Editor's note: This article was originally published January 19, 2018; it was updated September 13, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
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 — by far the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state or territory — and the unemployment rate is nearly three times the national level.
The damaging effects of the hurricane — the worst storm to strike the island in over 80 years — will haunt residents for many years to come. More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have left home and settled in the continental U.S. since the storm. It’s estimated that nearly half a million residents will leave the island by the end 2019, as a direct result of Maria’s devastation. But most Puerto Ricans are committed to staying to recover, no matter how long it takes.
Now a year after the storm after the storm, they still need a lot of support with essentials and with the hard, long-term work of recovery. And hurricane season has returned. According to preliminary forecasts, this year's season could be “above average” — a foreboding warning for those still rebuilding from the last storm.
Thanks to generous support from a variety of corporate partners including Bacardi, BlackRock, Google.org, the Miami Foundation and Walmart, Mercy Corps is continuing to support Puerto Rico relief and recovery efforts in the ongoing aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. One year into Hurricane Maria recovery, here’s what’s happening with Puerto Rico now:
Where is Puerto Rico after the hurricane?
A year after Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Rico’s residents are still recovering from the storm, even as the peak of the 2018 hurricane season begins. Although power has been restored and access to clean water has greatly improved, Puerto Ricans are still recovering from the destruction and trauma of the hurricane.
Day-long power outages are still common, especially in rural areas. Some homes still have tarps instead of roofs. Collapsed utility poles and uprooted trees are common. The continued challenges have driven hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans from the island entirely.
How has Puerto Rico recovered after Hurricane Maria?
Puerto Rico is on its way to recovery, but more work remains. Water and power have been restored to most families. However, residents are still coping with the trauma of the disaster. As of June, thousands of families were still displaced, living in shelters, with friends or relatives, or at hotels with assistance from FEMA. Construction materials to fix their homes are expensive and hard to find.
Businesses continue to suffer from destruction and decreased tourism. Despite businesses and roads reopening, some business owners have experienced up to a 90% drop in customers since last year.
Read on for more about how Puerto Rico has been affected by the storms, 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 percent 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 was 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 $94.4 billion in damages — a crippling toll for an island that was already billions of dollars in debt.
But the effects of the storm have undoubtedly been felt most by the people themselves. The storm left thousands of families without homes and destroyed some communities entirely. In August, the Puerto Rican government raised the official death toll to an estimated 2,975 people — 46 times higher than the original count of 64 deaths.
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. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, households went 84 days without power, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cell service, on average. For many, it will take years to fully recover.
What are living conditions like now?
One year has passed since Hurricane Maria made landfall, and clear evidence of the storm remains. Lack of electricity and clean drinking water have been central challenges to the Caribbean island as it slowly returns to a semblance of normal life.
It wasn’t until August — nearly a year after the storm — that Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) announced that 100 percent of customers have power restored. People living in Yabucoa, the first town to be struck by the storm, were some of the last to see the lights come back on. The blackout was the largest blackout in U.S. history.
Access to clean water has greatly improved, though service can be intermittent and there’s still some question of quality. For months after the storm, even where water service had been restored, most communities still had a "boil water" advisory in place, and people were purchasing bottled water to get the clean water they needed.
Many homes remain completely abandoned. As of June, thousands of families were still displaced, living in shelters, with friends or relatives, or at hotels with assistance from FEMA. There are still many families living under the shelter of temporary blue tarps. Others are just beginning the slow process of reconstruction, as rebuilding materials are expensive and have been in short supply — and help is hard to find.
While most people have regained access to basic essentials at this point, the road to recovery is long, and many residents still need help.
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 were 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 still operating without power.
Today, the majority of Puerto Rico’s public schools are open again. Some schools have been converted into community centers and shelters, forcing students to relocate and find alternate routes to resume their studies. About one in 13 students have left the island since Maria hit. And the newest fiscal plan includes a measure to permanently close nearly 300 schools — roughly a quarter of all of the island's public schools.
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 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 we could see another active hurricane season in the Caribbean again this year.
While addressing immediate needs, we have also been working with local communities to understand where there are opportunities to rebuild stronger. Local community centers have become important gathering points where people who have lost their homes seek shelter, receive aid, and participate in community events. Today, we are working to transform these centers into resilience hubs to help rebuild the island's energy and water supply.
Thanks to funding from Walmart and The Miami Foundation, we are creating at least 15 resilience hubs at existing community centers to lay the foundation for Puerto Rico’s recovery. Hubs will help provide energy and water where it’s needed most, offer support to small farmers who lost their livelihoods to the storm, and help families become more resilient and better prepared to face future storms.
With financial support from Bacardi, Google.org and other partners, Mercy Corps has also launched an economic recovery program focused on bringing tourists back to the island. We're providing businesses with tailored support that will help them build their businesses back stronger. That support includes cash grants, technical assistance and business training.
Tourist areas also require rehabilitation. Improving those sites, along with building and promoting businesses, will bring in much-needed income. We’re partnering with government associations and local organizations to let people know that their favorite restaurants, bars, activity centers and beaches are open for business again.
"Local economies are the best engine for strong, long-term recovery after disasters," says Jeronimo Candela, Director of Mercy Corps in Puerto Rico. "Small business owners have worked hard to reopen their shops as quickly as possible after the storm and are eager to have people explore the various attractions the island has to offer. Puerto Rico is open for business."
How you can help
The situation on the island is slowly improving, but more help is still needed to mitigate Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico. As we see elsewhere around the world, it will take a concerted effort by multiple organizations and the government to help Puerto Rico recover. Here’s how you can help:
Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more support to Puerto Rican families and families recovering from disaster around the world.
- Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page to spread the word about the millions who need us.
- Send a message of support. Let Puerto Ricans know that you haven't forgotten about them.
- Start a campaign. You can turn knowledge into action by setting up a personal fundraising page and asking your friends and family to contribute to our efforts to help families survive, recover and rebuild.