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In the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, more than 300,000 homes have no official address. This is because across many parts of the island, street names or numbers do not exist.
This has long been a problem in the city of Caguas, near Puerto Rico’s capital San Juan. Firefighters in the city cheered when they recently received new maps that included rural neighborhoods.
In the past, firefighters and others said they sometimes had to depend on taxi drivers for directions during emergencies.
But the lack of street names and numbers has long been a problem for the whole U.S. territory, where internet map services are known to fail.
To get around the problem, people have learned to use different objects and landmarks to help them reach their travel goals. For example, directions could involve a mango tree, a store, a park or a red farmhouse.
It is even a problem in cities. In one area of the capital, some people look for a life-size Bigfoot doll sitting outside a building to help them find their way to a nearby hospital.
In Puerto Rico, it is not unusual to hear something like: “Turn right at kilometer 58 and make a left after a large hole. If you go past the big breadfruit tree, you’ve gone too far.”
Even the country’s famous Oso Blanco prison is still used as a landmark for giving directions even though the buildings were destroyed long ago.
The lack of addresses has made getting lost an acceptable and sometimes fun part of island life for some. But the coronavirus crisis -- combined with recent natural disasters -- have persuaded officials to seek new solutions to the problem.
With up to 60 percent of homes in some areas lacking an address, emergency workers cannot find people quickly to bring basic supplies or provide needed medical care.
“If you’re not on a map, you don’t exist,” said Raul Rios, a former manager at the U.S. Postal Service. Rios now leads iCasaPR, a nonprofit group that aims to standardize addresses across the island.
Puerto Rico’s 78 localities and many government agencies still use separate databases that use different names for the same streets. They can also list the same addresses in different ways, such as 1013 or 10-13.
“It’s like the Tower of Babel,” Rios said.
Four years ago, a young boy died in San Juan because it took an emergency medical vehicle 15 minutes to find his home in an area that did not have a standardized address, said Nazario Lugo. He is the president of Puerto Rico’s Association of Emergency Responders. At the time of the incident, he led the city’s emergency services.
He said the mother could not go outside to flag down emergency workers because she was giving medical aid to her son while speaking with a 911 operator on the phone.
As in other cities, officials in Caguas want to avoid such tragedies. Over the past decade, more than 100 roads have been named for the first time.
But there are many more that need identities and the naming process is not always easy, said Carmen Diaz, the city’s planning director. For example, street names have to be completely unique and they are limited to 28 letters and numbers.
To help neighborhoods come up with ideas, Diaz provided books on Puerto Rican plants and animals. She also brought works by local writers. Diaz even suggested the name of the song “Calma” by Puerto Rican pop singer Pedro Capo.
Diaz told The Associated Press the use of landmarks to give people directions is not a long-term solution. “They’ve already changed the color of that pink house or cut down that tree,” she said.