SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Supermarkets are gradually re-opening in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico but the situation is far from normal and many customers are going home disappointed.
Most food stores and restaurants remain closed. That is largely because power is out for most of the island and few have generators or enough diesel to power them. The shops that were open Monday had long lines outside and vast empty shelves where they once held milk, meat and other perishables. Drinking water was nowhere to be found.
Mercedes Caro shook her head in frustration as she emerged from the SuperMax in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan with a loaf of white bread, cheese and bananas.
"There is no water and practically no food," she said. "Not even spaghetti."
Maria Perez waited outside a Pueblo supermarket in a nearby part of San Juan, hoping to buy some coffee, sugar and maybe a little meat to cook with a gas stove that has enough propane for about a week more. "We are in a crisis," she said. "Puerto Rico is destroyed."
The fact that some stores and restaurants have re-opened for the first time since Category 4 Hurricane Maria roared across the island Sept. 20 is welcome in a place where nearly everyone has no power and more than half the people don't have water.
Gov. Ricardo Rossello and other Puerto Rican officials said some ports have been cleared by the Coast Guard to resume accepting ships, which should allow businesses to restock. But the situation remains far from normal.
SuperMax opened on a reduced schedule for several stores in the San Juan area as well as in the hard-hit towns of Caguas and Dorado. Walgreens has reopened about half of its 120 locations in Puerto Rico on a limited basis. Walmart says it has a "handful" of its 48 stores and Sam's Clubs open but the process has been slowed by the power outages, port closures and the near total collapse of communications.
Two Medinia supermarkets opened in the coastal town of Loiza. But Manager David Guzman said he had to impose restrictions on cooking gas and other products that were running low and might not be restocked soon. "We are restricting so we can give something to everyone, to extend what we have left," he said.
Therese Casper was among several dozen people waiting for a Walmart in the Santurce section of San Juan to open its doors, but that didn't happen Monday. She and her husband were looking for something to get rid of all the moisture that had accumulated in the apartment they rented three weeks ago when they moved to Puerto Rico from Denver, Colorado. They have been getting by in their dark, sweltering apartment on instant oatmeal and anything else they can cook on a propane stove as they wait for a flight back home.
"I tell my husband it's like camping. It's 'Survivor' Puerto Rico," Casper said. "It's not what we bargained for."
Stores are still packed with dozens of brands of shampoo and other consumer products, but those aisles were largely empty as people rushed to buy the basics, using cash sparingly since that is also in short supply and credit card transactions aren't being processed at all places. Ruth Calderon, a retiree, filled her basket with processed sausages that she planned to cook up with rice and share with an older neighbor who can't leave her apartment. "I'm surviving," she said with resignation. "I have what I need."
Others also described helping neighbors and there are no signs of widespread hunger, at least not yet. "There is a tradition here of people helping each other especially during disasters," Doris Anglero said as she looked for what was available in an Old San Juan supermarket.
Some disappointed shoppers were also sharply aware that there are others on the island in a worse situation. Caro began to weep as she talked about her four grandchildren in Rincon, the western town that has been largely cut off from aid shipments as well as contact with the outside world. "Not knowing is so hard," she said, turning to walk off.