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Puerto Rico was still recovering from Maria when Fiona hit. Now, many fear the long road ahead


And now to Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Fiona made landfall a week ago, causing severe damage and an island-wide blackout. Roughly half of the population still has no power, and hundreds of thousands lack running water. Fiona was actually not as devastating as Hurricane Maria five years ago, but it's a major setback in Puerto Rico's long, already strained road to recovery. Here's NPR's Adrian Florido.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When Fiona's winds started picking up over the town of Salinas last weekend, Margarita Torres got scared. She lives alone in a small house with a corrugated metal roof.

MARGARITA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The winds were so strong, she said, that she could see the metal panels being pulled away from the frame. Look, she says, as she points up to the sunlight coming through the cracks.

M TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "Now," she said, "I'm going to have to find someone to come nail those back down again" - again because her roof was also damaged five years ago by Hurricane Maria. The only federal aid she got back then was a blue tarp. Part of it was still covering her roof last weekend until Fiona blew it off. Now her roof is leaking. She slipped and fell the other day. It exasperates Torres because she's been working hard with what little she has to fix the house up.

M TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "It's been small steps forward," she said, "and now a big step back."

M TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "But thank God I'm alive," she says. "And now I have to keep moving forward." Keep moving forward - palante. It's a Puerto Rican expression that reflects a steadfast resolve to overcome adversity. That resolve is facing a big test this week, though, because before Fiona, people and communities had been working for the five years since Maria to repair their homes, their parks, their community centers but also to patch up the emotional wounds that Maria left behind and the psychological ones. Nancy Torres lives in the mountain town of Utuado, near the banks of the Guaunico River.

NANCY TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: She says she still has a little battery-powered radio that she used during the months she was without electricity after Maria. When Fiona knocked out power last weekend, she got the radio out and listened to the news as she monitored the river.

N TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: The water levels were rising fast. And then she heard the news - the river had washed the metal bridge near her house away again, just like it had done during Maria.

(Speaking Spanish).

N TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: "I'm living through it again," she remembered saying to herself when she heard the news on the radio, choked by emotion as she thought about her daughter in a nearby town. The loss of the bridge has shocked people because it was only two years old, built by the federal government to temporarily replace the one that Maria had washed away.


FLORIDO: After the river receded, tractors started working to clear a path so the massive metal structure could be extracted from the riverbank where it lodged. Nancy Torres looked out over the yawning chasm that the bridge left behind.

N TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: And she said there was no choice but to wait for it to be rebuilt again. She just hopes the federal government has learned a lesson, she said, and builds the next bridge higher and stronger. All across Puerto Rico, as people begin working to recover from Fiona, they're trying to apply the lessons they learned from Hurricane Maria. For many who lived through the bungled response to Maria, one big lesson was, don't rely solely on the government to help you recover. In the weeks since Fiona, volunteer brigades have been helping people repair roofs, cleaning the mud out of flooded homes and delivering food and bottled water to people in need.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

FLORIDO: In the northern coastal town of Loiza on Saturday, a legal aid group hosted a workshop so community leaders could learn to help their neighbors fill out the online application for federal disaster assistance. Many people still remember what a nightmare it was to get their applications approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency five years ago. Most were denied. But in the years since, lawyers in Puerto Rico have successfully pressured FEMA to loosen its requirements so more people could get help after the next disaster.

ARIADNA GODREAU: So we have been able to be more agile in the process of identifying obstacles within the application itself and in the end, like, remove those obstacles.

FLORIDO: Ariadna Godreau is director of the aid group Ayuda Legal Puerto Rico. She says a big challenge is going to be convincing people who had such a horrible experience in the past that they should even bother applying for federal disaster aid again. And yet she wants them to.

GODREAU: Because people have a right to be able to enjoy a just recovery. And what you're seeing right now is that I have lawyers in the brigades, but it's community leaders who are completing the applications. So it's a process of ownership of a recovery process that has been taken away.

FLORIDO: Recovering from Hurricane Fiona just five years after Hurricane Maria is going to be hard for people - there's no sugarcoating that. But the more people feel like there are neighbors and resources and friends to help them along, Godreau says, the less daunting a prospect it will become. Adrian Florido, NPR News, San Juan, Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.