Updated as of 11 a.m. EDT, 22 September 2017.
LA PERLA, SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico—Anyone who has watched the video of “Despacito,” the most-streamed song of all time, has seen the life, the color, the passion of La Perla, the San Juan neighborhood where it was filmed.
From the waves crashing across sun-drenched rocks to the pastel alleys, the laughing intimacy of the barbershop and the sensational dancing—those who have watched the video on YouTube alone 3.7 billion (with a B) times have a pretty good idea what this place looked like and felt like—until Hurricane Maria blasted through here on Wednesday.
The tragedy is one of stunning proportions. With the whole island blacked out, 3.4 million slept in darkness Wednesday night and Thursday night. And only when the curfew lifted at six in the morning on Thursday, and the flooding of the city streets began to subside, were reporters able to make it to this community between the battlements of Old San Juan and the jagged rocks of the shore.
Maria showed no mercy. In La Perla––as in so many communities all over the island––the devastation is almost total. Trees were uprooted, the roofs ripped off houses, walls splintered, some of the graffiti murals shattered, and cars smashed by falling debris. Photographs published by Univision give a vivid sense of the way the hurricane punished all of Puerto Rico, including La Perla.
"The Puerto Rico and the San Juan that we knew yesterday is no longer there," San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz told NBC News on Thursday.
As scores of people searched through the wreckage in La Perla on Thursday, a handful of journalists, including Pablo Venes reporting for The Daily Beast, spread out through the settlement talking to survivors, but communications were constantly interrupted by the lack of electricity, dying batteries, toppled cell phone towers, and badly disrupted internet communications.
Venes, in a very brief phone conversation, reported that the neighborhood was “destroyed.”
Molly Hennessy-Fiske, Middle East bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, interviewed a retired construction worker named Diego Rivera who had been blocked inside his house by a fallen tree and had to ride out the storm for 10 hours behind his hurricane shutters.
Most Puerto Ricans do not have generators, and without electricity the basics of life become problematic: no light, not air conditioning––no fans––no refrigeration, no way to pump water. CBS News reported, "Thousands of Puerto Ricans hunted for gas canisters for cooking, collected rainwater, or steeled themselves mentally for the hardships to come in the tropical heat."
As Pablo Venes reported on Wednesday evening just before the curfew, anxiety and despair had quickly become a norm among Puerto Ricans as the catastrophic winds of Hurricane Maria left 100 per cent of the island without power and largely incommunicacado.
"I haven't heard from my parents since yesterday. This has gotten out of control. I don't know what to think," Yaliset Rivera told The Daily Beast, sobbing and holding up her cell phone searching for signal outside her home in Guaynabo, a municipality located 10 minutes from San Juan, one the few places with any reception at all.
"I should have spent the night with them. Now I have nowhere to go because the roads are flooded.”
Those who manage to receive signals try to stay away from social media, but inevitably watched the images that came across. In the Roberto Clemente Stadium, a refuge, people hugged and comforted each other as videos of Maria's destruction surfaced .
"This is near-apocalyptic. I find it hard to believe that this video was taken in my community," Luis Rojas tole The Daily Beast.
According to officials, more than 11,000 people and 580 pets were in shelters at the height of the storm, but in a population of more than three million there are mounting concerns people injuries and deaths outlying communities may go unreported or undiscovered for some time.
On Friday morning, Secretary of Public Security Héctor M. Pesquera said six people were known dead as result of Hurricane Maria.
Even when the winds subsided the rivers were bursting over their banks and flash floods blocked roads.
"Eighty percent of the homes in my neighborhood known as Juana Matos were completely destroyed," Felix Delgado, mayor of the city of Catano on the northern coast of Puerto Rico, told WAPA Television.
Governor Ricardo Rosselló urged President Donald Trump to declare the whole island of Puerto Rico a disaster zone. Even as Hurricane Maria made its way across the U.S. commonwealth, Trump had already declared disaster zones in 10 municipalities that had previously suffered devastation from Hurricane Irma.
Meanwhile, some of the most famous musicians from Puerto Rico, but far from the howling winds, took to social media. “I cannot sleep,” Ricky Martin wrote in Spanish on Twitter. “My mind is in Puerto Rico with my people. We are strong. We will rebuild. United.”
Luis Fonsi, who sang “Despacito” with Daddy Yankee, and remixed it with Justin Bieber, took to Instagram: “It’s horrible what’s happening right now on the island,” he wrote in Spanish on Wednesday. “It’s very sad to read the messages from my family. There is a lot of work to do …,” he wrote beside a picture of the green island in the clear blue sea with the legends: #PrayForPuertoRico and, in Spanish, “God bless my land.”
Pablo Venes reported from Puerto Rico; Christopher Dickey reported from France.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to incorporate new reporting and information as of 11:00 a.m. EDT on September 22, 2017. In addition, a paragraph that referenced a lyric in “Despacito” was removed earlier after The Daily Beast concluded that it could be construed as insensitive to the victims of Hurricane Maria.