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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In remote parts of the island, Hurricane Fiona made life even harder

The home of Maritza Collazo Torres sits just feet away from a new cliff formed by the deluge of Hurricane Fiona, in Utuado on Oct. 13, 2022. The storm’s effects remain most evident in areas of the island that have suffered disproportionately from natural disasters and government neglect. (Photos by Erika P. Rodríguez/The New York Times)

By Laura N. Pérez Sánchez

Maritza Collazo Torres moved to the mountains of central Puerto Rico in 2020, fleeing a string of earthquakes that were rattling other parts of the island.

Two-and-a-half years later, Collazo Torres’ one-bedroom wooden home in the town of Utuado is on the verge of collapse — not because of an earthquake, but because of a hurricane.

Hurricane Fiona’s deluge in September left the house 3 feet from a steep, newly formed cliff just outside her bedroom window. An inspector from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) recently warned her that, one day, the land would shift further and she and her husband could wake up at the bottom of the cliff.

“‘If you are able to open your eyes, you’ll do so down there,’” Collazo Torres, 57, recalled the inspector telling her.

Fiona left Puerto Rico with significant flooding and a widespread power blackout. More than a month later, the impact remains most evident in remote communities like Utuado, which for years have suffered disproportionately from natural disasters, economic instability and government neglect. Many had not fully recovered from Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in 2017, when Fiona arrived with its extreme rainfall.

“Living here is a bit complicated,” Collazo Torres said with the kind of understatement that Puerto Ricans frequently deploy. “Once you get used to it, you keep going.”

In Utuado’s Parcelas Riera community, where Collazo Torres lives, single-family homes are scattered along Road 605, a winding road that is not fully accessible by car. It is the lone road in and out, and some sections have been battered by so many floods and landslides that they resemble a muddy slide. After Fiona, Collazo Torres and her family had to shovel their way through mud to reopen a path to her front door.

Still, Collazo Torres, who remains in her home on the same plot of land as her daughters and extended family, said that she and her husband, José Francisco Cruz López, 67, a math teacher who dreams of retirement, are better off than many who lost their homes or belongings during Fiona.

“We are alive,” she said, “and we are in good health.”

Collazo Torres, who grew up in Utuado, said that Road 605, which leads to town, has had little maintenance for at least two decades. It is a symbol of the precariousness that has taken root in Puerto Rico, and of the island’s inability, amid a fiscal and debt crisis, repeated disasters and the coronavirus pandemic, to provide public services to the needy.

Still, since returning to Utuado, Collazo Torres has been able to help her family. Living on the same parcel of land as her daughters has allowed her to take care of her grandchildren after school and provide company to her daughters’ mother-in-law, Gloria Santiago, who lives with her parakeets on the other side of the crumbling cliff.

Her house was one of about 300,000 dwellings damaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. Santiago, 67, and her late husband, Virgilio Jiménez Medina, received around $3,000 from FEMA for home repairs. Their extended family also contributed money and labor, but even with their help, it was not enough to fully rebuild.

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

“Last month, I could not buy milk,” she said.

About 40 miles west of San Juan, Utuado is a sprawling rural town with a population of 28,000. About 54% of residents live below the poverty level, according to the census. Mayor Jorge Pérez Heredia, 50, says his hometown faces many challenges — some created by Hurricane Maria, others stemming from the island’s long financial crisis.

“Pretty much every community up in the mountains” of Utuado is in the same condition as Collazo Torres’, he said, adding that the town’s limited budget is a hurdle for buying construction materials, hiring new workers to repair roads and bridges, or offering services such as public transportation. “Up here, in the mountains, everything is more expensive, no matter what kind of service you need.”

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

Since Pérez Heredia took office in 2021, municipal budget cuts ordered by the fiscal board that Congress created to oversee Puerto Rico’s finances have led the island’s government to cut allocations to Utuado by about $1 million a year. Still, federal funds designated for disaster recovery projects following Hurricane Maria have allowed Utuado to increase its budget to a little more than $10 million in 2022 from $8 million in fiscal year 2020.

“When this windfall of federal money is done,” Pérez Heredia said, “the majority of Puerto Rico’s municipalities won’t be able to operate.”

Pérez Heredia knew about Road 605’s poor conditions before he became mayor. As an electric utility worker, he used to go to Parcelas Riera to repair power lines. In 2020, to promote his mayoral candidacy, he drove up to some of the highest parts of this community with his wife, who had recently bought a new four-wheel-drive SUV.

“She would ask me where we were going,” he said. “She was afraid her new Jeep was going to get ruined.”

That is exactly what happened to the nine cars and SUVs that Miguel Montalvo Colón, 70, had collected over the years atop one of Parcelas Riera’s highest hills, around the concrete house he shared with his wife. Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, she died at 62 while being discharged from the third hospital she had visited, which had diagnosed a urinary tract infection.

Hurricane Fiona dumped more than 23 inches of rain on Utuado and worsened the already dangerous road that leads to Montalvo Colón’s house. Since Fiona made landfall Sept. 18, the retired farmer has been living with one of his daughters in a part of town that is more than a half-hour drive from Parcelas Riera. Montalvo Colón can no longer drive to or from his remote home.

Every time he needs to get there, whoever gives him a ride leaves him on the northern bank of a creek that Montalvo Colón — and anyone without a four-wheel-drive vehicle — must cross on foot.

From there, Montalvo Colón, who has survived four heart attacks and open-heart surgery, must make a slippery, uphill trek of about 40 minutes along Road 605 — and back down afterward.

Pérez Heredia said he has identified $300,000 to resurface Parcelas Riera’s roads, but he thinks he still might be a few thousand dollars shy of the total cost.

Montalvo Colón said he stopped expecting politicians to deliver on their promises a long time ago: Utuado — and the road to his house — began backsliding after Hurricane Georges in 1998, he said.

Friends, aware of his decadeslong struggle with reaching the home where he grew up and raised his children, ask him why he does not sell it and use the money to buy a new place in Utuado’s town center.

“I don’t want to,” Montalvo Colón said he tells them. “This is where my father had his farm, where I live in peace and quiet. Back in town there’s too much noise, and I already have my little house where I feel at home.”

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