Ms. Velez, and other residents of Bubao, a fleck of a town in mountainous Utuado that was cut off by damaged roads and bridges, had little choice but to rely on each other.
After the storm, they stepped out of their washed-out houses and began to shovel and sweep and mop even as they waited, forever it seemed, for help to arrive. They worked for days to try to make the town’s main road passable. “It took everyone two weeks,” Ms. Velez said. “They finally sent a tractor to help move all the dirt and debris.”
The small kindnesses came daily. A neighbor with bottles of water always made a point of leaving a few at Ms. Velez’s doorstep. A relative with ice, a precious commodity, would give her a bag now and again. In turn, if someone needed a lantern, she handed over one of hers. Mothers cared for each other’s children and took turns waiting in lines at banks and gas stations. Teachers clambered into the bed of pickup trucks and traveled as far as they could along muddy, washed-out roads to check on their students.
Ms. Torres had been saved by two neighbors as floodwaters filled her home. She was dazed and could not get out, so the men had lifted her through a window.
Around the island, doctors have teamed to make forays into hard-to-reach towns in the interior, jumping in cars and sport utility vehicles with whatever supplies they could muster.
In Humacao, a municipality on the eastern shore where Hurricane Maria snapped sturdy trees in half like pretzel rods and flooded entire neighborhoods, teachers showed up at school the next day, unbidden. Fallen trees covered the courtyard. Mud caked the hallways and classrooms. They put on gloves and started to haul away branches. Eventually, cafeteria workers served up thousands of meals for the homebound and others in Humacao.
In the distance, several weeks after Maria, mountains that had looked brown and stripped of life after the hurricane now glowed green.
“We will put fruit trees over there, and plants there,” said Carmen Gisela Rodriguez, a teacher in Humacao, envisioning a tableau of shade and plenty in the school courtyard. Her eyes welled up. “Amid all this grew a culture of sharing.”
Ms. Velez said optimism had sometimes slipped away from her amid so many unsolvable questions: Where to find food. How to cook the food. Where to wash clothes. How to fix the gate, remove the mold, rebuild her back rooms. Suicidal thoughts came and went, she said. But she smiled and clasped her cheeks in astonishment when Tito El Bambino and a well-known salsa musician, Pirulo, his dreadlocks bouncing off his back, walked along the street and right up to her. Her son whipped out his iPhone, and she basked in their attention.
“This helps us so much — so much,” Ms. Velez said. “To feel we are not abandoned.”
Tito, who helped popularize reggaeton, which combines rap with Latin rhythms, and Pirulo made deliberate decisions to stay in Puerto Rico during and after the hurricane, knowing their visibility would draw attention and donations to some of the most desperate pockets of the island.
Not long after the storm cleared the island, Pirulo left his apartment in Old San Juan and joined a brigade of doctors going house to house. He helped evacuate elderly residents. Then he started bringing food and water to other marginalized neighborhoods, something he did for weeks.
“It’s my country,” he said. “If I leave, who stays to work — and there is a lot of work to be done.”
Tito became the public face of the distribution caravans. He joined forces with Alberto E. de la Cruz, the chief executive of Coca-Cola Puerto Rico Bottlers who organized caravans of his company’s trucks to ferry food and water to some the island’s most neglected towns. Volunteers distributed the goods door-to-door as music boomed and people danced. Mr. de la Cruz helped persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Guard to join the line of trucks.
Residents felt like Christmas had come when the caravans rumbled into their town. Tito and Pirulo posed for countless selfies. They hugged and cried and listened. Pirulo grabbed bags of food and headed up a hill to knock on doors. Tito handed money for milk to a young mother with a baby perched on her hip.
The residents of Bubao said they had gotten little help from the government; the municipal mayor had yet to show up weeks after the hurricane, they said. As Pirulo and Tito walked by, one man held up a sign that said, “No Te Vayas. Puerto Rico Te Necesita,” meaning, “Don’t Leave. Puerto Rico Needs You.”
“A hug is sometimes worth more than a can of sausages,” Pirulo said. “People go through a disaster like this and it’s the people — el pueblo — who end up helping each other. That’s how we get by.”
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