotubes, each 0.1 microns in diameter. To set these up, we used a tiny butane torch and a utility knife to poke a hole a Homer Bucket, a garbage can, or some other plastic container. We installed a tap through the hole and connected the tap to a filter.

Installing the filters in deeper buckets posed some interesting challenges and provided one of the few lighter moments of the day.

The nanotubes screen out bacteria and particulates. This is vital in a region where people are drinking from mountain streams. There have been hundreds of cases of leptospirosis here many of them fatal. Fine as the filters are, though, they don’t stop viruses or atomic-level contaminants such as heavy metals and other toxins.

The doctors in our team performed medical assessments, passsed out OTC meds, and noted serious conditions that might require evac or hospitalization.

All of us took note of situations that might require follow-up from social workers, medical teams, FEMA, or other relief workers.

We also dropped geolocation pins in a mapping app at each stop and took a census at each house. This data went straight to an outfit in Cambridge, Massachusetts which is compiling a detailed disaster map of the region.

To describe the area around Utuado as marked by rural poverty would be accurate but insufficient. It’s also marked by very intelligent and resourceful people. Living on a mountainside isn’t easy, but it breeds self-reliance and a spirit of neighborly assistance. One area of the road that had been partially washed out had been rebuilt by the locals using felled power poles, downed guy wires, pieces of blown-off corrugated roofing, and their own ingenuity.

In the same area, a man was raising downed power lines (which weigh hundreds if not thousands of pounds) that hung limp from the remaining utility poles. He attached the broken end to the back of his Corolla, drove forward, and slowly lifted and tightened them. Everyone we saw had some kind of jerry-rigged water collection apparatus.

The individual stories we heard were as many and varied, as uplifting and disturbing, as simple and complex as the rest of human experience.

We interrupted one woman as she and a couple neighbors were about to celebrate her birthday. We installed a water filter on a Homer Bucket, which she said was the best birthday present she could have hoped for.

We found another woman sitting in front of her hillside house high on something with a telltale thousand-yard stare. She made no move to get up. The doctors examined severe burns on her ankles and shoulders, which she vaguely explained she got “when a candle exploded.” Her two daughters, maybe eight and five, ran barefoot in the street, ate Chef Boyardee cold from the can, or played on a sodden mattress that was angled precariously on the front porch. Around the back of the house, we were alarmed to see that one of its concrete support beams had been dislodged by the storm and the mudslides.

We put together a water filter for her, but I had no confidence that she understood our instructions on how to use and maintain it. This was one case where Dee followed up with FEMA and other relief agencies in hopes that, at the very least, the family could be relocated somewhere safer.

A smiling seventyish man with a well-muscled frame, leathery brown skin, and a shock of silver hair began to give Dee a tour of his property. As he explained the improvements he had made over the years, he began to cry. “What will I do now? I love you. I love you. Thank you for coming,” he repeated.

Our most poignant stop took place toward the end of the day. By then, we were out of radio range of the other three trucks and anxious to get back to town, lest the others worry about us. An older woman led us into her house where, in what once might have been a living room, was a large crib. Lying crabbed on the mattress was her eleven-year-old grandson, a child with severe cerebral palsy and other profound disabilities. He wore only a diaper. He looked at us from his contorted position and might have smiled.

The doctors examined the boy and pronounced him in good condition and free of bedsores. The room was cluttered but clean. There was no sickroom odor. Solar panels and big batteries, donated by another relief agency, kept fans and other electricals running. Most remarkable was the grandmother’s beatific smile and easy laugh. Caring for a seriously disabled child on a remote mountainside would drive me into deepest despair. I marveled at her strength and character.

Back in town, we reconnected with the other teams, unloaded the remaining supplies into the fabric store, and went to a local restaurant for dinner. It was decompression for us all. We shared our experiences. Though the day had been long, we all felt energized. As we sat and talked, the power went out for about twenty minutes, reminding us that there is still much work to be done here.