On the first day of our PR trip with Nancy Wilson-Rhoades, I realized that it has been just about 100 days since Hurricane Maria ripped across the island, on September 20. While the government/media say power is restored to 60% of the island, we’ve been told that it is closed to 40-50%, and often that power is unreliable.
Nancy and I arrived to a sea of blue tarps on the phantom rooftops in San Juan. Yikes. Quite different from the island paradise I knew 8 months ago.
On the flight I met Jose, a doctor from PR who joined an adhoc group called Ayudando a Los Nuestros that goes whenever possible to distribute to the still-affected communities. Food, water, Christmas gifts, medical care– it was inspiring to see that people are taking it upon themselves to help however and as much as they can.
We rented a car for the week. The area around the airport had some blown out windows and buildings but it didn’t seem too bad until we realized: none of the traffic lights work! Disconcerting it was to enter an intersection where the former barely manageable PR driving protocol is now pure chaos.
We considered staying with Mukti but she described that her apartment building still has no power, generators are not possible in her location, so she goes to work, comes home and does the bare minimum to feed herself and her pets and then goes to sleep. She has batteries of various types to keep herself going but she downplays it by describing it as merely depressing. She goes on the weekends to her sister’s house to do laundry and recharge (on all levels).We stayed at the immaculate and powered-up condo of Rebecca and Alexis, in Carolina near the lagoon. They are a young professional couple and we were their first airb&b guests. Rebecca worked for non-profits in LA and Guatamala, and is currently looking for a job in PR. Alexis is a local PR man working on a masters degree in Industrial Engineering and is also looking for a job. They spoke about the difficulty of finding work on the island but were full of good spirits. They prepared a lovely vegetarian meal with okra, eggplant, zukes, tomatoes, jasmine rice and we had a lively conversation about Puerto Rico and the US: “Just think: colony!” was best explained by Alexis. They had some picture windows still cracked and now have a view of the lagoon through the ravaged jungle vegetation. They have a couple parrots living in the palm tree above their rooftop terrace and made our first night wonderful, like visiting old friends. They spoke about the days after the storm. Alexis’ father is a doctor and his hospital was prepared enough to get the live-saving generators going while other medical facilities struggled. The talked about the lines: 8 hours to gas up; 12 hours to get the $50 limit on cash at the bank; people going into stores and buying whatever was on the shelf, even if they didn’t need it, with their old habit of consumerism intact. Alexis’ 14-year-old brother seemed unfazed about not having his phone for incessant movie watching and helped out but reverted right back to staring at the screen the minute power was restored. Rebecca offered to act as translator and both were appreciative of the POP project.
January 18 Caguas
We traveled an hour wouth of San Juan to the industrial town of Caguas to meet with Melvin, who works for Aireko.