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MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Hollywood resident Vivian Rivera remembers anxiously waiting out Hurricane Maria in her home in the Puerto Rican town of Comerio last September. She watched as her neighbor’s roof was blown away, and the seemingly endless rains flooded her neighborhood streets. When the winds subsided, Rivera and her niece decided to take a walk to survey the damage in the small town in the central part of the island.
“I cried and couldn’t stop crying,” she remembers. “It was pure devastation like a bomb had hit.”
Hurricane-force winds from the worst natural disaster ever to hit the U.S. territory left Rivera’s hometown unrecognizable. Torrential rain turned streams into raging rivers. The storm knocked down 80 percent of Puerto Rico’s power transmission lines. Millions of American citizens found themselves with no electricity, cell phone service, food, medicine or water.
“We didn’t have any way to communicate with our families to let them know we were alive,” Rivera recalls. “We couldn’t call the police because there were no phones. We couldn’t go anywhere because roads were blocked by trees and fallen electric poles.”
Getting aid to Puerto Rico proved challenging, but getting the aid out of the capital of San Juan was an almost insurmountable obstacle, leaving Puerto Ricans out of touch with the rest of the world, feeling hopeless and forgotten.
“It was really scary,” Rivera said. “It was like we were living on another planet.”
Maria forced Rivera and thousands of other Puerto Ricans to leave for places like Florida. Rivera lives in Hollywood, but her 89-year-old mother Rosa remains in Comerio with other family members who are still dealing with power outages and water shortages.
“Some days they get up in the morning and there is no electricity, so they lose the food in the refrigerator. The next day they have electricity but they don’t have water. It’s a day to day roller coaster,” she says.
Rivera shudders to think what a new hurricane season will bring to Puerto Rico.
“If another hurricane comes to Puerto Rico, everything will be gone,” she says.
Eight months after the storm, the death toll from Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico remains a mystery. The official count is 64, but many, including the mayor of San Juan, believe the number is much higher. A study by Harvard published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates that 4,645 deaths can be linked to the storm and its immediate aftermath. The Puerto Rican government has ordered an independent review that has yet to be completed.