NOEL KING, HOST:
Parts of Puerto Rico still don't have electricity six months after Hurricane Maria. According to one research group, this is the biggest blackout in U.S. history. Reporter Sarah Varney visited the isolated mountain town of Castaner, where the hospital runs off a generator, and people are really struggling.
SARAH VARNEY: Helicopters from the power company buzz across the skies of this picturesque valley. They ferry electrical poles on long wires to workmen standing on steep hillsides. Power is back on in the center of town, but it's spotty. And people who live along the mountain roads don't expect to get power until late summer, if ever. Six months after Hurricane Maria, daily life in Castaner yare is still far from normal. Children have been attending school only half the day. Another school nearby remains closed, and families who lost their homes have set up beds and couches in its classrooms.
The hurricane winds snapped banana trees and ripped up acres of coffee plants here in Puerto Rico's coffee region. With no harvest this spring, idle men spend hours in the town bar. From his office at the hospital, Domingo Monroig, the chief executive, looks out onto that bar on Castaner's main street. In the months since Hurricane Maria, the hospital has been the town's organizing center.
DOMINGO MONROIG: I don't know if the phrase is unhappy, but we call it como triste (ph) in Spanish. For example, when they have light, they play in la cancha (ph) - the basketball area. Or if we don't have light, everybody stay in their home. They say, I don't know what to do because it's every day, every day, they same, the same, the same.
VARNEY: Dr. Javier Portalatin is a clinical psychologist at the hospital.
JAVIER PORTALATIN: (Speaking Spanish).
VARNEY: "The last big hurricane, George, was in the nighttime," he says, and we only heard the sounds of it."
PORTALATIN: (Speaking Spanish).
VARNEY: "Hurricane Maria was in the daytime, and we could actually see what was happening through the windows. I have patients," he says, "who saw their pets being killed and their neighbor's houses destroyed. These memories continue to spur anxiety attacks."
(SOUNDBITE OF AUTOMOBILE ENGINE)
VARNEY: Up a winding mountain road, one of Dr. Portalatin's patients, Johanna Garcia Mercado, lives in near constant fear. Just 10 feet in front of her tiny, dark home, the hillside collapsed during the hurricane.
JOHANNA GARCIA MERCADO: (Speaking Spanish).
VARNEY: "When it rains and thunders," she says, I'm afraid this steep hillside behind the house will give way and bury my daughters in mud." Her husband, a coffee picker, has no work this spring, so he's digging up yautia roots and selling them. The villagers of Castaner are working hard to recover. But their resilience is withering, even for people like Mariela Miranda, who has taken it upon herself to visit her bedridden neighbors. She delivers hot rice and turkey stew to a family that is caring for a 59-year-old man in the final throes of cancer. They are relying on a small inverter to power the ventilator that is keeping him alive.
MARIELA MIRANDA: It's been really hard because they need a generator 'cause his machine has to be on 24 hours for the oxygen.
VARNEY: Miranda gets back in the car and heads to her next stop. She's a walking catalogue of Hurricane Maria's relentless torment - the neighbor gasping for air because he couldn't plug in his nebulizer, the 109-year-old woman with Alzheimer's who has terrible bedsores.
MIRANDA: It drains you. It gets you. You get so frustrated sometimes 'cause there's people that will die. I know an elderly person that died because he had apnea, and he didn't have a generator. So every night, he would sleep at the driveway sitting on the couch because he was scared to die if he fell asleep.
VARNEY: When I ask her who should lead the effort to restore daily life to Castaner, Miranda grows exasperated. We hear the help is getting here, she says - we don't see it coming to our neighbors.
MIRANDA: They're getting sick mentally. They - you can see they're not the same. You can see the frustration.
VARNEY: Do you think once they get power, these problems that you've been seeing will go away, or do you think that there will be lasting damage from how long they have lived?
MIRANDA: It will be lasting damage. And when everything come back, they still have - they're going to have the mental damage of - they were, like, abandoned.
VARNEY: At the Mission La Santa Cruz church along Castaner's main street, Father Edwin Orlando Perez Castro prepares for Friday night services. Standing in the chapel, he says most of the hymns we sing give people faith that God will help us rebuild ourselves and our town. And it's part of our mission to be light in this darkness. I'm Sarah Varney in Castaner, Puerto Rico.
KING: Sarah Varney is with our partner Kaiser Health News.
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