MONTEBELLO, Puerto Rico — Relatives helped Maribel Valentin Espino find shelter when Hurricane Maria roared through her community in northern Puerto Rico. Neighbors formed volunteer brigades to cut fallen trees and clear twisty mountain roads after the storm had passed. Now, friends and a local cattle ranch provide the water they need to survive in the tropical heat.
Valentin and her husband say they have not seen anyone from the Puerto Rican government, much less the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since the storm tore up the island Sept. 20, killing at least 16 people and leaving nearly all 3.4 million people in Puerto Rico without power and most without water.
"People say FEMA is going to help us," Valentin said Tuesday as she showed Associated Press journalists around the sodden wreckage of her home. "We're waiting."
Many others are also waiting for help from anyone from the federal or Puerto Rican government. But the scope of the devastation is so broad, and the relief effort so concentrated in San Juan, that many people from outside the capital say they have received little to no help.
Valentin, her husband and teenage son live in one such area, Montebello, a 20-minute drive into what used to be lushly forested mountains near the northern coastal municipality of Manati. Hurricane Maria's Category 4 winds stripped the trees bare and scattered them like matchsticks. "It seemed like a monster," she recalled.
The roads are passable now but the community is still isolated. "Nobody has visited, not from the government, not from the city, no one," said Antonio Velez, a 64-year-old who has lived there his entire life.
In the central town of Morovis, Manolo Gonzalez built a makeshift raft out of a plastic pallet buoyed by soda bottles to help neighbors ferry food, gasoline and other basic supplies across a river where the bridge was destroyed.
Someone had already strung a cable over the 100-yard stretch of river so people could hold on as they crossed in search of supplies.
"There's no food over there," Gonzalez said. "We have to help each other because that's all we have."
The same complaint echoed throughout the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa, the first town Maria hit as it barreled across the island with 155 mph winds.
"Nothing, nothing, nothing," said 58-year-old retiree Angel Luis Rodriguez. "I've lost everything, and no one has shown up to see if anyone lives here."
At a nearby river, dozens of people gathered to bathe and wash clothes as they grumbled about the lack of aid.
"There's been no help from the mayor or from the federal government," said 64-year-old retiree Maria Rodriguez as she held a coconut in her right hand and took sips from it. "After Georges hit us (in 1998), they responded quickly. But now? Nothing. We need water and food."
Nearby, one girl engaged in a thumb war with a friend as she filled an empty water bottle with her other hand. Downstream, a woman sat cross-legged in the water behind a friend and helped wash her hair.
The recovery in the first week since the storm has largely been a do-it-yourself affair. People collect water from wells and streams, clear roads and repair their own homes when they are not waiting in daylong lines for gasoline and diesel. For most, the only visible sign of authority are police officers directing traffic, a critical service because traffic lights are out across the island.