COMERIO, PUERTO RICO — When we think about hurricanes, we think of high winds bending palm trees, waves crashing dangerously close to some television reporter at the beach and storm surges pushing the sea inland.
That’s not what happened to Comerio when Hurricane Maria cold-cocked this tropical island one month ago.
Comerio is 30 miles from the coastal city of San Juan in the Cordillera Central, the mountain chain that extends across the island’s interior.
The mountains here are steeply pitched with the quiet Rio de La Plata running between them. Some of the homes of Comerio are perched on the mountainsides, the rest in the valley below where the town center is located — about 20,000 people in all.
When Maria hit, the winds indeed roared, toppling thousands of trees and stripping most of the rest of their greenery. It ripped the roofs off many homes and smashed others to pieces, especially at higher elevations.
But the killer in Comerio was the rain, some 40 inches in all that pelted the mountainsides, then collected in smaller rivers and and streams that feed La Plata or formed its own routes downhill, fueling mudslides.
Suddenly the quiet river was something quite different, something the old-timers said they’d never seen.
La Plata spilled nearly 100 feet out of its banks, enough to practically cover the first floor of buildings in the town center, said Jaime Garcia, the town’s emergency management director. More than 4,000 homes were damaged.
The overall result was that 6,000 people were left homeless in Comerio alone, and remain so.
Most have taken refuge with neighbors or family members, said Josian Santiago, the town’s veteran mayor. Only 70 remain in a shelter operated by the town.
But with no electricity and no running water, Santiago is finding it a challenge to get the town back on its feet while he also takes responsibility for delivering food and drinking water. And he wonders how long people can live under such conditions before the social fabric frays.
It was against that backdrop Friday that U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez brought a much appreciated truckload of supplies purchased with money raised by a Humboldt Park group, the Puerto Rican Agenda. He delivered a similar shipment the previous day in the also distressed coastal town of Loiza.
Gutierrez also brought an envelope stuffed with $5,000 in cash for Santiago to buy what he needs.
The cash donation was made through the Puerto Rican Agenda by Carmen Hernandez, general counsel in Chicago for Clayco, a real estate development firm; Hernandez lived in Comerio as a child and still has family here.
Santiago said he would immediately use $500 to buy more drinking water, his biggest need.
The prospects for restoring water service soon are not good in Comerio, because the supply pipes that bring the water and carry away sewage were destroyed in the flooding. The replacement pipes that are needed are not made on the island, and Garcia said the town has been unable to determine how soon they could be brought in from outside Puerto Rico.
As grateful as he was for the Chicago donations, Garcia was realistic when I asked how long they would last.
“About a week,” he said.
Garcia said he knows Chicago. His relatives live near Wrigley Field. The mayor, Santiago, has traveled here several times to give speeches on politics and community organizing.
That’s only a small measure of the many longstanding ties between Chicago and Puerto Rico.
I came down here to try to show people in Chicago how bad the hurricane was and how much help it is going to take for Puerto Rico to recover.
“The hurricane was a monster,” 14-year-old Angel Ortiz told me after picking up an armful of free supplies to take home to his family.
The monster has left. The nightmare continues.