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Storm-ravaged Puerto Rico seeks to rebuild after Hurricane Maria

A car dealership lays in disarray after the impact of Hurricane Maria, which hit the eastern region of the island, in Humacao, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)

DANICA COTO, ASSOCIATED PRESS

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — The sky was darkening Thursday afternoon as 10-year-old Sarah Jimenez laid out three plastic buckets on her grandmother's patio in hopes of capturing rainwater.

"We can use it to at least flush the toilets," she told her grandmother.

A day after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, flooding towns, crushing homes and killing at least two people, millions of people on the island faced the dispiriting prospect of weeks and even months without electricity.

The storm knocked out the entire power grid across the U.S. territory of 3.4 million, leaving them without electricity to light their homes, cook or pump water.

As a result, Sarah and others hunted for gas canisters for cooking, collected rainwater or prepared themselves mentally for the hardships to come in the tropical heat. Some contemplated leaving the island.

"You cannot live here without power," said Hector Llanos, a 78-year-old retired New York police officer who planned to go back to the U.S. mainland on Saturday to live there temporarily.

Like many Puerto Ricans, Llanos does not have a generator or gas stove. "The only thing I have is a flashlight," he said, shaking his head. "This is never going to return to normal."

Maria's death toll across the Caribbean, meanwhile, climbed to at least 19, nearly all of them on the hard-hit island of Dominica.

As of Thursday evening, Maria was moving off the northern coast of the Dominican Republic with winds of 120 mph (195 kph). The storm was expected to approach the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Bahamas late Thursday and early Friday.

From there, it is expected to veer into the open Atlantic, no threat to the U.S. mainland.

In Puerto Rico, the grid was in sorry shape long before Maria struck.

The territory's multibillion-dollar debt crisis has left agencies like the state power company broke. It abandoned most basic maintenance in recent years, leaving the island subject to regular blackouts.

"We knew this was going to happen given the vulnerable infrastructure," Gov. Ricardo Rossello said.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said it would open an air bridge from the mainland on Friday, with three to four military planes flying to the island every day carrying water, food, generators and temporary shelters.

"There's a humanitarian emergency here in Puerto Rico," Rossello said. "This is an event without precedent."

Rossello said his administration was trying to open ports soon to receive shipments of food, water, generators, cots and other supplies.

The government has hired 56 small contractors to clear trees and put up new power lines and poles and will be sending tanker trucks to supply neighborhoods as they run out of water.

Fifty-four of the island's 78 municipalities have been declared federal disaster zones.

Sarah's grandmother, Maribel Montilla, already had had two large barrels at home filled with water but worried about how long it would last for her, her daughter, her son-in-law and six grandchildren.

"You know what I think? We're going to be without power for six months now," she said.

Cellphone and internet service collapsed in much of Puerto Rico. The only radio station still operating — WAPA 680 AM — was relaying messages on the air to help connect friends and families.

Other concerns were more prosaic.

Across the street from Alvarez's house, someone yelled at a neighbor, "Listen, do you have Netflix?!"

Jaime Rullan, a sports commentator, was among dozens of Puerto Ricans who sought shelter at a hotel only to be forced to evacuate after its generator broke down in the middle of the hurricane.

He and his family were headed back home to prepare for what they believed would be weeks without power.

"We're used to the lights going out because of storms here in Puerto Rico, but this time, we're worried," he said. "We don't know how long it's going to last. ... We should prepare ourselves mentally to be at least a month without power."

Rullan has a gas stove at home but tries not to think about the lack of air conditioning in an island where the heat index has surpassed 100 degrees in recent days.

Deysi Rodriguez, a 46-year-old caretaker for elderly people, does not have a gas stove. And unlike others who have been lining up at the few fast-food restaurants that reopened, Rodriguez is a diabetic and has to be more careful about what she eats.

Rodriguez said she might temporarily move to New Jersey if the situation becomes even more dire.

Pedro Cartagena, a 57-year-old dock supervisor, said he planned to shower, eat and sleep at the company's office. He has no gas stove and will buy food at the few restaurants that are open and operating on generators.

"That's going to drain my bank account," he said, "but if I want to eat, that's my only option."

In an upscale neighborhood in San Juan, 69-year-old retiree Annie Mattei's condominium had a generator. But she said she will shut it off between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. to save fuel.

"This has been devastating," she said as her eyes welled with tears.

In the Dominican Republican, Maria knocked down trees and power lines. But Joel Santos, president of the country's hotel association, said the hurricane did not damage the tourism infrastructure, even though it passed close to Punta Cana, the major resort area on the eastern tip of the island.

In Dominica, where Maria laid waste to hundreds of homes and was blamed for at least 15 deaths, Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit wept as he spoke to a reporter on the nearby island of Antigua.

"It is a miracle there were not hundreds of deaths," he said. He added: "Dominica is going to need all the help the world has to offer."