Filed by: Emma Schwartz, Information Officer
On the morning of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, devastating the island and plunging all of its 3.4 million residents into a desperate humanitarian crisis.
Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an island territory of the United States, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. It’s known for its white sand beaches, the historic city of Old San Juan, and El Yunque National Forest.
The archipelago had already been facing a recession for over a decade before Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. Almost half of residents lived below the poverty line. The damaging effect of Hurricane Maria — the worst storm to strike the island in over 80 years — will haunt residents for many years to come. More than 200,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have left home and arrived in the continental U.S. since the storm.
Many others will stay to help Puerto Rico recover. But they still need a lot of support, from basic essentials, electricity, and clean water to the hard, long-term work of recovery. And the 2018 hurricane season will be here before we know it.
Read on for more about how Puerto Rico has been affected by the storm, what Mercy Corps and partners are doing, and how you can help.
What happened when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico?
Maria first made landfall near the southeastern town of Yabucoa. The powerful Category 4 storm plowed across the island with sustained winds of 155 mph, uprooting trees, downing weather stations and cell towers, and ripping wooden and tin roofs off homes. Electricity was cut off to 100% of the island, and access to clean water and food became limited for most.
Heavy rains and flash floods brought on by the storm exacerbated widespread devastation, turning streets into rivers full of debris. In some areas, floodwaters were waist-high — more than 30 inches deep — and often sewage-ridden. Less than one percent of homeowners had flood insurance.
Some Puerto Ricans were forced to cross swollen rivers after bridges collapsed to reach businesses where they could buy water and gas.
Hurricane Maria is the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years, and arrived only two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island and left 1 million people without power. The effect on Puerto Rican families — and the island’s infrastructure — will take many years to heal.
Despite the challenges, people are coming together to help their neighbors in any way they can — whether by clearing debris or even passing on food aid to those who need it more. People are committed to building back better than before the storm.
What’s been the effect of the hurricane?
The scale of Maria’s destruction has been devastating, causing as much as $94 billion in damage — a crippling toll for an island that was already billions of dollars in debt.
But the effects of the storm will undoubtedly be felt most by the people themselves. While the official death toll is 64 people, recent analysis suggests the storm might have resulted in more than 1,000 fatalities. The storm left thousands of families without homes and destroyed some communities entirely.
For months, most families and businesses remained without power, cell phone service was limited, and clean water, food, medicine and fuel were all in very short supply — for some, the struggle to access such basic essentials is still a daily reality. Less than half of residents had their power restored two months after the storm had passed. For many, it will take years to fully recover.
What are living conditions like now?
More than four months have passed since Hurricane Maria made landfall, and clear evidence of the storm remains. The lack of electricity, running water and reliable communications remain central challenges to the Caribbean island as it struggles to return to a semblance of normal life.
Roughly a third of Puerto Rico’s residents — some 1.2 million people — are still living in the dark. After sunset, neighbors gather around generators or sit by candlelight. The blackout has become the largest blackout in U.S. history. Officials say it could take up to six months after the storm before power is restored and the lights come back on.
Some residents still don’t have access to clean water. Even where water service has been restored, many communities still have a “boil water” advisory in place. Other areas are still purchasing bottled water to get the clean water they need.
As of December, an estimated 60,000 houses were still roofless, and thousands of people were still displaced, living in shelters or with friends or relatives.
While most people have regained access to basic essentials, the road to recovery is long, and many residents still need help.
Despite the need, Puerto Rico has struggled to secure adequate relief funds from the U.S. government. A billion dollar loan recently approved by Congress is now being withheld for the time being.
Who's been most affected by the destruction?
The storm disproportionately affected Puerto Rico’s poorest residents, who have fewer resources on hand to help them recover and rebuild. Many of these people live in more rural communities and the hard-to-reach areas of the mountains, and can expect to be the last to regain access to water or see their electricity restored.
Mercy Corps is focused on providing assistance to these vulnerable and underserved populations, who are most likely to be missed in broader relief efforts. This includes the elderly — many of whom depend on welfare or social security — along with people with disabilities and those living in remote rural areas, like the mountain towns of Las Marias and Maricao.
Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts of disaster, and many depend on the resources and support they find at school to help them overcome trauma-induced stress. Hurricanes Irma and Maria disrupted the lives of some 350,000 public school students. It took nearly five weeks before the first public schools began to reopen after the storm, though most were operating without power.
The majority of Puerto Rico’s public schools are now open, though some only part-time. There is at least one school in every city on the island that still doesn’t have power. Some schools have been converted into community centers and shelters, forcing students to relocate and find alternate routes to resume their studies. According to the Department of Education, six percent of Puerto Rico’s students have left the island since Maria hit.
Those who remain will continue dealing with the consequences of a sustained break in their educations, along with the stress of recovering from a natural disaster.
How is Mercy Corps helping?
While most of our work focuses on international responses, we do respond to domestic disasters in moments of extreme crisis. Given the monumental scale of destruction and the need for additional help, Mercy Corps has been working hard to support relief, recovery and rebuilding efforts in Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, we partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, to deliver more than 25,000 meals to hard-hit communities.
Together with local organizations, we have distributed nearly $300,000 in emergency cash so people can buy what they need most — items like water, food and other essential supplies. Cash is a fast and flexible way to help people after crisis and supports local markets as they recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria.
We also distributed 5,000 solar lanterns and 2,500 water filters to thousands of families now facing an uncertain future. Access to solar lights and water filters, combined with training in their proper use, means that families are better prepared for future storms. Experts predict that in 2018 we could see another active hurricane season in the Caribbean, starting as early as June 1.