Two weeks after Maria, scars from 'incredible and terrifying' disaster remain

It's been almost two weeks since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, and 95 percent of the country’s electricity customers still have no power.

Some hospitals remain dark. Debris is still present on streets. Much of the countryside is struggling to access basic necessities like food, fresh water and cash.

“What I’ve seen is a disaster of incredible and terrifying scale,” Christy Delafield said Tuesday via Skype. “Nearly everything shut down at once: Power, water, cellphone towers.”

Delafield is on the ground in San Juan with Portland-based Mercy Corps to help with relief efforts as the country continues to recover from the Category 5 storm that pummeled the island Sept. 20.

Mercy Corps provides relief and focuses on transition in places where conflict, disaster, political upheaval or economic collapse have occurred.

Delafield says it’s rare that the organization works within the United States, but they’ve done so previously when needed. She described Puerto Rico as a place in desperate need of assistance.

“I’ve met families that are still shoveling mud and debris out of their homes and pushing wheelbarrows around the street in front of their house, getting rid of the stuff that piled up in their homes when their homes were flooded,” she said. “They still don’t have the power back on. They still don’t have the water back on.”

President Donald Trump praised his administration Tuesday and the people of Puerto Rico for the relief effort during a visit to the country.

Trump told officials and relief workers that the relatively low death toll from the disaster — he was told 16 or 17 — was a tribute to those efforts.

“We've saved a lot of lives,” he said.

Delafield pointed to progress as well and to a sense of togetherness in the community. But she stressed there is a lot of work to be done.

“People are in good spirits and committed to getting cleaned up and getting things back in order,” she said. “But this is a big challenge.”

She also warned against complacency, saying it is important to stay focused on recovery.

“Things take time,” she said. “The next step is we need to be looking at laying the foundation for a strong recovery. This is the moment where people sort of stop paying attention. The media moves on to something else. But Puerto Rico still needs our commitment and still needs us to be to be focused on what we can do to help people.”

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, there are now more than 10,000 federal officials on the ground on the island, and 45 percent of customers now have access to drinking water. Businesses are also beginning to re-open, with 60 percent of retail gas stations up and running.

The Health and Human Services Department says federal medical teams with their own equipment and supplies have been sent to help provide care at Centro Medico, a major trauma center in San Juan. Additional teams have been sent to five hospitals in other parts of the island.

The department has also placed a liaison in each hospital that's open, to make sure the facilities can get timely shipments of fuel needed to keep generators running, as well as medical supplies.

Organizations such as Mercy Corps are on the ground as well, doing what they can to help with the recovery.

“As we’re starting to see schools open up again, as were starting to see roads open up again, this is a great opportunity for us to come in,” Delafield said. “What we’re expecting to do is bring cash assistance to some of those fully hard-hit areas. (To) people who now have access to purchase food but don’t have the means to do so.”

Delafield says Mercy Corps plans to have a team in Puerto Rico for at least two months but it will stay longer if needed. 

“The challenge here is tough,” she said. “But people are strong. We are forming strong partnerships and together we will not fail. Together we can make this recovery a reality.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.