New York Magazine

100 Days of Darkness

HURRICANE MARIA was a natural disaster. The aftermath in Puerto Rico is a man-made catastrophe—with a body count that threatens to surpass Hurricane Katrina’s.
NOVEMBER 24 ALONE IN THE MOUNTAINS In rural Utuado, Manuel González holds a flashlight to illuminate the kitchen of the Serrano home, where as many as 10 people are still living without electricity.

On Wednesday, September 20, the eye of Hurricane Maria cut a slash directly across the island of Puerto Rico, from the southeast to the northwest. It arrived shortly after six in the morning, near the harbor at Yabucoa. Wind gusts peaked at 155 miles an hour, bending palm trees like straws and snapping others off near the roots. The storm’s center was 50 to 60 miles across—more than half the length of the island. It rolled at the leisurely pace of about ten miles an hour and hovered above the island’s mountainous center well into the morning. The wind tore hundreds of electrical-transmission towers from the ground and carried some of them through the air. Sheets of earth fell from the hillsides, smashing houses and erasing roads. The death toll began immediately: In the town of Utuado, a landslide came through the wall of a house where three elderly sisters had taken refuge, burying them alive. The island’s electrical grid and mobile-phone networks went down. At the headquarters of the bankrupt electric utility, the backup generator stopped working, as did the computer server, cutting off the chief executive from his own records. For the next few hours, the highest levels of the Puerto Rican government were paralyzed as officials struggled to obtain accurate information. But the scope of what had happened began to reveal itself soon enough. Bodies began to pile up beyond the capacity of the dark and fetid morgues.

During those first hours at Centro Médico, Puerto Rico’s largest, most sophisticated hospital, Maria tore off part of the roof and flooded the neonatal-intensive-care unit, forcing the evacuation of newborns to another floor. Around that time, the engineers in charge of the emergency room’s electric plant heard a crash. Outside, the wind had pulled a tree up from the concrete sidewalk and thrown it across the roof of the boiler room, where it smashed the exhaust vent of a Caterpillar 3512 diesel generator. This was one of three generators, each the size of a station wagon, designed as a backup system for temporary blackouts. It began to overheat. The crew threw a switch and took it offline. Two generators were enough to power the building, but each would need to be taken offline regularly for maintenance. One generator would be enough for only the most essential, critical systems. The chillers on the air-conditioning system would go dark. So would the computers, all but one of the elevators, most of the overhead lighting, and many of the electrical outlets.

Six months’ worth of rain fell in less than four days. The deluge cracked the spillway beneath the Guajataca Dam, near the western end of the island, prompting the government to order the evacuation of 70,000 people who lived downstream. In Aguada, the swollen Culebrinas River drowned two police officers. Closer to San Juan, the rains poured through the open gates of the La Plata Dam, swelling the La Plata River and overflowing the canals around the lowland pastures and cane fields of the municipality of Toa Baja. Trapped on the second stories of inundated homes, residents watched as torrents of water formed rapids above cars and the tops of trees. Near the center of town, a man who lived alone went outside to buy cigarettes, and the silt-colored water swept him off his feet. A police officer would find him the next morning, his body pinned against a chain-link fence. A second man drowned on the far side of the river. A third died a mile or two away, apparently of a heart attack, in his bathtub.

That morning, Carmen Chévere Ortiz, a 41-year-old pharmacy manager, looked out the window of her two-story home in a neighborhood of Toa Baja called Villa Calma and saw her neighbor’s patio under inches of water. Chévere Ortiz, who goes by Milly, lived with her mother, one daughter, and five sons. She remembered when Hurricane David had struck the neighborhood in 1979 and her father had carried her under his right arm as they fled. On that day, the water had been high enough that it splashed against the bottoms of her feet. This is a place that floods, Milly thought. She grabbed the car keys and gathered her family. Outside, the water was already approaching the top of the rear wheels of her family’s RAV-4. It reeked of sewage. On her way up the street, she shouted out the windows, “The river is coming! Get out! Get out!”

On reaching the highway, Milly saw that seawater from the ocean, whipped up by the winds, was coming in from the Caribbean to the north and meeting the canal waters rising from the south. The rows of houses behind her looked like islands in a muddy lake. Villa Calma, she decided, would need to take refuge inside the neighborhood school, a two-story building surrounded by fences that were sealed with heavy gates.

A crowd gathered around the

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