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Fiona's floods devastated their homes. These residents are ready to start over

Days after the storm, residents in coastal Salinas, Puerto Rico, aren't waiting for help from the authorities. They're using bulldozers and backhoes to clear debris and rubble left in Fiona's wake.

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The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona.
The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR

SALINAS, Puerto Rico — In Puerto Rico, perhaps no community saw more devastation from Hurricane Fiona than Salinas, a small city on the island's southern coast. More than 30 inches of rain inundated the area, causing a river to flood, and all but wiping out an entire neighborhood, Villa Esperanza. It's a quiet community nestled between the beach and a river, Rio Nigua.

When Hurricane Fiona hit Sunday, Diana Diaz says, things changed dramatically. "The water just kept rising and rising and rising," she says. "It went up about four feet." Only about an inch of water got into her home, mostly leaving her with a mess. But she says she was blessed. Many other homes were totally flooded, some destroyed.

Days after the storm, local residents aren't waiting for help from the authorities. They're using bulldozers and backhoes to clear debris and rubble left in Fiona's wake.

Roberto Perez was home when the storm hit. He says a foot of water ruined everything. A muddy truck with a broken windshield blocks one of the streets. In Spanish, Perez says, "All these trucks were moved by the river. They weren't here. You can see all the destruction how they were picked up."

The refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School hosts families and individuals from the communities of Salinas, where massive floods destroyed homes, cars and roads.
The refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School hosts families and individuals from the communities of Salinas, where massive floods destroyed homes, cars and roads. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
Carla Rolón Alvarado and her son Aldo Rodriguez at the refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School, which hosts families and individuals from the communities of Salinas.
Carla Rolón Alvarado and her son Aldo Rodriguez at the refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School, which hosts families and individuals from the communities of Salinas. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR

Throughout the neighborhood, the level of destruction is stunning. There are tree limbs, whole trees, aluminum siding, boats, even parts of houses that have been picked up by the river and deposited.

At the end of the street, a house that had been overlooking the Nigua River has now collapsed. Perez says the ground under it was washed away by the floodwaters. "The soil here is sand, it's topsoil," he says. "So the water just came in and it gave way pretty easily."

Residents say there's been minor flooding before, but nothing like this. Perez says the problem is a bridge that acted as a dam, trapping debris, forcing the river out of its banks. "The river was blocked," he says. "It just kind of exploded and that's why we saw the destruction here."

There's finger-pointing now about who's to blame for the level of destruction in Villa Esperanza. Some officials say residents shouldn't have built in an area so close to the river.

Diana Diaz says most residents have permits to build here. She says many officials knew there was a problem. She believes the river needs to be converted into a canal that can be easily maintained. "It's something we've been after the mayor about for years," Diaz says. "It just doesn't happen."

The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona.
The coastal communities of Salinas near the Rio Nigua experienced massive flooding during Hurricane Fiona. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR

Villa Esperanza wasn't the only neighborhood that flooded in Salinas. Residents from several other neighborhoods had to evacuate because of flooding caused by Fiona's extreme rainfall. Many are staying at a local high school that's now serving as a shelter.

In the days since the storm, bingo has become a popular pastime at the shelter. Many of the residents are elderly and unsure when they'll be able to return to their waterlogged homes. Pedro Rivera, one of those at the shelter takes out his phone to show me an aerial photo of his house in the La Playa neighborhood during the flood. Every home on his block is surrounded by floodwaters.

The refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School hosts families and individuals from the devastated communities of Salinas.
The refuge at the Carlos Colón Burgos High School hosts families and individuals from the devastated communities of Salinas. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR
The Department of Housing hosts bingo for people staying at the refuge of the Carlos Colón Burgos High School.
The Department of Housing hosts bingo for people staying at the refuge of the Carlos Colón Burgos High School. Gabriella N. Báez for NPR

Rivera says, for he and his wife, going back to their home after the flood was tough. "We lost the car, we lost clothes, we lost everything, everything," he says. "And my wife, when we got to the house, she was crying."

But Rivera says he and his wife are ready to start over again. With help from the local government, they'll be moving into a temporary apartment that they're hoping may become permanent.

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Transcript :

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In Puerto Rico, no community saw more devastation from Hurricane Fiona than Salinas. It's a small town on the island's southern coast. More than 30 inches of rain inundated that area, causing a river to flood and all but wiping out an entire neighborhood. NPR's Greg Allen visited this area and filed this report.

GREG ALLEN, BYLINE: Salinas is a picturesque seaside town on the western edge of the city. Villa Esperanza is a quiet neighborhood nestled between the beach and a river, Rio Nigua. When Hurricane Fiona hit Sunday, Diana Diaz says things changed dramatically.

DIANA DIAZ: The water just kept rising and rising and rising, and it went up about four feet.

ALLEN: Did it get into your home?

DIAZ: It was about an inch to get into the house. But it did mess up everything in the garage, in the yard, in the patio, everything.

ALLEN: Diaz says she was blessed. Many other homes were totally flooded, some destroyed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINERY REVVING)

ALLEN: Local residents aren't waiting for help from the authorities. They've already been using bulldozers and backhoes to clear debris and rubble left in the storm's wake. Roberto Perez was home when the storm hit. He says a foot of water ruined everything. He took time out from the cleanup to show us around the neighborhood.

ROBERTO PEREZ: (Through interpreter) All these trucks were moved with the river. They were not here. So you can see the destruction that, you know - they were kind of (ph) - picked it up.

ALLEN: There's a truck here that was moved by the river, and it's filled with mud in the back. Throughout the neighborhood, the level of destruction is just stunning. There are tree limbs, whole trees, aluminum siding, boats, even parts of houses that have been picked up by the river and deposited. At the end of the street, a house that had been overlooking the Nigua River has now collapsed. Perez says the ground under it was washed away by the floodwaters.

PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED INTERPRETER: He's saying how the soil here, it's sand. It's topsoil. So the water just kind of came in and just gave way pretty easily.

ALLEN: Residents say there's been minor flooding before, but nothing like this. The problem, they say, is a bridge that acted as a dam, trapping debris, forcing the river out of its banks.

PEREZ: (Through interpreter) The river is kind of blocked out. It just kind of exploded. And then, that's what we saw with the destruction here.

ALLEN: There's finger-pointing now about who's to blame for the level of destruction in Villa Esperanza. Some officials say residents shouldn't have built in an area so close to the river. Diana Diaz says most residents have permits to build here. She says many officials, including the mayor, the alcaldesa, knew there was a problem.

DIAZ: You know, the river needs to be canalized, and it's something that we've been after the alcaldesa for years. And it just doesn't happen.

ALLEN: This wasn't the only neighborhood that flooded in Salinas. Residents from several other neighborhoods had to evacuate because of flooding caused by Fiona's extreme rainfall. Many are staying at the local high school that's now serving as a shelter.

(SOUNDBITE PEOPLE CHEERING)

ALLEN: Bingo is a popular pastime at the shelter. Many of the residents are elderly and unsure when they'll be able to return to their waterlogged homes. Pedro Rivera, one of those at the shelter, takes out his phone to show me a picture of his house in the La Playa neighborhood during the flood.

PEDRO RIVERA: This is our home (ph) right here.

ALLEN: Yeah. Look, it's totally surrounded by water. It's an aerial photo, and your house is totally surrounded by water there.

RIVERA: Everything is flooding around here. Everything's - in La Playa.

ALLEN: Rivera says for he and his wife, going back to their home after the flood was tough.

RIVERA: We lose the car. We lose clothes. We lose everything, everything we have (ph). And my wife, when we get to the house, she was crying 'cause she lost her clothes.

ALLEN: But Rivera says he and his wife are ready to start over again. With help from the local government, they'll be moving into a temporary apartment they're hoping may become permanent. Greg Allen, NPR News, Salinas, Puerto Rico.

(SOUNDBITE OF WASHED OUT'S "MILES' LULLABY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.