UTUADO, Puerto Rico — They come in carloads to gulp mouthfuls of fresh, cold spring water spewing from a network of plastic pipes jutting from a mountainside on a highway. They come with children to bathe, baskets of dirty clothes to wash and containers of all sizes to fill.
When they are done, some take those containers home to share with others who can't make the trip and who are still without drinking water more than two weeks after Hurricane Maria left their faucets dry.gi
"It's a miracle that God still has a little bit of water for each of us," said Wilfredo Ramos Mercado, who lives in this town, nestled in Puerto Rico's Central Mountain region.
The federal government said that as of Wednesday, 54 percent of Puerto Rico's residents had "access" to drinking water, but it isn't clear whether that includes makeshift spring-fed water stations like Utuado's or nonpotable running water.
The images of loading and unloading pallets of water bottles during the Hurricane Maria relief effort have been a sign that help was on its way. Or, in the case of San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, they were the backdrop for her criticism of the inefficient response that she said was killing Puerto Ricans.
For residents in Utuado and nearby communities, the water station — built by local residents using PVC pipes, not an uncommon sight in Puerto Rico — has become a major point of access. While it is Mother Nature that put many of the island's residents in this situation, they are now relying on her to recover.
"We make due with what we have from the mountain, from nature," said Guillermo Larregui Sanchez, from nearby Arecibo.
"There is no water where I live, so I have to come here," he said, adding that he comes to the spring in Utuado every day to get water for his 80-year-old mother. "A lot of people come here, all day long it's like this — looking for water all day."
Utuado was initially cut off from relief efforts by mudslides and downed trees that blocked roadways. Most streets are now open for traffic, although workers with heavy equipment are still clearing small passages.
On Thursday afternoon, Mercado, 32, pulled hardware-store buckets, an ice cream pail and other containers from a friend's car trunk after arriving at the water station. He filled them for himself and older and disabled neighbors who have no way to get to the station.
"We're human beings, we aren't animals," Ramos said. "We have to help each other out."
Jose Arocho Cortes, 72, a business owner, had come from Arecibo to collect water to clean his home, while Jorge H. Mendez, 59, of Utuado, said he was getting water to drink.
"This is how we survive," he said.
Word has spread about the highway water station. Both young and old have found relief from the exhausting heat while they commune with others who feel that mighty Maria picked them up and tossed into the past.
"There's a disaster here in Utuado and all of Puerto Rico, but we are doing well, thank God," said Angel Medina Cerrano, 70, who came from nearby Los Pinos with a group that brought several giant plastic barrels in the bed of a pickup so they could return with water for up to several hundred people.
"We come every day, every day all of us come together on this bus. We share the water, it's for everyone," he said. "We share it like we're brothers."
While some at the station came not to drink the water but to use it for other needs, like flushing toilets, the ones who did drink said they had no fear of becoming sick. In fact, when a Puerto Rico National Guard truck showed up with certified potable water, many at the station did not cue up, saying the spring water was better because it has no chlorine.
A Guard sergeant said his water purification unit was delivering potable water to places identified as most in need and he felt that, even with the do-it-yourself water station, this was one of those places.
Medina's group accepted the water from Guard's tank, which filled up the group's large containers faster than the makeshift water station.
Doctors have said they are bracing for cases of water-borne illnesses in people who have been drinking nonpotable water. While homes with gas or outdoor stoves are able to boil water, homes that rely on electricity have to wait until water systems can be restored.
Francisco Gonzalez Torres, 37, was at the water station Thursday filling 16-ounce bottles, one after another, something he's been doing every day, he said.
He was grateful to have the water source, but said the convenience wasn't enough to wash away the anxiety of trying to care for his father, who has Alzheimer's, and push through the "olden times" way of life that Maria has forced on them.
"It's terrible," he said, breaking into tears.
The teeming life at the water station is in contrast to conditions in the state forest of Rio Abajo, which spans Utuado and Arecibo. Its trees are now stripped of their emerald coats and the once lush mountains are a stark landscape of snapped, jagged tree trunks. Were it not for the blaring sun, one might think winter had come.
"It was as if a bomb fell here because I couldn't see any of those houses from here. None of it," said Cynthia Serrano, an Arecibo resident, pointing to homes in the distance. "You can see all of these houses that I never in my life have been able to see from over here."
"It looks like a fire happened here," she said, "not a hurricane."