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In Puerto Rico, The Crisis After Hurricane Maria Is Taxing Residents' Mental Health


There are some parts of Hurricane Maria's damage in Puerto Rico that you can describe with numbers. Fifty-two percent of the electrical grid is still down. Most of the island is still in the dark 54 days since Hurricane Maria. More than 2,000 people are still living in shelters. Other damage is much harder to get at or measure. NPR's Quil Lawrence reports the ongoing crisis is taxing the mental health of Puerto Ricans. And it doesn't always command the attention of a visible wound or a downed power line.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: It's the basic things that get to you. The stoplights still aren't working, so nearly every intersection in San Juan is a slow-moving traffic jam and a dangerous obstacle course if you're a pedestrian.


LAWRENCE: The cars mix together like a kid who doesn't know how to shuffle a deck of cards. Pedestrians try to wave, scoot and smile their way across the six-lane intersection. Silma Torres just did that with her kids.

SILMA TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: Torres says it all depends on the driver's mood. She's here in the financial district to charge cell phones and use public Wi-Fi to satisfy the kids' video habit. She's on edge, she admits, especially at night with whole neighborhoods dark.

TORRES: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: It stresses her out to be outside the house, especially now that it's getting dark earlier, she says. Crossing the intersection in a car is just as precarious, says Janet Ortiz, as she crept up toward the dead traffic light.

JANET ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: I asked her if it's safe to drive out here.

ORTIZ: (Speaking Spanish).

LAWRENCE: "Nothing is safe," she says. "People get in accidents when the traffic lights are working." Normalizing the crisis might be a natural reaction. Puerto Ricans have been under strain for years before the storm. The local government is more than $70 billion in debt. The great recession never ended here.

DOMINGO MARQUES: The people that were vulnerable before the hurricane - they had their coping mechanisms.

LAWRENCE: Domingo Marques teaches psychology at Albizu University in San Juan. He says the island's financial crisis has been weighing on Puerto Ricans for a couple of years now, but they could blow off steam, go to the movies, go to the beach, take a jog.

MARQUES: That's mental health right there - you know, simple things. We don't have any of that right now. Let's go out for a run in the park. It's horrible. It's really like a bomb fell on your - on the park because everything is horrible right now. So let's go out to the river. You can't. Let's go out to the beach. It's - you know, it's dirty.

LAWRENCE: Marques thinks there's a lot of untreated post-traumatic stress disorder from the storm. He's been taking his students into the countryside to give what he calls mental health first aid. Diego Santiago brought his son and daughter all the way across town to one small playground that he knows is cleaned up.

DIEGO SANTIAGO: Are you safe - yes. Are you OK? That's a different question.

LAWRENCE: His daughter said something telling this Halloween.

SANTIAGO: She told her mother that she's not afraid of ghosts or monsters. She's just afraid of hurricanes because hurricanes are real.

LAWRENCE: Psychologist Domingo Marques says kids are resilient. They need support. But he hopes these tough times will make for a stronger next generation. Quil Lawrence, NPR News, San Juan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Quil Lawrence is a New York-based correspondent for NPR News, covering veterans' issues nationwide. He won a Robert F. Kennedy Award for his coverage of American veterans and a Gracie Award for coverage of female combat veterans. In 2019 Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America honored Quil with its IAVA Salutes Award for Leadership in Journalism.