When Jose Albaladejo Santiago opened the white gates of his home Tuesday morning for the first time after Hurricane Fiona flooded Puerto Rico, his dirty refrigerator blocked the entrance.
The water marks left by the rising river waters that stained the home’s first floor were taller than the 65-year-old resident of Barrio San Jose, a community nestled in the valley of the La Plata River in the northern Puerto Rican town of Toa Baja.
Albaladejo slipped through the small crevice and pushed the fridge out of the way.
An air-conditioning unit in the bedroom floor left a hole of sunlight in its wake. The kitchen counters, blackened by mud, were ripped off the walls. Caricature sharks on a child’s table smiled through a layer of mud. Albaladejo’s boots squelched in the thick mud, a watery stench wafting from every surface.
“All our efforts made earth, rubble and trash,” said Juana, his wife, 67, choking on tears as she trailed behind him.
They had returned to Puerto Rico only six months ago after leaving the island when Hurricane Maria flooded their house all the way to the second floor in 2017. Little by little, they fixed up the residence where the couple had once lived. In the two months before Fiona, it became a rental that supplemented Albaladejo’s monthly pension.
On Tuesday morning, exactly five years after Maria devastated the island and killed thousands, the couple and their neighbors found themselves picking up the pieces left behind by another storm in a barrio where the river floods the streets and roars into homes when a hurricane hits.
“This is routine as far back as I can remember,” said Albalajedo, who has heart problems and diabetes.
Hurricane Fiona slammed Puerto Rico over the weekend, killing at least four people, knocking out electrical service and leaving hundreds of thousands without running water. It cut mountain communities off with landslides and flooded coastal and river communities across the island. Thousands have been rescued.
Fiona is the first hurricane to make landfall on the island since Maria. But Puerto Rico was nowhere near recovered when the slow-moving Fiona arrived, drenching the island in as much as 30 inches of rain. The hurricane’s devastation follows not only Maria, but a series of earthquakes that devastated the island’s southern region two years ago and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Gov. Pedro Pierluisi said at a press conference Tuesday he will ask President Joe Biden to issue a major disaster declaration for Puerto Rico. About 1,200 people were still in government shelters Tuesday. Meanwhile, authorities said 300,000 customers had power back, and 40% have running water, even as areas of the island are still getting heavy rains from remnants of Fiona.
“This has been hard,” Pierluisi said. “There are heavy damages and we are still evaluating their extent on the island to make sure we can attend to all the needs of our people.”
All along the river valley road in San Jose, residents used wheelbarrows to carry dark, thick river mud out of their homes. They said they have grown accustomed to waiting every year for the destruction hurricane season can bring, and to rebuilding storm after storm. But with each hurricane, the community and its many elderly neighbors grow more tired and weary of starting over.
Flies swarmed a dead turtle, drenched in mud by the side of the road. Chickens picked at mountains of plant debris. The overflowing river current launched a car onto the edge of the river valley, its windshield cracked and crumbling under a mat of marsh weeds. A small, capsized boat blocked half the road.
“We always lose everything here,” said Jaime Santos, a. 35-year-old security guard who finished his 6 a.m. shift on Tuesday and went to clean his mother’s home in the community where he grew up. Hurricane Maria had blown off the roof, replaced by a still-unfinished wooden one. Now, tree branches made the front yard impassable and the living room’s furniture was knocked over, a drenched armchair in its center. Shoes, pillows and clothes were strewn all over the back bedroom, the floor still covered in inches of water.
He said he expected even worse damage than what he was seeing. But he told his mother, who is in Florida visiting family, that La Plata river hadn’t risen much, because he’s worried about what the news could do to her. He hopes to restore the home as much as possible before she comes back.
“Fiona moved everything around,” he said, “But little by little, I’m cleaning up now.”
In the home of neighbor Antonio Perez Miranda, a 70-year-old tailor, the river floods reached the second floor, as they had during Maria. He walked up the dark, still muddy narrow staircase to the main living space where he lives alone. His small gas stove worked, but its attached oven was still filled with floodwater.
“People don’t believe it. They say, how can that house be so tall and water still get in?” he said. “I can’t live here anymore.”
Maria Elena Oyola Maldonado, 64, came back home Tuesday after sheltering from Hurricane Fiona in a brother’s home. She hosed down the sludge-filled driveway of the house her family has lived in for 50 years.
“Maria, George, Hortense, Hugo” she said, listing out the names of all the major hurricanes her family has weathered in the house her parents built.
Fiona tattooed its passage on the walls with an even line of muddied vegetation a few feet high. Higher above, on a white column, a faded yellow thread still marks Hurricane Maria’s furious floods.
She loves the home that has been filled with her family for generations. But if she had the money, she said she would move out.
“The years go by, and the strength is not the same,” she said. “You come back home and all you see is destruction.”
Miami Herald staff writers Omar Rodríguez Ortiz and Antonio Maria Delgado contributed to this report.