The island of Vieques is just seven miles from Puerto Rico. Right now, it might as well be 7,000.
It’s been destroyed by Hurricane Maria. And almost entirely cut off.
For seven days, Vieques’ people have been watching stocks of food, water and fuel dwindle while they’ve been in a black hole of no information. Now, crowds line up in the main square to touch the outside world.
On the first private flight in after the storm, resident and aid organizer Robert Becker brought in a bag full of satellite phones and residents wait for two hours in 90-degree heat for their turn to talk to a loved one.
It’s their first chance to say I’m alive, the kids are alive. Or to share the shockingly awful conditions that they are trying to survive.
“We’re running out of food and water,” one woman sobs. “We lost everything.”
Rick Daily ends his call with, “I love you. Give the kids a call.”
He swears he’s all right, but he has a request.
“Go back and tell ‘em we need help,” he says. “Tell the President or senators, everybody needs help here.”
So many tears are shed as the conversation plays out time and again. While connecting with someone precious must bring some solace, there is no hope that things are going to get better any time soon.
Just getting to Vieques is difficult and unnerving. There’s no radar to help the pilot of a small plane who took us on a 20-minute hop across a patch of Caribbean. Other planes heading in and out of Puerto Rico suddenly come into view through a thick haze caused by dust carried from the Sahara desert in a summer phenomenon.
Coming into land, the haze clears but the view is no better.
Planes lie smashed from the hurricane, tossed around the runway.
Power lines dangle from broken poles, hanging over the road into town.
The luxury W Resort and Spa is devastated. Homes are destroyed. This island was a mix of a luxury getaway for the rich and a harder, tougher life for poorer residents. Now everyone faces deprivation after the brute force of a Category 4 hurricane swept over.
Esperanza Beach – one of those with white sand and crystal clear blue waters – is gone. A catamaran has been dumped on its side on what’s left.
And then, in the main square, is a blue pop-up tent and the satellite phones that offer communication off the island.
All the 10,000 or so people on Vieques survived the storm, the deputy mayor, Daisy Cruz Christian says. But in the last week, some of the frailest have died. Supplies have been promised, she adds, but none have arrived.
Fear is beginning to spread of how hard life could yet get, and how people will respond.
There is no power on the island. No one has been restocking food or water or fuel supplies. No one knows when that will come.
Some local members of the National Guard are out in uniforms, giving a semblance of security. But they are not able to carry their weapons, until they receive orders from Puerto Rico, or the mainland US.
A truck drives round town, with speakers in the back so what little news is available can be shared in this cut-off world.
But for now, there is no news on what people need the most – help.