Waking up one morning with no electricity or running water, I thought it would be great opportunity to begin working with impacted communities around the island. I had the skills of years of off-roading, rescue and living from your car (overlanding) and recognized this moment marked a turning point in history and one I wanted to feel part of. I woke up to a New York Times (link) article of the destruction in Puerto Rico with references to the washed-out bridge that connected the Utuado community with the outside world. It was the first time I had seen the images or known about the disaster and took it as a mission to go, document and figure out how I could help. As you can imagine, having no electricity or running water around the whole island made planning for it more like an expedition rather than a roadtrip as you needed to carry food/water and fuel for if you get stuck someplace due to floods, landslides or taking other routes due to destroyed roads.
I picked up my partner at the time (Agnes) and went to Utuado without exactly knowing how to get to the community. When arriving to Utuado via PR-10 we where awe-struck by the lines of people waiting to fill their buckets with water from a nearby hole. They said to me it was safe for everything except drinking, to which they pointed out another water hole with spring water “safe” to drink. I note these “water holes” are just places where water permeates through the rock-wall or ground into the surface, without treatment nor contamination mitigation (although safe via mechanical and biological filtration).
After asking around, we found a route down to the river where the community was. We took a sparcely transited mountain road that had some small land-slides but was opened up by the surrounding neighbors. When we arrived down into the river basin we where hit by how serious the situation was and the magnitude of the destruction. The tall bridge had completed washed out and they where completely incomunicated, and although it had been a few unmarked weeks since the hurricanes, people still had to climb down to the river to reach the other side. We immediately took our backpacks and camera equipment to climb down one side of the bridge support, cross the river to climb up a flimsy-built stairs to be welcomed with opened arms by the community leader. Elizabeth (or as she preferred to be called: Lily) told us the horrible stories of how the hurricane affected them.
During the night of the hurricane, the copious historic rainfall swelled rivers to unprecedented levels. In Utuado, the river had risen at least 50+ feet to actually lift the bridge span and float it downstream several hundred feet. The force of the water forced logs up into the bridge beams and columns, weakening the structure beyond repairs. Standing on the surviving segment, you could feel the bridge crooked sideways, disfigured by an unimaginable force exerted over those grueling, dark hours.
Lily introduced us to a local neighbor who was a retired police officer and his lovable dog. He related to us how after the flood waters had subsided, he climbed down with his son and other neighbors to get rope, shackles and pulleys to gerry-rig a cart to move supplies in via zipline; a great example of leadership and patriotism (rather than wait for others). A few weeks after the firemen came and fortified their zipline with stronger ropes and better rigging.
They advised us to leave as the sun was going down and the road laid treacherous still with vandals. They related stories of how they someone stood on one side of the bridge one night and started shooting, forcing the officer to shoot back into the darkness. Also someone had vandalized their zipline, cutting the rope several times at night and crippling their help-line.
As we made our way back into the city and our homes, we carried with us the stories of survival and felt a call to action to help those in need.