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Seven weeks after Maria, Puerto Ricans are coming to each others’ aid

Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Utuado, Puerto Rico

On a recent Sunday afternoon, the skinny country road that leads to the “Campamento de los Olvidados”—or campground of the forgotten—in the mountain municipality of Utuado was jammed with the cars of well-intentioned Puerto Ricans.

The self-designated “campground,” an established community of more than 20 families, was cut off from the world for several days after hurricane Maria washed away the concrete bridge that connected them to the rest of Utuado. 

Since then, its residents have attached ladders to the remains of the bridge, set up a zip line that delivers necessities via a beat-up shopping cart, and have been made celebrities by local and national news reporters. 

The campground has now become a post-hurricane pilgrimage destination of sorts. After loading up the cart with donations, visitors make the perilous climb up the ladders to meet and take selfies with the campground’s residents. Even several members of Congress have made the trek.  

Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
Hurricane debris serves as an anchor for makeshift ladders to go up and down the bridge; residents have placed stones to cross the parts of the riverbed that carry more water.
Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
Visitors to the campground pose for pictures on a recent Sunday afternoon.

“We have been blessed because everyone has come to give us a hand,” says Mildred Santiago, whose house overlooks the destroyed bridge. At this point, they’ve received so much food and water that they’ve been storing it in a chapel.

Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
Residents have replaced the sign they hung in the days after Maria reading “Campamento de los Olvidados”—or campground of the forgotten, with a banner a child made for them. It reads: “PR se levanta,” or PR rises.

Maria unleashed a torrent of generosity, but it’s pooling in some places and not reaching others. While emergency responses can be chaotic by nature, Puerto Rico’s still-spotty communications more than a month and a half after the storm have made aid logistics even more complicated.

“Everyone wants to help, but we don’t know how,” says Camille Barens, a civil engineer who lives in San Juan. She and her friends launched their own aid brigade which they dubbed “Let’s fill up the pick-up.” Then, in a caravan, they headed to one of the friend’s hometown, handing out donations along the way.

Tucked-away places are easy to miss. Just a short ride away from the forgotten campground, three other families were similarly isolated after the hurricane destroyed the road leading to their homes. They have set up their own zip line, but it’s not visible from the road. “The help doesn’t get all the way here; we have to go out to find it,” says Iván Sotomayor, a 26-year-old butcher whose family rigged up the system. 

Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
A little bit farther down the road from the campground of the forgotten, another zip line receives fewer visitors—and aid.
Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
Since the river is higher at this point, residents must also load into the cart, which is made out of a sawed-off shipping pallet, to get to the other side.

But the Sotomayors’ zip line could soon become a regular stop on the aid distribution routes Puerto Ricans are piecing together post-Maria. One do-gooder who was led there by neighbors posted a video of Sotomayor on Facebook. It’s been viewed one million times.

Raquel Pérez Puig for Quartz
Iván Sotomayor heads home.

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