Exclusive Aerial Photos Capture Puerto Rico's Devastation

Hurricane Maria flooded the island's coastal areas and blew apart homes inland.

Hurricane Maria has left Puerto Rico “totally devastated," according to a photographer who took exclusive pictures of the island Friday and Saturday.

San Juan-based Dennis Manuel Rivera captured the damage from widespread flooding along the coastal areas and winds that blew the rooftops off homes, filling them with sand.

Flooding in the coastal town of Loiza, on the north shore of Puerto Rico, appears in this series of images taken September 22 and 23, 2017
Flooding in the coastal town of Loiza, on the north shore of Puerto Rico, appears in this series of images taken September 22 and 23, 2017
Photograph by Dennis Manuel Rivera

Puerto Ricans are accustomed to weathering storms, says 28-year-old Rivera, who has spent his life there. But with Maria, he says, "I've seen stuff I've never seen in my life." Where there had been greenery, he saw muddy rivers; the face of the island as he knew it is completely changed.

Rivera spoke to National Geographic from a gasoline line in San Juan, noting that waits for fuel could extend six hours or longer, and that cell phone service was nonexistent outside the city.

He had been unable to reach his parents at their home in Toa Alta, about 18 miles southwest of the capital, until Sunday. But he was able to wave to his father on the ground Saturday as he made rounds overhead, hanging out of a helicopter flown by a pilot friend. (See also: “Pictures Capture Weariness, Worry as Hurricane Maria Ravages Caribbean.”)

Even as residents coped with the immediate aftermath of the storm, the Guajataca Dam in the northwestern part of the island showed signs of failure and threatened to collapse altogether late last week, prompting an evacuation order for a reported 70,000 people in the region, though a local mayor questioned that figure.

The dam was holding up as of Sunday evening, but an official warned "it will collapse at any minute," according to the Washington Post. (Related: “Hurricane Damages Giant Radio Telescope—Why It Matters.”)

Maria followed on the heels of two other devastating Atlantic hurricanes, Harvey and Irma. Why has the 2017 hurricane season been so catastrophic? While atmospheric conditions were ripe for hurricanes, surface sea temperatures were warmer than usual.

Rivera says supplies are slowly making their way to Puerto Rico—a territory of the United States—via plane and barge, but he was particularly concerned for those in mountainous regions. It was clear from the air that the roads were impassable, he says, and it will be days before those people can get help.

Of Puerto Rico's population of 3.4 million, Rivera says, "there is not a single person on the island who has not been affected."

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