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Stories From the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico

People queue at a gas station to fill up their fuel containers, after the island was hit by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico Sept. 28, 2017.

Last week Puerto Ricans hunkered down as Hurricane Maria raked the length of the island, killing at least 16 people, wrecking the electricity grid and grinding up homes, businesses, roads and farms.

After the storm passed, islanders set about digging out from the mud and debris slung by worst storm to hit the island in nearly a decade. They went in search of basic necessities: water, food, gas for a generator, a cellphone signal or a Wi-Fi hotspot to connect with relatives.

All of that remains in very short supply a week later, and now many are wondering how long it will take for life to return to normal in the U.S. territory of 3.4 million.

Here are the stories of some of those who lived through the storm and are struggling in its aftermath:

Offering what you can

Days after the storm hit Sept. 20, Rosa Maria Almonte's cafe in San Juan was still without power and all the other businesses nearby were boarded up. But she still managed to serve up hot meals for people left with little in Maria's wake.

There was no running water or electricity, but over a gas stove, her daughter cooked up rice, beans and pork chops.

Almonte has run El Buen Cafe for 21 years and has seen tough times before. But the severity of the damage from Maria, and the prospect of a recovery taking weeks or months, had her wondering whether there is any point in staying.

"I don't know if I can keep going,'' the 73-year-old said Friday after mopping up water that seeped into the shop. The awning lay in a heap on the counter.

"What am I doing here?'' she wondered.

On their own

In the northern town of Montebello, Maribel Valentin Espino and her husband said they have not seen anyone from the Puerto Rican government, much less the Federal Emergency Management Agency, since the storm tore through.

She, her husband and her teenage son relied on help from relatives to find shelter when the hurricane hit. After it passed, neighbors formed volunteer brigades to cut away fallen trees and clear mountain roads after the storm. Now friends and a local cattle ranch are providing water to help them survive in the tropical heat.

"People say FEMA is going to help us,'' Valentin said Tuesday. "We're waiting.''

In Montebello, nestled in what used to be lushly forested mountains near the northern coastal municipality of Manati, Maria stripped the trees bare and scattered them like matchsticks.

"It seemed like a monster,'' Valentin recalled.

The community remains isolated.

Searching for a connection

Ricardo Castellanos makes twice-daily visits to two free Wi-Fi hotspots in San Juan — among the rare places these days where Puerto Ricans can still get online and in touch with relatives across the island and overseas.

On Monday, Castellanos was trying to reach his two daughters in the central town of Gurabo — whom he hadn't heard from since the storm. He has also been using the hotspots to send his own news to a few friends, passing on photos of Maria's devastation.

Communication has become a resource nearly as precious as power and water. Some Puerto Ricans are pulling over on the side of highways in search of a stronger cell signal. Others — both on the island and elsewhere — have called a local radio station to provide names, numbers and addresses of loved ones they have yet to hear from.

There is also some anger over what some say has been a lack of communication from cellphone providers about which towers are working.

"They're not giving us any information,'' said Castellanos, a business consultant. "We're in a state of emergency.''

Making the most of a bad situation

Puerto Rico's economy has ground nearly to a complete halt. There are long lines at the handful of banks that have opens and limited number of ATMs that have cash. Many people are unable to work or run businesses because there's no electricity, or diesel to fuel generators. Stores are almost always unable to process credit or bank cards and accept only cash.

But as with any crisis, there are some who weather it better than others.

Elpidio Fernandez, who sells coconut and passion fruit ice cream from a pushcart in San Juan, has a supplier with a generator and says business is booming. He has made up to $500 on some days since the storm.

"Business has multiplied by a thousand,'' said Fernandez, 78, quickly adding: "Even though I'm doing well, I don't feel good because I know other people are suffering.''

Christian Mendoza said the car wash where he works is closed so he has been selling bottled water — even though it's not refrigerated.

"The water [was] hot, and it still went like you wouldn't believe,'' he said.

Stay or go?

With the economy in ruins, homes in tatters and food, water and other basics in short supply, many Puerto Ricans are thinking of leaving. But others can't imagine life elsewhere.

Israel Molina, the 68-year-old owner of Israel Mini Market in San Juan, said he has had the shop for 26 years. He bought it and rebuilt it after Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989.

Parts of the roof have been ripped away, but Molina wants to stay.

"I'm from here. I believe we have to step up to the task. If everyone leaves, what are we going to do? With all the pros and the cons, I will stay here,'' he said Friday.

After a pause, he added: "I might have a different response tomorrow.''

Nearby, hair salon co-owner Diana Jaquez assessed the damage with help from her husband as their children played.

"I haven't decided yet,'' she said when asked whether she would remain.

Associated Press writers Danica Coto in San Juan and Ben Fox in Montebello contributed to this report.