Quick facts: Hurricane Maria's effect on Puerto Rico

United States

Last updated: September 23, 2019

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  • Carmen Milagro, 71, mops her kitchen floor as rain enters through her badly-damaged roof four weeks after Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc across Puerto Rico. PHOTO: Jonathan Drake for Mercy Corps

On the morning of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, devastating the island and plunging all of its 3.4 million residents into a desperate humanitarian crisis.

Puerto Rico, officially the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, is an island territory of the United States, located in the northeast Caribbean Sea. It’s known for its white sand beaches, the historic city of Old San Juan, and El Yunque National Forest. The archipelago had already been facing a recession for over a decade before Maria hit. Almost half its residents lived below the poverty line — by far the highest poverty rate of any U.S. state or territory — and the unemployment rate is more than double the national level.

The damaging effects of the hurricane — the worst storm to strike the island in over 80 years — will haunt residents for many years to come. Around 130,000 Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens, have left home since July 2017 — many as a direct result of Maria’s devastation. And the government of Puerto Rico recently reported it expects the storm’s damage to drive an additional 8 percent drop in the population by 2024.

Most Puerto Ricans, though, are committed to staying to recover, no matter how long it takes. But two years after the storm, they still need a lot of support with essentials and with the hard, long-term work of recovery. And hurricane season has returned. According to preliminary forecasts, this year's Atlantic season could bring 4 to 8 storms that could become hurricanes. While normal, that number is a foreboding warning for those still recovering from the last storm.

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Thanks to generous support from a variety of corporate partners including Bacardi, BlackRock, Google.org, the Miami Foundation and Walmart, Mercy Corps is continuing to support families in Puerto Rico to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and prepare for future disasters.

Two years into Hurricane Maria recovery, here’s what’s happening with Puerto Rico now.

What is Puerto Rico like in 2019?

Two years after Hurricane Maria, thousands of Puerto Rico’s residents are still recovering from the storm, even as the peak of the 2019 hurricane season begins. Although power has been restored and access to clean water has greatly improved, Puerto Ricans are still recovering from the destruction and trauma of the hurricane.

Day-long power outages still happen from time to time, especially in rural areas. Some homes still have tarps instead of roofs. Collapsed utility poles and uprooted trees are common. The continued challenges have driven hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans from the island entirely.

Puerto Rican family outside their damaged shelter.

How has Puerto Rico recovered after Hurricane Maria?

Puerto Rico is on its way to recovery, but more work remains. Water and power have been restored to most families, and urban areas bear fewer physical marks of disaster. However, residents are still coping with the traumatic aftermath of Maria.

Many people lost their livelihoods in the storm and the local economy was devastated, making rebuilding a slow, expensive process.

Small- to medium-size businesses — which employ one out of every three workers in Puerto Rico — and farms were especially hard hit, suffering from destruction and decreased tourism. Even after businesses and roads reopened last year, some business owners reported up to a 90 percent drop in customers over the prior year.

Still, Puerto Ricans worked hard to restore their shops as quickly as possible, and today the island is open for business. Hundreds of farmers, fisherfolk and beekeepers have also jumpstarted their livelihoods with training and supplies from Mercy Corps, which has restored incomes and helped boost recovery of Puerto Rico’s economy and market system.

What happened when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017?

A damaged home in Puerto Rico

Maria first made landfall near the southeastern town of Yabucoa. The powerful Category 4 storm pploughed across the island with sustained winds of 155 mph, uprooting trees, downing weather stations and cell towers, and ripping wooden and tin roofs off homes. Electricity was cut off to 100 percent of the island, and access to clean water and food became limited for most.

Heavy rains and flash floods brought on by the storm exacerbated widespread devastation, turning streets into rivers full of debris. In some areas, floodwaters were waist-high — more than 30 inches deep — and often sewage-ridden. Less than one percent of homeowners had flood insurance.

Some Puerto Ricans were forced to cross swollen rivers after bridges collapsed to reach businesses where they could buy water and petrol.

Hurricane Maria was the worst storm to hit Puerto Rico in over 80 years, and arrived only two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed just north of the island and left 1 million people without power. The effect on Puerto Rican families — and the island’s infrastructure — will take many years to heal.

Read more about Mercy Corps' initial response to Hurricane Maria ▸

Despite the challenges, people came together to help their neighbors in any way they could — whether by clearing debris or even passing on food aid to those who needed it more. And now they are committed to building back better than before the storm.

How did Hurricane Maria affect Puerto Rico?

The scale of Maria’s destruction has been devastating, causing as much as £74 billion in damages — a crippling toll for an island that was already billions of dollars in debt.

But the effects of the storm have undoubtedly been felt most by the people themselves. The storm left thousands of families without homes and destroyed some communities entirely. In August 2018, the Puerto Rican government raised the official death toll to an estimated 2,975 people — 46 times higher than the original count of 64 deaths, released in December 2017.

About 80 percent of the island’s crop value was wiped out by Maria, representing a £608 million loss in agricultural yields — a devastating blow to an island with high poverty and already-fragile food security.

For months after the initial disaster, most families and businesses remained without power, cell phone service was limited, and clean water, food, medicine and fuel were all in very short supply. According to the New England Journal of Medicine, households went 84 days without power, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cell service, on average.

Unable to meet their basic needs, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans left altogether in the immediate aftermath, and the lasting effects of the damage are expected to drive an additional 179,000 people off the island by 2024.

While much progress has been made since Maria first made landfall, many people are still struggling to get enough food, access social services, like healthcare, and cope with the emotional stress of losing homes and loved ones. It will take years for the island to fully recover.

What are living conditions in Puerto Rico like after the hurricane?

A Puerto Rican mother and son in their home.

Two years have passed since Hurricane Maria tore through Puerto Rico. While clear evidence of the storm remains, life for many on the Caribbean island has gradually returned to a semblance of normal.

Basic infrastructure, like the power grid and water systems, have been restored to most of the population — but the repairs have been slow. It wasn’t until August 2018 — nearly a year after the storm — that Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) announced that 100 percent of customers have power restored. People living in Yabucoa, the first town to be struck by the storm, were some of the last to see the lights come back on. The blackout was the largest blackout in U.S. history.

landscape of a community in Puerto Rico.

A Puerto Rican mother and child

Access to clean water has greatly improved, though service can be intermittent and there’s still some question of quality. For months after the storm, even where water service had been restored, most communities still had a "boil water" advisory in place, and people were purchasing bottled water to get the clean water they needed.

Many homes remain completely abandoned. As of June 2018, thousands of families were still displaced, living in shelters, with friends or relatives, or at hotels with assistance from FEMA. There are still many families living under the shelter of temporary blue tarps. Others are just beginning the slow process of reconstruction, as rebuilding materials are expensive and have been in short supply.

While most people have regained access to basic essentials at this point, the road to recovery is long, and many residents still need help.

Who was most affected by the hurricane in Puerto Rico?

A Puerto Rican woman

The storm disproportionately affected Puerto Rico’s poorest residents, who have fewer resources on hand to help them recover and rebuild. Many of these people live in more rural communities and the hard-to-reach areas of the mountains and were the last to regain access to water or see their electricity restored.

Mercy Corps is focused on providing assistance to these vulnerable and underserved populations, who are most likely to be missed in broader relief efforts. This includes the elderly — many of whom depend on welfare or social security — along with people with disabilities and those living in remote rural areas, like the mountain towns of Las Marias and Maricao.

Puerto Rican children.

Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the psychological impacts of disaster like Hurricane Maria. New research shows nearly half of Puerto Rican children’s homes were damaged by the storm, while 30 percent feared for their lives or the lives of their loved ones, and around one quarter helped rescue others. It will take time and support for Puerto Rico’s children to fully overcome what they experienced during Hurricane Maria.

Many young people depend on the resources they find at school to help them overcome crisis-induced stress, but Hurricane Maria disrupted the lives of some 350,000 public school students. It took nearly five weeks before the first public schools began to reopen after the storm, though most were still operating without power.

Today, the majority of Puerto Rico’s public schools are open again, with exceptions. Some schools have been converted into community centers and shelters, requiring students to relocate and find alternate routes to resume their studies. And economic trouble exacerbated by the storm has forced the closure of 265 more — roughly a quarter of all of the island's public schools, affecting an estimated 60,000 students.

Many students have left the island since Maria hit, and the student population is expected to continue declining as more families flee high unemployment and poor public services made worse by storm damage. Those who remain will continue dealing with the consequences of a sustained break in their education, along with the stress of recovering from a natural disaster.

How are people in Puerto Rico preparing for hurricane season this year?

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expecting a near-normal Atlantic hurricane season this year — but that still means an estimated nine to 15 named storms, of which four to eight could become hurricanes. Ensuring people have emergency plans in place is critical to boosting preparedness for future disasters.

Local community centers have become important gathering points where people who have lost their homes seek shelter, receive aid and participate in community events. Thanks to funding from Walmart and The Miami Foundation, we are transforming these centers into resilience hubs that help communities to recover and be better equipped for the next crisis.

The hubs include solar panels that provide access to a basic source of energy that functions off the electrical grid. This will enable community members to keep medications that require refrigeration cold, charge their phones to stay in communication with family members, and access water — even if the power goes out.

We are supplying the hubs with disaster response kits, including two-way radios, flashlights, chainsaws, lighters and more, and facilitating search-and-rescue trainings and the development of community action plans, so community members know what to do to stay safe in the event of an emergency.

Where resilience hubs have additional land, we are also constructing small gardens, so community members can grow their own fresh vegetables to eat, or sell to offset the operational costs of running the community centers.

How is Mercy Corps helping?

In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, we partnered with World Central Kitchen, a nonprofit founded by celebrity chef José Andrés, to deliver more than 25,000 meals to hard-hit communities.

A Puerto Rican woman and baby receive emergency cash from Mercy Corps

Together with local organizations, we distributed nearly £233,763 in emergency cash so people could buy what they needed most — items like water, food and other essential supplies. Cash is a fast and flexible way to help people after crisis and supports local markets as they recover from the effects of Hurricane Maria.

Get the quick facts about the value of cash aid ▸

We also distributed 5,000 solar lanterns and 2,500 water filters to help thousands of families survive the storm’s immediate aftermath. Having solar lights and water filters, combined with training in their proper use, means that families are also better prepared for future storms.

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While addressing immediate needs, we have also been working with people to rebuild their agricultural livelihoods. We’ve supported hundreds of farmers, fisherfolk and beekeepers with supplies and training to learn new techniques and recover their enterprises for the long-term.

Additionally, with financial support from Bacardi, Google.org and other partners, Mercy Corps has launched an economic recovery programme focused on bringing tourists back to the island. We're providing businesses with tailored support that will help them build their businesses back stronger. That support includes cash grants, technical assistance and business training.

A Puerto Rican man and woman

Tourist areas also require rehabilitation. Improving those sites, along with building and promoting businesses, will bring in much-needed income. We’re partnering with government associations and local organizations to let people know that their favourite restaurants, bars, activity centers and beaches are open for business again.

"Local economies are the best engine for strong, long-term recovery after disasters," says Jeronimo Candela, Director of Mercy Corps in Puerto Rico. "Small business owners have worked hard to reopen their shops as quickly as possible after the storm and are eager to have people explore the various attractions the island has to offer. Puerto Rico is open for business."

How can I help?

The situation on the island is slowly improving, but more help is still needed to mitigate Hurricane Maria’s effect on Puerto Rico. As we see elsewhere around the world, it will take a concerted effort by multiple organizations and the government to help Puerto Rico recover. Here’s how you can help:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more support to Puerto Rican families and families recovering from disaster around the world.

  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page to spread the word about the millions who need us.
  • Send a message of support. Let Puerto Ricans know that you haven't forgotten about them.