“For an island long crippled by enormous debt and an essentially bankrupt financial system, Puerto Rico’s road to recovery has gone from long to seemingly endless.” -- NY Times, Sept. 22, 2017
My island of Puerto Rico was seemingly hit all at once by a triumvirate of casualties: Hurricanes Irma and Maria, and the $73 billion Greek-like debt crisis following a decade-long recession that pushed the unemployment rate over 20%. But unlike Greece, thousands of residents, many of them young professionals, have fled to the mainland seeking career opportunities. Now there is a shortage of skilled laborers who are needed for reconstruction.
A little history
Since the passing of the Jones Act in 1917, which gave all Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship, its people have served in every armed conflict since World War I. My father served in the Korean War.
Puerto Ricans love music and dance; you can hear salsa music blaring in grocery store parking lots. Its talented people have contributed to our culture. The Tony-award sensation Hamilton was written, directed and performed by a Puerto Rican. The most popular YouTube video ranked at number one is the song “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi.
The country’s baseball players are legendary. I was very young at the time, but I remember being there at Christmas when baseball Hall of Famer Roberto Clemente died, his plane nose-dived into the Atlantic soon after takeoff. He was on a charity mission to deliver disaster relief to Nicaragua in the wake of the 1972 earthquake that hit its capital. Sounds eerily familiar to today.
Surveying the damage
Flash forward to San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, who holed up in the Roberto Clemente Coliseum to ride out Hurricane Maria along with 600 others. She said she felt safer being around people. Maria ripped off the stadium’s roof, leaving the shelter without electricity and running water.
When Hurricane Irma brushed Puerto Rico miles offshore on Sept. 6, people celebrated, believing that prayers were answered despite the 700,000 homes that lost power. Two weeks later, Maria — just shy of a Category 5 — made a direct hit from the southeast corner, sparing no one across the island’s entire 100-mile length for 24 hours, and dropping a record 37.9 inches of rain in my hometown of Caguas, where my grandfather was once mayor.
The island’s entire power grid, already crippled by austerity measures, debt, corruption charges and negligence, was now obliterated with impunity, leaving 3.4 million people without power. Transmission poles cracked like toothpicks and littered the streets like a pile of kindling anxious for a bonfire.
Ricardo Ramos, the CEO of the power authority, said it will take four to six months for full restoration. Ramos told CNN, “The system has been basically destroyed.” Governor Ricardo Rosselló called Maria “the most devastating storm to hit the island this century, if not in modern history.”
The signs say: Maria I love you. You're going to punish me. (Photo: Giancarlo Martinez Bunker)
Surviving in Maria’s wake
According to The Federal Communication Service, more than 95% of cell sites are down on the island. Without wireless service, frustration built as relatives from the mainland had no way to reach their loved ones.
Two days after Maria hit, my cousin, Giancarlo Martinez Bunker, joined the very first wave of outbound emails to arrive from the battered isle. He had cleared away the debris from two fallen trees that landed within feet of his car, and managed to drive to his financial services job in San Juan, where his company was operating on a generator. Fuel was running out.
Giancarlo writes, “The experience during the hurricane was like nothing else I have lived through previously, including Hugo. On my street, 14 out of 15 electric poles are down. 100% of Puerto Rico is without electric power. The trees on the mountains that surround our valley have been left without small branches and leaves. They are naked mountains. Water came into our house from beneath the doors. One door we had to secure using hanger wires in order to keep it closed. It felt like someone was pulling the door open from outside and at times, someone pushing it open from inside. But after the wiring we felt more safe [sic]. It was a miracle nothing happened to my car. It was our guardian angel.
“For cooking we use a propane grill. There we cook rice, beans, chicken stew; warm our morning and afternoon milk for our coffee. For water we have a roof-mounted cisterna (water tank) and there is a shy stream of water that comes down the pipes (gravity fed) but it will end eventually without more water coming in. We collect water from the house roof drain and store it for toilet use when needed once the water tank empties.
“On the first days we ate too much, wanting to consume the stock in the fridge. Now we’re down to eating lots of cookies, bread, snacks and other simple things. We don’t want to get the kitchen very messy. We’re buying the kind of milk sold in boxes for the girls. Since Irma hit, everyone is looking to buy size D batteries, not just for flashlights, but mostly for battery-operated fans. All the stock is gone.
“So much work to be done in terms of bushes and trees and scrap metal, road signs, lighting posts. It is hard to figure out where to begin. It is mind-boggling. Because there are no street lights, it’s dangerous to drive at night. A 6:00 pm to 6:00 am curfew was called, but few obey it. Everybody wants to go out and see the damage done.”
Fighting back tears during an interview with NBC Nightly News, the 54-year old Mayor Carmen Yulín says, “The Puerto Rico and the San Juan we once knew is no longer there. The human spirit is going to have to rise up real high. And I’m sure we have the strength to do it, but we’ll have to find it within ourselves.”
Downed trees littered this neighborhod in Caguas, Puerto Rico. (Photo: Giancarlo Martinez Bunker)
A number of local charity groups are providing direct aid to victims in Puerto Rico:
Resources for connecting with residents in Puerto Rico:
Puerto Rico Maria Updates, a public Facebook group.