Six months after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, residents of the coastal towns hit hardest by the storm are still suffering.

On the morning of September 20, 2017, the eye of Hurricane Maria passed over Maunabo on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico. In this rural town where 56% of the population lives below the poverty line, the storm destroyed the local hospital and the funeral home, tore the rooves off of houses, and blew out windows.

Just to the north of Maunabo is Yubacoa, a fertile valley where farmers grew nearly all of the island’s plantains and bananas. Maria wrecked Yubacoa, too, destroying most of the region’s approximately 3000 acres of cropland.

Humacao, northeast of Yubacoa, was a thriving resort town where a small group of local fishermen made their living selling their daily catch to the hotels and restaurants. But Maria smashed the boats and, according to some of the fishermen, drove away the fish.

It has been six months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, yet 121,000 households (about 250,000 people) are still without electricity, many of them in the coastal areas where the storm made its initial landfall. The first power trucks just appeared in Humacao last Thursday. Earlier this month, Nydia Velasquez, Congresswoman for New York’s 7th District, arranged for a donated solar generator that was no longer needed in the municipality of Isabela to be relocated to Yubacoa, where she was born. As of early March, not a single household in Maunabo had been reconnected to the island’s power grid, though a little under 40% of the residents are getting power from emergency generators provided by the U.S. government in late December—the generators reportedly are prone to failure.

Those who faced Maria first still have not found relief. We cannot forget them.

The lack of electricity in these areas has created a serious public health issue. Generators are expensive, the fuel to run them even more so. People who own their own generators typically can’t afford to keep them running all the time, even when they need them to operate oxygen machines or keep refrigerators on to safely store medications like insulin. Hospitals and nursing homes, if they are open, rely on generators as well. Doctors and nurses pray that the motors won’t break down during an emergency surgery. Sometimes the prayers don’t work.

Six months after Maria, people are still dying as a result of the storm, because they can’t run their oxygen pumps or sleep apnea machines or because living with so much stress for so long exacerbates hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease, leaving people vulnerable to fatal heart attacks and stroke.

And another kind of powerlessness is killing people in Puerto Rico—not a lack of electricity, but a loss of hope and a rising belief that help will never come. As time passes and people see little improvement in their circumstances, their resilience falters. The trauma of losing everything to the storm is compounded by the despair of being forgotten. Both suicides and calls to Puerto Rico’s suicide hotline are on the rise. According to experts, Puerto Ricans who survived Maria are now at increased risk for PTSD and depression.

Over 90% of customers across the island have had their electricity restored. Hotels and casinos have reopened in San Juan, just an hour or so north of Yubacoa, and tourists are even coming back. All of this is good news. But those who faced Maria first still have not found relief. We cannot forget them.

To donate to aid organizations still active in Puerto Rico, visit Public Good.

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Photo Credits:

Puerto Rican flag: ©grafvision – Can Stock Photo Inc.

“Help Puerto Rico”: ©BasheeraDesigns – Can Stock Photo Inc.

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