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In Remote Parts of Puerto Rico, Hurricane Fiona Made Life Even Harder

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UTUADO, Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico — Maritza Colasso Torres moved to the mountains of central Puerto Rico in 2020 to escape a series of earthquakes that were shaking the rest of the island.

Two and a half years later, Corazo Torres’ one-bedroom wooden house in the town of Utuado is on the brink of collapse. It was caused by a hurricane, not an earthquake.

Due to the severe flooding that Hurricane Fiona hit in September, the house was 3 feet away from a steep newly formed cliff just outside our bedroom window. A Federal Emergency Management Agency inspector recently warned her that one day the land could move more and she and her husband would wake up at the bottom of a cliff.

“‘If you can open your eyes, you will there,'” Collazo Torres, 57, recalls his words.

Fiona left Puerto Rico with massive flooding and widespread power outages. But more than a month later, the effects are still most noticeable in remote communities like Utuad. These communities have suffered disproportionately from natural disasters, economic instability and government inaction over the years. Many had not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island in 2017.

“Life here is a little complicated,” said Corazo Torres, an understatement that Puerto Ricans often deploy. “If you get used to it, please continue.”

In Utuado’s Parcelas Riera community, where Collazo Torres lives, single-family homes dot the winding 605 road, which is completely inaccessible by car. It’s the only road going in and out and some sections have been devastated by so many floods and landslides that it’s like a muddy slide.After Fiona, Corrazo his Mr. Torres and his family had to shovel through the mud to re-open the path to the front door.

Still, Corazo Torres, who still lives in a wooden house on the same property as her daughters and extended family, says she and her husband, Jose Francisco Cruz Lopez, 67, are math teachers with dreams of retirement. and said he had a better life. More than many who lost her home and belongings during Fiona.

“We are alive,” she said.

Collazo Torres, who grew up in Utuado, said Highway 605, which leads into the town, has been largely undeveloped for at least 20 years. It is a symbol of Puerto Rico’s ingrained instability, the island’s inability to provide public services to the poor amid financial and debt crises, repeated disasters and the coronavirus pandemic. .

Still, since returning to Utuado, Collazo Torres has been able to help his family. By living on the same land as her daughters, she takes care of her grandchildren after school and keeps company with her daughters’ mother-in-law, Gloria Santiago, who lives with parrots on the other side of a crumbling cliff. is ready. .

Her home is one of about 300,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Ms. Santiago, 67, and her late husband Virgilio Jiménez, Ms. Medina, received about $3,000 from her FEMA for repairs to her home. Their extended family also provided money and effort, but even with their help it wasn’t enough to completely rebuild.

Her monthly budget of just over $200 comes entirely from public assistance programs. Sometimes she can’t afford even the basics.

“Last month I couldn’t buy milk,” she said.

About 40 miles west of San Juan, Utuado is a sprawling rural town of 28,000 people. About 54% of the population lives below the poverty level, according to the census. Mayor Jorge Perez Heredia, 50, says his hometown faces many challenges. Some were caused by Hurricane Maria, while others resulted from the island’s long-running financial crisis.

“Almost every community in the mountains” in Utuado is in the same situation as Mr. Collazo Torres, he said, adding that the town’s limited budget has forced new workers to buy construction materials and repair roads and bridges. employment, or provide services such as public transportation. “Everything is more expensive here in the mountains, no matter what service you need.”

Of Utuad’s 65 bridges, 44 are in need of repair, the mayor said.

Since Perez Heredia took office in 2021, the island government has reduced its allocation to Utuado to about 100 per year due to local government budget cuts ordered by the Finance Commission that Congress set up to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances. million dollars saved. Still, with federal funding designated for his post-Hurricane Maria disaster recovery project, Utuado expects to increase his budget from his $8 million in fiscal 2020 to just over $10 million in 2022. is ready.

“Without this windfall of federal funding, most of Puerto Rico’s municipalities will be out of business,” Perez Heredia said.

Perez Heredia knew the poor condition of Road 605 even before he became mayor. As a power company worker, he used to go to his Parcelas Riera to fix power lines. In 2020, he drove up to the highest point in this community with his wife, who had just recently purchased his new four-wheel-drive SUV, to promote his candidacy for mayor.

“She asked me where we were going,” he said. “She was worried the new Jeep would be ruined.”

That’s exactly what happened to 70-year-old Miguel Montalvo Colón in the nine cars and SUVs he’d amassed over the years around the concrete house he shared with his wife on one of the highest hills of the Percellus Riera. It was. She died at the age of 62, two weeks after Hurricane Maria she was discharged from the hospital where she was diagnosed with a urinary tract infection, her third visit.

Hurricane Fiona brought more than 23 inches of rain to Utuado, making an already dangerous road to Montalvo Colón’s home worse. Since Fiona landed on her Sept. 18, the retired farmer has been living with one of her daughters in a part of town more than half an hour’s drive from her Riera in Percellus. . Mr. Montalvo Colón is no longer able to drive to and from his remote home.

Whenever he needs to get there, whoever puts him in a car, Mr. Montalvo Colón, and whoever does not have a four-wheel drive, must cross on foot to the north bank of the stream. leave him behind.

From there, Montalvo Colón, who survived four heart attacks and open-heart surgery, has to walk a slippery uphill walk along Road 605 for about 40 minutes before descending.

Mayor Perez Heredia said he has confirmed $300,000 to resurface roads in Percellus Riera, but believes it is still several thousand dollars short of the total cost.

Montalvo Colón said he stopped expecting politicians to deliver on their promises long ago. After Hurricane George in 1998, the road to Utuad and his home began to recede.

Friends, knowing that he had struggled for decades to reach the home where he grew up and raised his children, asked why he didn’t sell the house, and used the money to sell Utuad’s money. Buy a new place in the center of town.

“I don’t want to,” said Montalvo Colón. “This is where my father used to have a farm and I live in peace and quiet. It’s too noisy to go back to town, but I already have a little house that feels right at home.”

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