IS­LAND OFF FORSAKEN Weeks af­ter Maria, ru­ral Puerto Ri­cans are feel­ing all but aban­doned B

New York Post - - NEWS - By GABRIELLE FONROUGE

from There the hasn’t govern­ment.been any No­body­help has passed, no­body has come, no­body. — Hur­ri­cane Maria vic­tim Car­men Pan­toja, 69

IT’S been more than three weeks since Hur­ri­cane Maria dev­as­tated Puerto Rico, but like so many is­landers, Car­men Pan­toja is still des­per­ate for the ba­sic ne­ces­si­ties: food, water, medicine.

Her tired, blue eyes filled with tears as she told The Post she can’t find med­i­ca­tion for her son, Hector, who suf­fers from epilepsy and hy­dro­cephalus, a buildup of fluid on the brain.

“There hasn’t been any help from the govern­ment. No­body has passed, no­body has come, no­body,” Pan­toja, 69, said out­side her home in Vega Baja, a small town in the forests of north cen­tral Puerto Rico.

“And right now, no­body has come to visit, just one friend of mine came and brought some gro­ceries.”

Pan­toja and her 44-year-old son couldn’t leave their home for more than a week af­ter Maria hit be­cause the roads were blocked by de­bris.

She fi­nally got to the lo­cal phar­macy this week — only to find it had run out of med­i­ca­tion.

“There’s no help yet since there’s no sig­nal, we’re with­out com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” she said Tues­day af­ter­noon.

Pan­toja is now strug­gling to col­lect enough rain­wa­ter to sur­vive on.

“The neigh­bors . . . have put up signs [say­ing] that they’re the for­got­ten be­cause over here no­body has ap­peared.”

Her daugh­ter-in-law, 53-year-old Rosa Sanchez, agreed.

“Not even the mayor or the Red Cross, no­body has come to this area to ask if we need any­thing,” she said.

It’s clear Maria wrought cat­a­strophic dam­age on the US ter­ri­tory — set­ting Puerto Rico back decades. But the burn­ing ques­tion in many res­i­dents’ minds re­mains: Where’s help from the govern­ment?

The Post spent three days trav­el­ing along the de­struc­tive path the eye of the Cat­e­gory 5 storm took across the is­land, and wit­nessed only one in­stance of fed­eral-aid dis­tri­bu­tion.

Eighty-four per­cent of the is­land re­mains with­out power, and only 63 per­cent of res­i­dents have clean drink­ing water.

While thou­sands of con­tain­ers of sup­plies have been brought to San Juan’s port, trans­port­ing those goods to Puerto Ri­cans in re­mote and moun­tain­ous ar­eas has proven dif­fi­cult — ini­tially be­cause roads and bridges were en­tirely de­stroyed by the storm.

In San Juan, The Cheese­cake Fac­tory is de­liv­er­ing take­out to air­con­di­tioned homes. In the in­te­rior of the is­land, res­i­dents aren’t sure where their next sip of water will come from.

ON the south­east­ern coast of the is­land, the eye of Maria first made land­fall in a wet­land re- serve in Manu­abo, where gray palm trees now bend to one side as if flat­tened by a bull­dozer.

The turquoise Caribbean Sea still sparkles in the dis­tance — but it’s dif­fi­cult to imag­ine when the area will be tourist-friendly again.

Abi­gail Sostre Gar­cia, 64, who lives on the edge of the wet­land re­serve, said she and her hus­band both have cancer — and can’t track down the medicine they need.

“I have now gone one week with­out any med­i­ca­tion at all, the phar­ma­cies aren’t open . . . There’s just no medicine left and I can’t re­ally com­mu­ni­cate with any­body on the out­side,” Gar­cia said on her porch.

“FEMA hasn’t come here yet,” she added.

Once an idyl­lic is­land par­adise, with pris­tine beaches and tow­er­ing royal palm trees, the south­ern coast of Puerto Rico now looks like some­thing from an apoca­lyp­tic movie.

“We’re now 21 days post-hur­ri­cane and I’ve only seen the mu­nic­i­pal­ity pass­ing out water bot­tles and [ready-to-eat meals] once,” said An­gel Or­tiz, 50, the pas­tor of Igle­sia de Dios Pen­te­costal in Manu­abo.

“[The govern­ment] brought us nine bot­tles of water. FEMA has said that they’re go­ing to come but I don’t know if they ac­tu­ally have . . . the peo­ple here are re­ally, re­ally needy.”

In Patil­las, also along the south­east­ern coast, Jorge Colon, 57, said Maria’s winds ripped off his bed­room wall and the roof of his fam­ily’s home, leav­ing it vul­ner­a­ble to bats and mice, which have al­ready moved in.

He’s hop­ing FEMA will ar­rive soon and find them a place to stay.

“It’s a night­mare . . . we may have to leave here. I don’t know if they are go­ing to give us a place to stay . . . I hope they pro­vide us with a place to live, a home or some­thing,” Colon said, wear­ing a dirty, white Old Navy shirt with a Puerto Ri­can flag on it and a Flor­ida State Univer­sity cap.

Mov­ing far­ther west along Maria’s route through the Cordillera Cen­tral moun­tains, Bet­zeida Labron, 55, said the storm blew away her wooden home, leav­ing be­hind noth­ing but a door­mat and the tiled wall of a kitchen.

“I think it would be the best op­tion to leave Puerto Rico be­cause this is just too strong. I don’t have the strength to con­front it,” she said through tears, adding that she hasn’t re­ceived any govern­ment help since the hur­ri­cane hit.

In the cen­ter of the is­land, it’s easy to see where the eye hit — walls of trees along the moun­tains stand black­ened, stripped of their lush leaves. Many roads are still clut­tered with storm de­bris.

Car­men Perez Sierra, 64, who lives in the city of Aguas Bue­nas, said her en­tire home was de­stroyed. Her sis­ter, who needs an oxy­gen tank, fled to her son’s home in New Jer­sey be­cause she couldn’t get the med­i­cal care she needed on the is­land.

“Af­ter the storm, there was no com­mu­ni­ca­tion or any­thing. She spent a few days with­out oxy­gen but we solved the prob­lem . . . we charged her [por­ta­ble oxy­gen tank] with a neigh­bor’s gen­er­a­tor,” Sierra ex­plained.

“I haven’t re­ceived any­thing from the govern­ment,” she added. Y the time Maria made it to the north­west­ern coast in Ca­muy, she’d lost some punch, her winds re­duced to a Cat­e­gory 3 be­fore spin­ning off into the ocean.

The last place she hit was a beach called El Peñon de la Cruz — where a wooden cross atop a small, rocky is­land still stands — a sym­bol of the strength the Puerto Ri­can peo­ple have had to chan­nel.

Daniel Batista, 49, walked onto a pier to get some fresh air and clear his head af­ter be­ing cooped up in his home since the storm.

“The govern­ment re­sponse . . . hasn’t been good . . . to­day is the 21st day af­ter the hur­ri­cane and there are still peo­ple who haven’t re­ceived any type of help. There are peo­ple and fam­i­lies that not even the cen­tral govern­ment has gone to their houses,” Batista said.

“We were go­ing through the worst mo­ment in the his­tory of Puerto Rico and this was the re­al­ity that was dealt to us.”

PHO­TOS: JOSÉ JIMÉNEZTIRADO

SLAMMED: Jorge Colon (left) sits in what’s left of his bed­room and Rosa Sanchez (right, with grand­son Idanys and dog Karin) has been forced to live out of her car af­ter Hur­ri­cane Maria dec­i­mated Puerto Rico.

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