Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
FAJARDO, P.R. — Juan Jimenez squinted into the dark lobby of his bank early Friday, thinking about the paycheck sitting in his account, just behind the locked doors. If only he could get to it.
With power failures and communications outages still widespread nine days after Hurricane Maria, much of Puerto Rico has become a cash-only island for Mr. Jimenez and others who desperately need to buy food, gasoline and ice from stores that cannot run credit cards, take phone payments or process electronic government benefits.
“You’re broke even if you have money,” Mr. Jimenez, 40, said.
Fewer than half of Puerto Rico’s bank branches and cash machines are up and running, still crippled by diesel shortages, damaged roads and severed communications lines. Bank officials say they are struggling even to find employees who can get to work when there is no public transportation and gasoline is hard to find.
Across the island, people who have spent their last dollars on an $8 bag of ice or $15 for gasoline are waiting for hours outside banks and A.T.M.s in hopes of withdrawing as much money as possible.
The cash crunch offers a glimpse of how Puerto Rico’s struggling economy, in which unemployment stood at 10 percent even before the storm, has ground to a near standstill across much of the island, as people with $11 in their pockets and no clue when they will return to work or restart their businesses now spend their days waiting for hours under parasols and the searing sun for basic supplies.
As people wait, rumors swirl about cash shortages and strict limits on withdrawals — neither of which is true, banking officials said.
Zoime Alvarez, vice president of the Association of Banks of Puerto Rico, said there was enough cash on Puerto Rico and more arriving to meet what the New York Federal Reserve called “extraordinarily high demand.”
And banking officials said the $500 daily limit on A.T.M. withdrawals had not changed since the storm, though bank branches that were still offline were imposing $100 limits. About 90 banks and 200 A.T.M.s are working across the island, government officials said. But many are opening late and closing by 2 p.m. or 3 p.m.
“We have been getting shipments of money,” the governor, Ricardo A. Rosselló, said. “We want to make sure people get access to the money that they need immediately, and recognizing that we are in an emergency situation.”
Enyoliz Parrilla, 35, has been rationing her cash as if it were a finite supply of water in a lifeboat. She had about $40 left, and as she pushed her cart through a reopened supermarket, she added up the cost of bread and milk. She wanted to keep the bill to $25.
Credit Kirsten Luce for The New York Times
“We’re just holding on,” she said.
She once had a thriving catering business serving birthday parties and weddings, but the storm and days without power had ruined her food and stopped any new business, she said. As their money dwindled, she and her husband were contemplating leaving for Orlando, where they have family.
But some spots were islands of convenience. At a CVS drugstore in San Juan, the manager, Hector Juan, 37, said the chain’s system for processing credit cards was intact, and the store was thrumming with customers who formed a line that snaked back among the partly empty shelves.
In line was Juan Pou, 47, a mechanic, who had two, two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola and two packages of white bread in a basket. It was difficult, he said, to find fresh food, and he was eating a lot of grains.
Mr. Pou said that chaos was to be expected in a world where everything, including transactions at the store, relied on an ephemeral network of ones and zeros. “In the modern world,” he said, “everything’s computers.”
Mr. Jimenez, who waited in line outside Scotiabank, said the cash shortage forced him to get creative and tiptoe into the black market. Here in his eastern hometown, Fajardo, he was able to use his credit card to buy several packs of Newport cigarettes from a big-box retailer before the store ran out of diesel and had to shut down.
He and his wife traversed their neighborhood, selling packs of cigarettes for $10 each. Mr. Jimenez said he was not trying to make money — just to stockpile cash to use at the gas stations and markets that now accepted nothing else.
“I’m like a drug dealer,” he joked.
Like other people standing in line, Mr. Jimenez said he worried about draining his bank account while he was out of work indefinitely. He said he could not drive to work because he did not want to use his precious gasoline, could not call work because his phone had no signal, and did not know when he might go back. He estimated he had already spent $1,000 to live after the storm.
A little way back in line, Yolanda Carrasquilla, 52, contemplated the risks of bringing so much money into her house at a time when she felt unsafe in her pitch-black neighborhood. Normally, she said, she “never ever” keeps cash in the house, but said she needed it to buy groceries and supplies for her 13- and 22-year-old sons.
“I’m worried that somebody will rob me,” she said, but added that she keeps a pistol at home for protection.
As the morning wore on, the line grew, wrapping around the building and spilling into the parking lot. As a manager unlocked the door and slipped inside, people in the crowd shouted, “Open up!” and “Turn on the generator!”
“What are they doing in there?” someone asked.
After a few minutes, the manager emerged to tell the crowd that the bank would be able to open that morning if a shipment of diesel arrived to power the generator. A security guard began organizing the line, offering shady spots closer to the door to pregnant women and ailing customers.
One man asked the manager, “If it doesn’t get here, when will you open?”
The manager did not know. After a few more announcements, she threaded her way through the crowd and back into the bank, locking the door behind her.
Source: New York Times