Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico last Wednesday but communities across the Caribbean are still reeling from its wrath. The commonwealth lost all electricity and most communications after violent winds and rains washed away power lines, cell towers and roads. At least 16 people have died, and many more individuals are left without homes, drinking water, or ability to contact or find loved ones.
The sweeping destruction is almost impossible to fathom, which is why AFP photographer Ricardo Arduengo shot it from above with a drone. It’s how he captured this apocalyptic scene just west of San Juan where a stretch of four-lane highway lay in ruins after a nearby river washed it away. “It was shocking,” says photographer Ricardo Arduengo. “From the air, it looked like an atomic bomb hit.”
The photographer lives in San Juan, but was embedded with a search and rescue team in the small town of Fajardo when the hurricane struck last Wednesday morning. His family weathered the storm in Barranquitas some 71 miles west. Arduengo worked nonstop for three days with no idea whether or not his loved ones were safe. “It was super difficult for me, working without knowing if they were ok,” he says. “There was no communication or anything. I knew the roads were blocked. I didn’t even try to drive there.”
He was finally able to check in on his family on Saturday, then began the long drive back to San Juan for more reporting. The journey was slow-going due to debris and roadblocks, turning an hour-long trip into a three-hour one. Arduengo was forced to stop along Highway 2 near Toa Alta, the road completely cut off by a makeshift barricade of fallen palm trees. He hopped out of his car to investigate and was dumbfounded at the crumpled highway and flattened trees beyond.
The destruction was so overwhelming Arduengo had to take some photos. Realizing his DSLR wasn’t going to cut it, he whipped out his drone, flying up and down the highway for about 15 minutes. The images capture every staggering detail, including the tiny figure of a cyclist pedaling across the pockmarked highway, offering an incredible sense of scale. It’s a jaw-dropping snapshot of the aftermath, and a wrenching glimpse of the enormous recovery to follow.