NAGUABO, Puerto Rico — As Damarys Cantero awakens her 6-year-old daughter in their damp, sweltering home, ocean waves crash up against the pile of rubble that was once their front porch.
The single mother opens a bag of buns in the kitchen to find that, yet again, rats had nibbled their way through. The rodents have been creeping in for months after Hurricane Maria ripped out Cantero’s front door and windows.
A few miles away, Melinda Colón, 52, wipes away tears as she looks down at the remnants of her existence still scattered across the yard: a mattress, a broken door, a piece of zinc roof. In the mountains on the other side of town, Luz Vázquez Román bathes with buckets of water from a creek, producing a rash that is ravaging her skin. Down in the city center, the only 24-hour emergency psychiatric clinic is seeing a nonstop stream of patients, some contemplating suicide.
Life in Naguabo, a fishing town in the shadow of Puerto Rico’s tropical rain forest, was completely disrupted a year ago. It was here, in the eastern corner of the U.S. territory, that Hurricane Maria introduced itself to the island, hammering away with terrifying winds and soaking rains before tearing a long path of destruction. Like everywhere else, the power went out. More than 4,000 Naguabo homes were damaged, 700 of them destroyed. Dozens of roads, bridges and buildings faltered. Gravestones crumbled in the floods.
A year ago.
Though obvious markers of devastation are fewer islandwide — power has largely been restored, and potable water flows somewhat reliably — Maria’s aftermath cripples nearly every aspect of life here, from Naguabo’s peak to the sands at the edge of the sea. It is one of the numerous places in Puerto Rico where recovery has barely begun and routines are far from recognizable.
Cantero and her three sons are still sleeping on the same mattresses that were caked with mud from the rising waters. The moldy ceilings of her seaside home have led to breathing problems. She hasn’t been able to work cleaning houses because all of her clients moved away after the storm.
"All around me, I live with Maria here," Cantero said. "We have to get used to what she left us."
If the people of Puerto Rico faced devastation in September 2017, they have been facing disruption ever since. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey across the island finds that 25 percent of Puerto Ricans say their daily lives are still disrupted a year after Maria. Some 39 percent of residents here say their lives are largely back to normal, while 36 percent say their lives are almost back to normal.
Residents in the eastern region, like those in Naguabo, went without power far longer than those in other parts of the island. Three-quarters say grid power was not restored until January or later, more than three months after Maria hit, compared with half or less in other regions of the island. In the eastern region, one-fifth of residents went more than half a year without electricity.
Many didn’t have safe water to drink. Others struggled to get health care. Many lost their jobs or had other economic setbacks, especially in places like this town, which relies heavily on the fishing industry and farming, both upended because of the storm.
For most Puerto Ricans, Maria’s winds fully exposed the island’s vulnerability, making the future full of haze, akin to the Caribbean sky this time of year, when the winds of the Sahara blow sand across the Atlantic. It’s hurricane season again, said longtime Naguabo resident Ramon Cantero, and the people aren’t ready — the government isn’t ready.
"The next one will wipe Puerto Rico off the map," the 70-year-old said.
The survey found that the majority of Puerto Rican residents agreed with Cantero. The island’s power grid, people and government are not ready.