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Puerto Ricans from town in ‘terrible destruction’ after Hurricane Fiona in despair over initial exclusion from aid

“Why wouldn’t they include San Germán?” asked Carmen Vázquez Ramos, a resident from a municipality missing from the list of who could apply for individual FEMA assistance.
People remove downed trees in Puerto Rico
People remove downed trees in Puerto Rico on Tuesday.Jose Jimenez / Getty Images

SAN GERMÁN, Puerto Rico — Jorge Luis Rivera, his wife and two young daughters were trapped for two days inside their home after Hurricane Fiona battered their farm, downing large trees and dragging floodwaters, asphalt and hard-earned crops down the sloping road in front of their property.

“It became a river, it took with it all of the dirt, all of the asphalt. It took it all,” Rivera, 36, said in Spanish, speaking from his farm on Friday afternoon.

The landslides cut off Rivera’s farm, where he still lacks power and water, until heavy machinery arrived to attempt to clear the destruction. Even some of the machines were damaged in the process, he said.

In San Germán, a municipality in the southwest of Puerto Rico, families were trapped as the region’s large trees fell under the weight of Fiona’s winds and heavy rains, collapsing and cutting off roads. Some homes sustained heavy damage and are without power and water.

Yet San Germán is among the 20 municipalities initially excluded from applying for individual assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, based on the major disaster declaration requested by Puerto Rico's governor and approved by President Joe Biden Thursday. Most of the towns excluded were in the southwestern region, where Hurricane Fiona entered and left incalculable devastation.

Puerto Rican officials insist that more municipalities can be added to the major disaster declaration and apply for individual assistance once they have more information on damages.

They've also stressed that all of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, including San Germán, were included to receive public assistance for debris removal and emergency efforts such as providing communities with food, generators and anything else that’s needed to stabilize public life, according to Puerto Rico’s Secretary of State Omar Marrero.

'Almost all lost'

But residents in San Germán were frustrated at not being able to apply immediately for individual assistance.

Rivera’s crops were “almost all lost,” he said, as he climbed through the green and brown wreckage of Finca Ilán Ilán, which is part of Puerto Rico’s agroecology movement for sustainable farming. His calf-length boots were caked in mud and he carried a machete to safely make his way through all of the debris. 

Gone were hundreds of avocados, the coffee, the eggplants, zucchini and other crops Rivera produces and sells to the community, mostly to nearby restaurants. What remains is also going to waste, as his usual customers have no power or water to reopen their businesses.

Jorge Luis Rivera, 36, a farmer in San Germán, Puerto Rico
Jorge Luis Rivera, 36, a farmer in San Germán, Puerto Rico, who lost most of his crops to Hurricane Fiona.Daniella Silva / NBC News

“I try not to come here often, it depresses me too much,” he said, shaking his head and looking away from the wreckage of his crops. He estimates it could take months for him to get power back, as it took more than five and a half months for power to return five years ago after Hurricane Maria.

The family’s generator broke down and to save what remains of the crops to feed his family, he has connected his refrigerator to his car as a makeshift power source. 

Nearly half of the 1.5 million power customers were still without electricity six days after the Fiona caused an islandwide blackout.As of Saturday morning, about 683,000 power customers had had their electricity restored, which represents roughly 47% of all customers, according to the Puerto Rican government’s emergency portal. Most of the customers who’ve been reconnected to the grid are in the northeast, where the storm caused less damage.

Seventy-eight percent, or 1,035,743 customers, have had their water service restored as of Saturday morning, according to the Water and Sewer Authority. As of Thursday, close to 440,000 of these customers are getting their service thanks to temporary generators energizing certain water bombs. About 292,000 customers (22%) still have no water.

'Until FEMA comes, I don't know how we will deal with this'

Adrián Vázquez Bandas, 24, said in Spanish that residents of his hometown were extremely frustrated and distressed over the exclusion for FEMA assistance. 

“I go out here every day and I see the need that exists,” said Vázquez Bandas, an agronomist and a community organizer in the southwestern region with Instituto para la Agroecología, a local nonprofit organization that supports agroecological collectives. “Around here we have cables on the ground, collapsed bridges. I go out with my saw, my drill, screws to open the way if I stumble across fallen trees of debris.”

The day before, Vázquez Bandas had been helping to install blue tarps in the homes of eight families who live near him.

“While we are able to provide them with the materials, they need to fix their roofs, all they can do is set up these blue tarps,” he said.

Many farmers in the southern and western region have lost all their crops. Despite the bleak outcome, Vázquez Bandas said their first instinct was to go out and help.

“They’ve been working as emergency volunteers, cleaning up debris, setting up blue tarps,” he said. “They tell me they'd rather go out there and help than stay in their farms and cry about their loss.”

On Friday afternoon, Carmen Vázquez Ramos, 69, was inside what remained of her wooden home as more rain came down in San Germán. Part of the house was destroyed by the storm, the mangled remains of its thin metal roof covering what was once a small wooden structure painted in bright sky blue. The laundry machines are gone with it, and the bathroom and kitchen are also damaged. 

The destroyed home of Carmen Vázquez Ramos
The destroyed home of Carmen Vázquez Ramos, 69, in San Germán, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva / NBC News

“Until FEMA comes, I don’t know how we will deal with this,” Vázquez Ramos said in Spanish while sitting in a chair with her gray hair pulled back and dressed in a white house dress with blue flowers. The house does not have power, but water returned on Thursday night.

“Why wouldn’t they include San Germán?” she asked. “San Germán is also in disaster.”

Her daughter, Carmen Cruz Vázquez, who lives two doors down from her parents, had tears in her eyes as she recalled thinking her mother, whose health is fragile, could have been killed.

Family members were “screaming ‘Carmen, Carmen,’ and I thought my mother had died,” she said, pausing with emotion before she spoke.

A massive tree across the street collapsed at its roots, blocking a road in front of the family’s home and falling terrifyingly close to its property. 

Carmen Cruz Vázquez, right, with her parents, Carmen Vázquez Ramos and Juan Cruz Camacho, in their home in San Germán, Puerto Rico.
Carmen Cruz Vázquez, right, with her parents, Carmen Vázquez Ramos and Juan Cruz Camacho, in their home in San Germán, Puerto Rico.Daniella Silva / NBC News

The downed tree and nearby damage meant that on Monday an ambulance could not reach Vázquez Ramos, who gets transported to dialysis appointments multiple times a week. The next day, Vázquez Bandas and other community members helped to carry her out, passing under the downed tree, so she could reach the ambulance and get to her dialysis appointment.

“The community has no other choice but to support each other,” Vázquez Bandas said.

Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico, a local nonprofit organization crucial in helping Puerto Ricans get access to FEMA’s individual assistance program in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria five years ago, sent a letter to FEMA administrator Deanne Criswell urgently requesting that the excluded municipalities be added to the major disaster declaration so people can receive the necessary aid.

“We have terrible destruction here,” Vázquez Bandas said about the southern region. “It is not reasonable that the power is going to come back here soon, and we recognize it.” 

In the meantime, residents were helping clear roads, sharing available ice to keep things cold and using cable extensions to temporarily connect neighbors to one another’s generators, making it possible for families to turn on a fan amid the heat or keep up with the latest news on the recovery.

“We could be without power for months, and we’ll remain united throughout it,” Vázquez Bandas said. “We have a doctorate in hurricanes at this point.”

Daniella Silva reported from Puerto Rico, and Nicole Acevedo from New York.

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