US & World

At a gas station with no gas, Puerto Ricans settle in for an interminable wait

People have been waiting in line inside cars and on foot with gas canisters since before sunrise on Monday in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
People have been waiting in line inside cars and on foot with gas canisters since before sunrise on Monday in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.
/Angel Valentin for NPR

In a tiny sliver of shade, on a hill next to Puerto Rico's Route 65, Kiara Rodriguez de Jesus waves a a sparkly pink hand fan to keep cool.

"I trust in God," she says. "Please, come the gas."

Along with her family, parked in a Volvo SUV, she's been in line for gasoline since 3 a.m., she says. Now it's after 1:30 p.m. And like everyone else at this gas station, she has no idea how much longer she'll be waiting.

Limited availability of gas has been a problem across Puerto Rico ever since Hurricane Maria hit last week. This station in Rio Grande, about 15 miles east of San Juan, doesn't have any gasoline at all right now. But it did have gas on Sunday night — until it ran out early Monday morning.

Kiara Rodriguez de Jesus, 23, (left) and friend Stephanie Norat, 26, find shade as people wait in line at the Gulf Route 65 gas station for a gasoline tanker scheduled to arrive.
Kiara Rodriguez de Jesus, 23, (left) and friend Stephanie Norat, 26, find shade as people wait in line at the Gulf Route 65 gas station for a gasoline tanker scheduled to arrive.
Angel Valentin for NPR

By the afternoon, about a hundred cars, along with scores of people with hand-held gas cans, were waiting for a new tanker to arrive.

"The problem is communication," says the manager of the Gulf Route 65 gas station, Carlos de Armas. "We don't know where the truck is."

Like nearly everywhere on the island, Rio Grande lacks cell phone service. There's no way to get word from the truck driver, and so it's anyone's guess when the tanker might arrive.

"I've been here for six hours," says Cindy Algarín, near the front of the line. "I'll wait six hours more." In fact, she's waited so long she's lost count — it's been closer to nine hours. She has been here since the station ran out of gas at 5 a.m.

Manager Carlos de Armas walks by the entrance to the Gulf Route 65 gas station as people wait for a tanker truck to arrive.
Manager Carlos de Armas walks by the entrance to the Gulf Route 65 gas station as people wait for a tanker truck to arrive. "The problem is communication," he says. "We don't know where the truck is."
Angel Valentin for NPR

"I'll stay maybe until tomorrow," she says. "Just bring a little blanket and a pillow." She laughs, but it's not clear if she's joking. "I don't want to leave," she says. "We're too close to getting gas. I don't want to leave."

Algarín wants fuel for her car so that she can travel in case of an emergency. She's in the separate line for people with hand-held gas cans — she doesn't need much, after all. "I don't really drive any more," she says. She means since the hurricane hit. "There's no work, I don't have to take my kid to school. Like, there's nothing else to do."

Many other people in line need fuel for generators, the primary source of power on the island after the electrical grid was knocked out in the storm. Algarín's sister Sarah, standing beside her in line, says people need fuel "just to survive."

A line of cars stretches a mile as people wait in line at the Gulf Route 65 gas station for a gasoline tanker scheduled to arrive with fuel sometime Monday in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. People have been waiting with gas canisters since before sunrise.
A line of cars stretches a mile as people wait in line at the Gulf Route 65 gas station for a gasoline tanker scheduled to arrive with fuel sometime Monday in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. People have been waiting with gas canisters since before sunrise.
Angel Valentin for NPR

Authorities in Puerto Rico say there isn't a gas shortage. Instead, they say that distribution has been disrupted by the storm. At least one official has urged residents to buy fuel only in case of emergencies.

Alfred Rodrigo Maldorado is frustrated with the official response — not just to the gas problem, but to the disaster in general. He says he can't see Puerto Rican officials or police doing anything to help.

Yes, the storm was strong, he says in Spanish, standing by the useless pumps.

"This is historic," he says. "But what's really historic is the absence of our government."

Puma Gas Station, across the street from the Gulf Route 65 gas station, was damaged during Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico say there isn't a gas shortage. Instead, they say that distribution has been disrupted by the storm.
Puma Gas Station, across the street from the Gulf Route 65 gas station, was damaged during Hurricane Maria. Authorities in Puerto Rico say there isn't a gas shortage. Instead, they say that distribution has been disrupted by the storm.
Angel Valentin for NPR

Maldorado is angry, and he's not alone. Many people in this line are just exhausted. But nobody seems to be giving up.

In a shady spot right next to a pump, Jose Santiago, Edith Castro, Julia Rivera and Hector Flores were passing the time with ease.

They didn't know each other until early this morning when they met in line. Castro brought a folding table with her. They set it up, pulled out dominos and started to play.

Eight hours later, they were still going strong. Santiago said he and Castro were winning; Rivera said he and Flores were ahead.

People play dominoes while waiting in line for gas. Limited availability of gas has been a problem across Puerto Rico ever since Hurricane Maria hit last week.
People play dominoes while waiting in line for gas. Limited availability of gas has been a problem across Puerto Rico ever since Hurricane Maria hit last week.
Angel Valentin for NPR

No matter. They laugh and groan as the game continues.

Santiago says he's not going anywhere. He just had sandwiches for lunch. And if gas doesn't arrive by dinnertime, his wife will come drop off rice and chicken for him.

"Oh, I'm staying. I'm gonna stay," he says. And his spot in line?

"I'm at the front."

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