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Puerto Rico's very American love of cars is jamming its recovery

Jonathan Levin, Margaret Newkirk and Emma Ockerman, Bloomberg News on

Published in Weather News

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Only five months ago, Puerto Rico claimed the Guinness world record for the longest parade of classic cars: 2,491. Now, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the island's celebrated car culture has complicated the struggle to restore people's lives and the commonwealth's economy.

Drivers desperate for gasoline are waiting for hours in lines that stretch half a mile or more. One in San Juan on Friday ran from Sixto Escobar Stadium, down the entire length of the Escambron beach, around a bluff overlooking the ocean, and past El Hamburguer and a KFC before arriving at a Shell station.

It was vivid evidence that Puerto Rico has one of the highest rates of car ownership in the world, thanks to urban sprawl and the government's failure to build public transportation that commuters might actually use.

"It's ridiculous that there are so many cars on this little island," said Lisa Rivera, 54, who works for a company that runs Jenny Craig weight-loss programs in Puerto Rico. She spoke from her SUV as she sat in another line for gas.

Governor Ricardo Rossello has tried to tamp down any panic by giving a running tally of how many of the island's 1,100 gas stations have reopened. (It was about 66 percent as of Sunday). And on Friday, he held out the prospect of more truck drivers to deliver supplies.

"As we get more assets, we'll be able to distribute fuel more effectively, efficiently and our expectation is to start reducing the long lines," he said.

For now, though, that is little solace to drivers still struggling to fill their tanks. Everyone whose job wasn't blown away by Maria is anxious to get to work and get paid so they can rebuild their lives.

Julio Diaz, 70, said he had driven with his wife from Toa Baja -- using precious gas to make the 18-mile trip -- because the lines were even longer there. In the car behind him, his daughter Zoe Diaz, who uses a wheel chair, was equally desperate. "I have to get around however I can," she said.

The Diazes and other drivers started lining up early Friday morning. Finally, at about 9:45 a.m., fuel trucks could be seen filling the station's tanks.

Puerto Rico is a place where you need a car, and residents are isolated without one. Lacking in widespread public transportation, Puerto Ricans have traditionally turned to their own vehicles, said Hani Mahmassani, director of the Transportation Center at Northwestern University.

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