The ‘Forgotten Ones’: 37 days after hurricane, Puerto Rico neighborhood still stranded

The cluster of houses perched on a hill overlooking the Arecibo River in Puerto Rico’s central mountain region used to be known as Río Abajo.

Then Hurricane Maria hit, turning the river into a ferocious torrent that wiped out the concrete bridge connecting the neighborhood to the nearby town of Utuado. For 15 days, as their water supply dwindled and their health worsened, residents waited for help to arrive. And when it didn’t come, they baptized the neighborhood with a new name: El Campamento de los Olvidados, the Camp of the Forgotten Ones.

Now, at the edge of the broken bridge, a Puerto Rican flag flaps in the wind. Below it, on a cardboard sign, the new name has been neatly stenciled in red spray paint.

On Friday, 37 days after the storm, the residents of Río Abajo were still stranded. They now have plenty of food and water: the National Guard, the Red Cross, government officials and dozens of volunteers have brought supplies, which residents ferry across the divide using a zip-line they’ve rigged from a cable and a shopping cart.

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Rio Abajo residents Carlos Ocasio Borrero, left, and Luis Santiago cleaning debris as a resident waits to climb the ladder to the Rio Abajo neighborhood of Utuado, now known as the Camp of the Forgotten Ones, during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

David Santiago

But there’s still no safe way to cross the river. To get to Utuado, locals have to climb down two wooden ladders leaning against a mound of fallen branches and debris. Then they have to wade through contaminated water, scramble over fallen concrete pylons and climb up a steep riverbank on the other side.

And that’s only if it doesn’t rain. On Thursday, a storm caused the river to surge and it became too dangerous to cross. Río Abajo was once again cut off from the rest of the world.

“We have no way to get to civilization, to get to the supermarket, to the pharmacy,” said resident Samuel de Jesús Díaz. “We’re crazy, desperate to be able to leave.”

Waiting for help

Mildred Santiago had a front-row seat when the hurricane approached on Sept. 20. From her home overlooking the river, she watched as the water rose two feet above the bridge and ripped out the lifeline that had connected her neighborhood to Utuado for nearly 50 years.

“It didn’t seem real. We couldn’t believe it, even though we saw it happen,” she said. “We were left with a feeling of emptiness, with questions: ‘What do we do now?’”

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A view of the destroyed house of Daniel Pagan in the Rio Abajo neighborhood of Utuado, now known as the Camp of the Forgotten Ones, during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Friday, October 27, 2017 in Puerto Rico.

David Santiago

The storm had destroyed a gazebo and a carport outside her house, and smashed a tree into her car. Just up the river, the damage was worse. The wind had ripped the roof off neighbor Daniel Pagan’s house and flattened several walls.

De Jesús Díaz was also in disbelief. Once the wind died down, he checked on his neighbors to make sure they were okay. He was especially worried about the sick and elderly, of which there are many in Río Abajo. One woman who lives nearby relies on an oxygen tank. Another neighbor has trouble walking.

The next day, when help hadn’t arrived, de Jesús Díaz tried calling 9-1-1. He didn’t have cellphone service, but he tried again the following day, and the day after that. For nearly two weeks, de Jesús Díaz kept calling. There was no way to get through.

“We felt totally forgotten,” he said. “We knew Puerto Rico had been totally destroyed, almost 100 percent destroyed. This was a catastrophe. And we knew we weren’t going to be the first people who got help, but since it was impossible to get to the highway, to the main road, there was no way out.” De Jesús Díaz worried about what would happen if one of his neighbors had a heart attack or suddenly got sick. “What were we going to do? Where were we going to take them? A lot of things went through our minds,” he said.

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Rio Abajo resident Daniel Pagan lost his house during Hurricane Maria. He poses across the river on Friday, October 27, 2017 in Puerto Rico.

David Santiago

While they waited for rescue workers to arrive, the roughly 25 families who live in Río Abajo helped each other. Those with generators shared the power with neighbors; those with extra bottled water gave it away. When the bottled water started to run out, some residents had to drink from a natural spring nearby. They had stockpiled enough supplies for a few days without access to the outside world, but not two weeks, de Jesús Díaz said. No one had expected the bridge to fall.

After nearly a week with no sign of rescue workers, one resident used a rope to rappel down the steep riverbank and walked the five miles to Utuado to get help. Friends and family members, still reeling from their own disasters, began to make their way to the river.

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Good Samaritans from the town Isabela sending a shopping cart full of necessities to the community of Rio Abajo during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Friday, October 27, 2017 in Puerto Rico.

David Santiago

One Río Abajo resident, a retired policeman named Carlos Ocasio, built the pulley system so they could send food and water across the divide. Then he built the wooden ladders. Those who were young and healthy enough climbed down the ladders and waded through the river to bring medicine and supplies to neighbors who couldn’t make the trip.

On Oct. 5, according to residents, the National Guard finally arrived. From her balcony, Santiago watched the guardsmen cross the river at dusk. She felt relieved. More than anything, she hoped the rescue workers could get word to her extended family.

“We hoped that they were at last going to find out the condition we were in and that they could at least help us get the message to our families, which was what most worried us, so that they knew we were okay, that we were alive,” she said.

Plenty of food, but no bridge

Residents of El Campamento de los Olvidados say they no longer feel forgotten.

As news of the broken bridge has spread, a steady stream of volunteers has come with supplies. Doctors have visited elderly residents; vets have examined Río Abajo’s pets. One family cooked a fried pork dish for the entire neighborhood. A little boy from a nearby town broke open his piggy bank, where he’d managed to save $160, and used the money to donate food.

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Good Samaritans from the town Isabela, brothers Saul Aldarondo, left, and Luis Aldarondo, alongside Mary Lopez fill a shopping cart with necessities for the community of Rio Abajo during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria on Friday, October 27, 2017 in Puerto Rico.

David Santiago

On Friday, a church group from Isabela, a coastal town over an hour away, spent the afternoon loading the zip-line shopping cart with seemingly endless bags and boxes.

Politicians from near and far have also stopped by with cases of water and food. Most recently, on Friday afternoon, a congressional delegation led by Puerto Rico Rep. Jenniffer González Colón visited the neighborhood.

And then there are the curious onlookers, who have heard about the stranded neighborhood on the local news and drive by to take photos of the broken bridge.

De Jesús Díaz said Río Abajo residents are grateful for all of the help and attention. “It keeps us motivated, strong, motivated every day to keep fighting in light of this situation,” he said.

But what they really need now, he added, is a new bridge. And it’s unclear how long it will take to get one.

In the meantime, the neighborhood’s new name appears to have stuck. Ask anyone in the town of Utuado for El Campamento de los Olvidados and they point up the road, past the river, where the houses that are still standing appear to be barely hanging on.