Take your pick of the most heartrending hurricane victim I encountered on my last morning in Puerto Rico.

There was the young man, whose house was half gone, sleeping in a tent alongside his 2-month-old baby.

Or the old man in the wheelchair, Eladio Pabon, who used to stay on the second floor of his two-story home except it no longer has a second floor.

Then there was Juana Matos Crespo, an elderly woman whose roof had blown off of her house. Someone had fashioned a new roof from strips of zinc sheeting and other materials. But blue sky filtered through the gaps, as did the rain the previous night now glistening on the floor.

And let’s not forget Magaly Ramos and her two teenage children, Onasis and Oneysis, staying in a home that had been abandoned even before the hurricane — piles of horse manure in one of the open-air rooms testifying to its most recent use as a barn.


Eladio Pabon looks up from his wheelchair at what used to be the second floor of his home in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico.

Eladio Pabon looks up from his wheelchair at what used to be the second floor of his home in Toa Alta, Puerto Rico. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times


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I doubt if any of these people are even aware there is a debate on the U.S. mainland about whether the people of Puerto Rico are doing enough to help themselves recover from Hurricane Maria, a conversation that presumes everyone is in a position to help themselves more than they have already.

I met them in the hillside communities not far from the capital of San Juan, but just far enough to make them virtually invisible to the official hurricane recovery efforts.

In the hills, it was mostly up to local residents to clear the debris left by the hurricane.

They piled it beside the roads — heaps of mattresses, trees, building materials, clothing — and that’s where it remains, collecting rainwater and stewing in the tropical heat.

“This is where the system is failing, up in the hills,” said Carmelo Rios, a former professional baseball player and criminal lawyer who now is the Senate majority leader in Puerto Rico.

“This is where it falls off the grid,” Rios said.

By “grid” Rios meant the government’s official disaster relief system, which he said presumes that poor and elderly people who never previously used the internet will go online to apply for assistance.

Rios exhibits an old-school Chicago alderman’s street-level knowledge of his turf, all the more amazing considering his district is nearly 10 times larger.

“It’s not working,” is the message Rios asked Chicago Congressman Luis Gutierrez to relay forcefully to Congress as he led him Saturday on a combination driving-walking tour through the heavily damaged communities of Toa Alta, Los Acerolas and San Jose.

Along the way, residents kept asking them the same questions.

“Where is FEMA? When is FEMA coming?” they would say, sometimes in a friendly way, sometimes less so.

That’s a common refrain after natural disasters on the mainland too. In a major disaster, Americans expect their federal government to step up, which makes this a good time to remind everyone that the people of Puerto Rico are American citizens too.

The big difference here is that we’re already a month past the disaster, and they are still asking.

All Gutierrez could do for this day was to hand envelopes containing $100 cash donated by Chicagoans to some of the victims.

I remain agnostic as to whether the U.S. government or the bankrupt territorial government of Puerto Rico deserves the most blame for the shortcomings in the recovery effort.

In visits now to multiple locations in Puerto Rico, I met local officials who said they had received precious little help from either one.

The issue remains that, whether you blame the government or just chalk up the problems to the overwhelming scope of the storm and complexity of the cleanup, the people on the ground say more needs to be done to prevent the situation from getting worse.

In the struggling communities of Puerto Rico, they are grateful for any help they can get right now.

A man shows U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez what's left of his home in Los Acerolas, Puerto Rico. He now sleeps in a tent with his 2-month-old baby.

A man shows U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez what’s left of his home in Los Acerolas, Puerto Rico. He now sleeps in a tent with his 2-month-old baby. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times