Maria power outage puts old, vulnerable at risk in Puerto Rico

MAYAGUEZ, Puerto Rico, Sept 30 (Reuters) - Few people in Puerto Rico have suffered more from the devastation of Hurricane Maria than the elderly and the infirm.

Isolated from their families due to phone blackouts, short of fuel and water and at the mercy of nationwide power cuts, the old and those in need of care have seen their problems multiply since Maria shattered basic infrastructure across the U.S. island.

Elevators, dialysis machines and a host of life-saving medical devices no longer offer the same guarantees because rationing of resources has forced hundreds and thousands of people to adjust to days whose effective span falls well short of 24 hours.

Hooked up to a ventilator during the day, Adeline Vazquez needs an artificial oxygen supply to cope with severe respiratory problems, but her building in the western city of Mayaguez does not have the fuel to run a generator 24 hours.

"I'm a ticking time bomb on the verge of exploding," the 53-year-old said with a laugh as she rasped through the ventilator in a housing block she shares with about 60 other people.

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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
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The most devastating images of the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Luis Lugo and Awilda Valdez bath in spring water since they have no running water in their home since Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread, severe damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grids as well as agricultural destruction after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Hector Ojeda and Sonia Robles and Tony Ojeda cross a river on foot after the bridge was washed away when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Morovis, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
MOROVIS, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 25: A man helps a kid cross the San Lorenzo River in Morovis. Residents of San Lorenzo neighborhood can't access their houses because the river destroyed the bridge that communicate them with the main road of access. The mountain town of Morovis, in the south west of San Juan, is one of the most affected after the pass of Hurricane Mar�. Hurricane Maria passed through Puerto Rico leaving behind a path of destruction across the national territory. (Photo by Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Maria Martinez stands next to her house which was damaged by Hurricane Maria in Yabucoa in eastern Puerto Rico on September 28, 2017. A week after the Category Four storm stuck, the White House said US President Donald Trump had made it easier for fuel and water supplies to arrive to the ravaged island of 3.4 million US citizens. / AFP PHOTO / HECTOR RETAMAL (Photo credit should read HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 28, 2017: After eight hours in line, Solymlar Duprey, age 47, holds her daughter Miabella Lawston, age 5, as they try to get on an evacuation cruise ship leaving San Juan. 'The situation is so critical. There is no electricity, fuel, water,' said Duprey. She was trying to locate her confirmation number to board the cruise ship. A Royal Caribbean cruise ship is evacuating over 2,000 people from Puerto Rico, St. John, and St. Thomas free of charge. People are attempting to get off of the island as lack of fuel, electricity and running water has crippled Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. (Photo by Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Maria Olivieri removes a tree branch from her backyard a week after the passage of Hurricane Maria in Aibonito, Puerto Rico, on September 27, 2017. The US island territory, working without electricity, is struggling to dig out and clean up from its disastrous brush with the hurricane, blamed for at least 33 deaths across the Caribbean. / AFP PHOTO / Ricardo ARDUENGO (Photo credit should read RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP/Getty Images)
COROZAL, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 27: Irma Maldanado stands with Sussury her parrot in what is left of her home that was destroyed when Hurricane Maria passed through on September 27, 2017 in Corozal, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage including most of the electrical, gas and water grid as well as agriculture after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Residents with gas canisters wait for fuel after Hurricane Maria in the Miramar neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he will travel to Puerto Rico to survey damage. He told reporters that the federal government is 'doing a really good job' in relief efforts and has shipped 'massive amounts' of food and water. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
A vehicle drives through streets filled with floodwater near destroyed homes from Hurricane Maria in this aerial photograph taken above Barrio Obrero in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017. Hurricane Maria hit the Caribbean island last week, knocking out electricity throughout the island. The territory is facing weeks, if not months, without service as utility workers repair�power�plants and lines that were already falling apart. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images
AIBONITO, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 24: People wait in line for water as they wait for gas, electrical and water grids to be repaired September 24, 2017 in Aibonito, Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico experienced widespread damage after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Customers stand in line outside a grocery store in the town of Dorado, west of San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski /Bloomberg via Getty Images
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO SEPTEMBER 22: Power lines and fallen trees block a sidewalk at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras campus, after Hurricane Maria at Ponce de Leon Avenue in San Juan, Puerto Rico on September 22, 2017. (Photo by Pablo Pantoja/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO - SEPTEMBER 25: Yancy Leon who has been waiting in line for two days to get an American Airlines flight out of the Luis Munoz Marin International Airport continues to wait as she tries to escape the conditions after Hurricane Maria passed through the island on September 25, 2017 in San Juan Puerto Rico. Some of the people have waited days at the airport in hope of getting onto a plane after Hurricane Maria, a category 4 hurricane, passed through. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
Workers fix a light fixture at the San Jorge Children's Hospital in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2017. Trump�ordered the Jones Act to be waived for shipments to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico immediately�at the request of Governor�Ricardo Rossello, White House press secretary�Sarah Sanders�said Thursday. Photographer: John Taggart /Bloomberg via Getty Images
Travelers stand in line outside of Luis Muoz Marn International Airport after Hurricane Maria disrupted flight service in San Juan, Puerto Rico on Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. President�Donald Trump�said he may temporarily suspend a law that restricts the use of foreign ships operating in U.S. waters and between U.S. ports in order to accelerate the delivery of aid to Puerto Rico, where his administration faces mounting criticism over its response to Hurricane Maria. Photographer: Alex Wroblewski/ Bloomberg
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Federal and municipal authorities have vowed to step up distribution of essential supplies, but long lines for fuel and cash still snaked around main roads of the city on Friday.

Every night since Maria downed power cables across the island of 3.4 million people, Vazquez has faced the possibility of running out of oxygen when the electricity goes off in her building after 10 p.m.

"The electricity needs to come back on," she said on a bed beneath two still fans and sign reading "loving you" on the wall. "Then I could have the machine to let me breathe. Because the worry is you'll end up like a fish that jumps out of the fish tank. It's like crossing the Niagara by bicycle every day."

One floor down from Vazquez, Santos Medina rested his head on his left hand as he sat in a rusted wheelchair, empty medicine vials strewn on the table at his elbow. Legally blind and suffering from diabetes and hepatitis B, he has had both legs amputated in the last two years

Medina, 64, said he needed kidney dialysis three times a week. After Maria, he failed to go for treatment for an entire week for the first time, in part because it had become exhausting and too difficult.

Water shortages were interfering with dialysis and forced the local hospital to pare back the time it could provide it, he said, and fuel bottlenecks had made it harder to get buses to see specialists.

Since Maria killed phone lines, Medina had not had contact with his sister Josefa, who lives about 30 minutes away.

"We have no idea what is going on, no kind of information," he said. "Nothing."

Downstairs, residents asked for news and were eager to hear how the U.S. media was portraying the island's plight.

"We're stranded here," said Rosario Morales, 65. "No one (from the government) has come to give us any aid. Not even to know if we're alive here."

Nevertheless, there were some signs of progress in Mayaguez. In contrast to the capital San Juan, several sets of traffic lights were working again on the outskirts of town.

One Mayaguez retirement home had even managed to turn off its diesel generator and was being supplied by the state power utility, said building administrator Edward Silva.

"We've had 24 hours without interruption," he said.

Maria's heavy rains brought flooding that damaged the 13-story building's lifts, creating problems for residents to get downstairs, said one of them, Maria Dolores Mattei.

Mattei, 70, had been stranded in Houston several weeks ago by Hurricane Harvey. After four flight cancellations, she got a ticket to Fort Lauderdale just as Hurricane Irma hit Florida, and her flight was diverted again.

Then came Maria, which still rattles residents whenever the wind and the rain whip up outside the home, she said.

"It was horrible," Mattei said. "I don't even want to think about it." (Reporting by Dave Graham; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)

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