What Hurricane Maria taught me about the people of Puerto Rico

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September 26, 2017 7:00 AM

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Víctor Lozada searches for items that can be salvaged from his shed, which was completely destroyed by Hurricane Maria’s wind and water in Loíza.

CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

A metal shack in the back of their property, used to shelter chickens and tools for their modest plantain crop, was gone, drowned chickens buried under jumbles of tree branches, jagged edges of zinc sheets and shelving and furniture jutting out from above the brown flood waters.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were dispossessed.

Navarro offered us cold water bottles. Absolutely not, we said.

She introduced us to her next-door neighbor — worse off than she was, Navarro explained, because she’d been flooded and lost part of her roof, the legacy of Maria’s wrath below her feet and over her head.

The neighbor, Sandra Matos, waved and smiled. A photographer snapped her picture. And then Matos waded into the street, frozen water bottles in hand.

We’d managed to refuse Navarro. We failed to refuse Matos. Our compromise: We would share the water. Please don’t give us one bottle apiece from your scarce supply when your town has gotten zero help.

“For your survival,” she said.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were kind.

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Ismael Freytes, 69, removes muddy debris as he tries to clean out his house in Arecibo, where the local river poured into the streets after Hurricane Maria.

CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

West of San Juan, in the city of Arecibo, cars slowed as they approached a Gulf station bustling with people. Was there gas?

No — just a small army of employees, friends and family stuffing black garbage bags with the unrecognizable entrails of the station’s convenience store and pharmacy. Everything dripped with thick mud. The Arecibo River had burst in and ravaged all property in its path. As evidence, locals pointed to the walls of homes and businesses along Route 2, most smeared with brown up to seven or maybe 10 feet high.

“We have gas,” owner Ivis González said. But her generator flooded too, so she didn’t have power to get pumps working.

Her team, clad in thin gloves, stepped gingerly over the detritus, which included a dead fish on the sidewalk, and swept away the mud with brooms, brushes, their feet.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were industrious.

Further west, in the town of Quebradillas, where a crack in a dam loomed as a catastrophic threat that could wipe out the region’s water supply, the mayor and emergency manager told me three days after the storm that their only line of communication with the island’s government was a radio.

On Saturday, the town sent an employee to San Juan to make contact with the governor’s office and plead for a satellite phone. On Sunday, the governor’s administration said it still hadn’t gotten in touch Quebradillas Mayor Heriberto Vélez.

After Hurricane Maria, the government of Puerto Rico was overwhelmed.

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Luis Torres, take a break from sweeping his mother’s trashed home in the San Juan neighborhood of La Perla. Hurricane Maria blew away the house’s second floor.

CARL JUSTE CJUSTE@MIAMIHERALD.COM

Even in San Juan, where life resumed in fits and starts, generators conked out from overuse. Many had been running since before Hurricane Irma, a stretch of nearly three weeks. At least one functioning stalwart of a hotel full of foreign and local guests ran out of water bottles, stopped offering mofongo due to a scarcity of plantains, and saw most of its air conditioning and both of its elevators fail.

Crushed by debt and slammed by two back-to-back storms, Puerto Rico’s ability to return to any semblance of normality appeared months and months away. People routinely violated a curfew, certain that police had better things to do than go after them. On Saturday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló threatened six months’ jail time for those who get caught. Cops arrested more than a dozen people for looting.

Soon, food, water and medicine stocked for the hurricane will begin to run out. And Puerto Ricans — 3.4 million American citizens disconnected from their loved ones and the world, unaware of President Donald Trump’s all-consuming spat with professional athletes over kneeling during the national anthem — will probably, and understandably, become more anxious and frustrated.

Yet, during my six days on the island, the people of Puerto Rico remained characteristically sunny. In the San Juan neighborhood of Miramar, outside a convenience store that opened soon after the storm, Melanie Pérez poked fun at the salt-ridden shopping choices and wondered aloud of the hurricane would help her finally quit smoking.

“Why spend 10 pesos on cigarettes?” she asked. “What I want to do is help. I want to know where I can show up and be most useful.”

A couple of blocks away, La Bodeguita Verde de Lima, an eco-friendly foodie store, displayed plywood shutters encouraging the island to bounce back. “Vamos Puerto Rico carajo!!!” one of them read. Let’s go, Puerto Rico, damn it.

Read another: “No one separates us, in good times or in bad.”


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