SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico - A tired and discouraged Rosa Maria Almonte cleaned steel pots with bleach inside her darkened cafe as her daughter cooked up rice, beans and pork chops on a gas stove to feed people desperate for a hot meal in their storm-ravaged city.
She has run El Buen Cafe for 21 years and seen some tough times, but the damage from Hurricane Maria, with no running water, no electricity and the prospect of a grinding recovery that could take weeks or months, had her wondering whether there was any point in staying.
"I don’t know if I can keep going," the 73-year-old cafe owner said Friday after mopping up water that seeped into her shop, the awning sitting in a heap on her counter. "What am I doing here?"
It’s a lament echoing across Puerto Rico at the moment.
Even before the storm, Puerto Rico was in dire condition, reeling from a decade-long economic slide that was far deeper than the Great Recession on the mainland and that many here feel was largely ignored by Washington. Now, nearly all 3.4 million people on the island are sitting in the dark amid widespread pessimism about the future of this tropical U.S. territory and whether they should expect much help.
Along streets strewn with tree limbs, downed power lines and muck, it’s easy to find Puerto Ricans trying to decide if they should pick up and leave, joining the 450,000 who have moved to the mainland over the past decade in search of a better life.
Irma Torres Rodriguez tries to stay calm after loosing a portion of her roof to the fury of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, Thursday. Carlos Giusti/AP
"This is an absolute crisis," 44-year-old Alana Yendez said as she cradled her 2-month-old grandson and gave him a bottle of scarce baby formula in the Santurce section of San Juan. "This storm crushed us from one end of the island to the other."
Maria, the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century, unleashed floods and mudslides and knocked out the entire electrical grid and telecommunications, leaving many mainland families anxiously awaiting word on relatives in Puerto Rico.
Authorities confirmed at least six deaths but were still assessing the damage and trying to reach communities cut off by the storm.
Residents evacuate their homes in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico, Friday. Authorities opened the gates of Rio La Plata Dam after Hurricane Maria. Carlos Giusti/AP
As people searched for a meal or waited in long lines for cash from ATMs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other agencies rushed to supply water, food, generators and temporary shelters. President Donald Trump has declared a federal disaster, making the island eligible for more assistance.
Rep. Luis Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat who often looks out for Puerto Rico, which has no voting member of Congress, said much more will be needed.
"This was no average storm," Gutierrez said as he released a letter calling on Republican House Speaker Paul Ryan and Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi to organize a bipartisan delegation to see the damage. "It was a powerful direct hit that struck Puerto Rico when it was already down because of the economic situation."
Many believe Congress shares some of the responsibility for the economic crisis, in part for the 2006 repeal of a tax exemption that helped turn Puerto Rico into a global manufacturing hub, especially for pharmaceuticals. That started a decade of decline that shows no sign of letting up.
As the economy worsened, the island government borrowed money to cover budget deficits and put off funding pensions and other liabilities. The debt ballooned past $70 billion until the governor at the time declared it unpayable and set off a series of defaults.
Congress, as part of an agreement to allow the island to restructure, imposed a fiscal control board that has demanded sharp cuts to pensions and other expenses and the furloughing of public workers.
The exodus from the island has included so many doctors it can be hard to find a specialist. Foreclosures set a record last year, and unemployment is around 10 percent, far higher than that of any U.S. state. The power company and other agencies are also laboring under massive debt and struggling to fix their finances.
This backdrop makes the storm especially painful.
"I know everybody thinks their crisis is unique and different, but in this case it really is. It’s not like one of the 50 states," Gutierrez said. "Show me a state that has lost a third of its doctors in the last 10 years. ... Show me a state where it is the norm that your electricity and water goes out on a regular basis."
Amid the chaos, people like Almonte were struggling to make the best of it, cleaning up and offering whatever they could as other businesses all around were boarded up.
She sadly turned away a man seeking coffee, saying, "No my love, I don’t have power." But she told others seeking food that it would be a few minutes thanks to her gas grill.
Nearby, store owner Israel Molina was cleaning up and vowing to stay, for now.
"If everyone leaves, what are we going to do? With all the pros and the cons, I will stay here," the 68-year-old said, and then paused. "I might have a different response tomorrow."
The Red Cross' family reunification hotline is 1-800-733-2767.
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