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Columnist Jonathan Wright: Puerto Rico remains in shambles three months after Maria 

  • An eight-bay auto and tire shop that was smashed by Hurricane Maria and remains shuttered along Route 3 in Palmer, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A reinforced concrete power pole that was snapped off by Hurricane Maria along Route 188 in Canovanas, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A forest in Puerto Rico that used to be dense and verdant was stripped to tree trunks by Hurricane Maria. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Tandem trucks inch along the coastal road in Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A once lively bar and night spot ruined by Hurricane Maria is now abandoned in Pinones, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A building in Puerto Rico with no roof or tarp for protection. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • The village waterfront in Loiza, Puerto Rico, with debris remaining from the destruction of Hurricane Maria in September. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A ruined waterfront home in Loiza, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A bird-of-paradise flower memorial on a beach in Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Power poles and crushed homes and businesses along Route 187 in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Derelict military surplus vehicles block the entrance to a landfill for debris from Hurricane Maria. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Crews from Indiana salvage a utility pole damaged by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • Main power lines down in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT

  • A concrete pole snapped by Hurricane Maria atop a public works facility in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico. JONATHAN WRIGHT



Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Darkness comes quickly in the tropics. As I turn my rental Kia onto Highway 187 that winds through some of the poorer coastal areas of Puerto Rico’s north coast, east of San Juan, I can sigh and look at the last twilight and orange fire fading quickly into a dark western sky. After a day of mold cleanup and painting, I have a warm shower and a cold beer waiting for me back close to San Juan. Not so for the residents here.

Returning to Puerto Rico in early December for the first time since Maria, I did not know what to expect. There is an air of normalcy near the airport and on major roads; fast-food restaurants are mostly open, running on generators. First, I began to notice missing traffic lights, missing road signs, buildings without roofs, buildings boarded and shuttered.

One typical telltale sign of storm damage is the blue tarp, but not here. They never arrived. Virtually no tarps. Every building damaged by the storm gets wet every time it rains, which, in this season, can be several times a day.

Major reconstruction has begun on some buildings in and around San Juan, like the Ritz Carlton, with scaffolding up three sides. These folks have capital, insurance and other resources. But just blocks away, no progress.

When I travel by myself, I talk to strangers. In Puerto Rico, I smile, greet and ask them about their family. It’s seems natural, since Puerto Ricans are all about family. Always the answer is “my family is fine.” Fairly quickly I learn this means something like “no one has died yet.”

Loiza, where we have had a condominium for 10 years, is the town where slaves were brought in from Africa, and auctioned in the town square right by the Catholic Church. It remains rich in African traditions and ethnicity. It is also poor. There are no lights in homes now, and there are no street lights lit here or in most of Puerto Rico. My headlights bounce off sneakers and white socks, occasional teeth gleaming, and the reflectors of parked cars.

Up ahead, a truck selling pinchos, traditional meat on sticks, pollo y cerdo, has a small generator whirring and is playing music and selling food. People have gathered at the roadside to listen, sip some beers and bottled water iced down in a cooler, talk, and feel the big sky and darkness fold in on them. It is balmy night with light breeze. They have been without electricity or telecommunications for three months. A few poles have been set along Highway 188, still miles away, no wire and little ongoing work. Pronouncements are made, but on the ground, there are fallen sections of poles and masses of tangled wires, much as they were on day one post-Maria.

Many still without power

Reports in the New York Times and elsewhere that 70 percent of the power is back are not correct. At this writing, 69 percent of generating capacity is officially deemed restored, as reported by CNN Money, but that is the easy part. Actual electric distribution? Restored delivery to homes and business is at a fraction of that, outside of central San Juan and government offices. Nothing is connected in the country and mountains. The south side of the island, which I did not visit, is ravaged and without significant progress in containing damage or in beginning reconstruction.

Café Miguelos on the corner in Loiza, always a good bet for a cheerful smile, an overstuffed breakfast sandwich and $1 café con leche, is barred and shuttered. On the other corner, the Farmacia Medianias is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., running its full-capacity generator and keeping its fresh and frozen foods in good shape. It was prepared and equipped because power delivery in poorer areas has been spotty for a long time. Even an hour without power in the grocery business, in the tropics, can be a crisis. When its lights go off at 5, all is dark in the neighborhood.

The schools seem to operate sporadically, on short days, without power. Once or twice a week a box truck arrives with cases of bottled water, and residents line up for their allotment. Municipal water has been partially restored, but is intermittent, even though in abundant supply from the rain-forest mountains. It’s about power for pumps and treatment. Some homes are on wells, whose water quality is uncertain after the massive flooding. The studio is completely gone where a local artisan made the traditional coconut shell masks used for ceremonies — just a slab is left.

I make my way through the dark toward the northern east-west spine road, Highway 3. The intersection with 188, at Walmart, has the only working traffic light east of San Juan. All the others remain twisted in anguished postures, pointing helter-skelter. Some have been uprooted, wrung like hand laundry, and now flung into the bushes. Here and there a traffic light flashes uncontrolled. Lit digital billboards, powered by generators, are blinding in the darkness.

Earlier in the day I had gone to Home Depot for more paint roller covers, some of the last in stock, and stopped for gas at the Puma station. There was a truck full of utility workers from Kentucky, some of the first I had seen, getting water and snacks. As I asked one of them where they were working, he said, in his handsome drawl, “Tell you what, I have no idea where I am at, but we are just working over at the race track over there.” So, the Canovanas horse track brought in utility workers for its facility, but the substation nearby is off-line.

Stopping by Kmart, where the sign is still ripped off, and the ceiling is mostly missing inside, folding tables are set up and several dozen people are sitting around having coffee and watching television. No homes or work. Adult day care. Everywhere, the credit offices have long lines.

Driving is nerve-racking

After sunset, police officers in dark uniforms blow whistles in the intersections; sometimes I can hear three whistles and see nothing. Generally, people are very considerate, but still the driving is nerve-racking. I am pressing on back to Bayamon tonight, where two lovely women run a service laundry and laundromat that is open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. since a few weeks post-Maria, and all 182 pounds of my linens, clothes and fabric are ready to be picked up. They are in the outer ring of available power adjacent to San Juan.

On the way I stop for gas, and in the store, an English language ad is playing on a Spanish TV station, recruiting “customer service representatives” for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Really?

I am tired from the driving stress when I get to Bayamon, but the women are cheerful, and show me the nine clear plastic bags, with all the laundry items sorted by type and color. I am overcome with gratitude for this caring, when I should be the one delivering care. It is quintessential Puerto Rico — care for others.

Coming back to the Quick Service Laundry today allows me to ask the assistant, Maria, a little bit more about her family. She grew up in Miami until her father ran into financial difficulties and they returned to Puerto Rico, so her English is excellent. Her family lives in the mountains south of Bayamon. There is no power, no water, no sanitation. The government has been to the town a couple of times to pick up debris. That’s it, she says.

Then she pauses, and says her uncle Cecilios lost his house in the storm. It collapsed. Yes, FEMA came, wrote a report and paid him $3,000. That covered the cost of debris removal, plus a little bit, and now he lives with Maria, her father and other family members. How would that fly in coastal Florida communities? Or in Texas?

By FEMA’s own accounting, they have fulfilled only about one-third of the over one million requests for emergency assistance, after three months. And roughly on a par with Maria’s Uncle Cecilios’ experience, the average payout is about $2,500. Maybe enough for a few supplies, but it does not last long.

A few days earlier, I had traveled to Plazas las Americas, just south of San Juan, to buy some replacements for water-damaged furniture. The Saturday evening Christmas season shopping was in high gear, with dark streets, light rain and gridlock. More policemen in dark uniforms and whistles. Patience. Stay off the horn. The mall is a place to go that has lights and cheer.

Soon, in the store, I was being helped by a bilingual salesperson, showing me various items, all accompanied by cheerful banter and suggestions. I ask her how her family is. They, too, are fine she says, in the mountains, isolated, in the dark, no water. She herself lives very close to the Plazas, on Avenida Franklin D. Roosevelt, but there is no power, no water, no elevator operating. (FDR would surely be outraged.) She says she does not know what to do when she goes home — no TV, no power, no phone, no cooking. No husband, she adds with a wry smile.

I had a late dinner at a Mexican place in Isla Verde. Samuel, I will call him, waited on me, and I asked about his family. Samuel had worked here in the Connecticut Valley for more than 20 years, on the midnight to 6 am Walmart renovation crew, remodeling stores overnight. That is, until he had a back injury and eventually returned to Puerto Rico.

He said he lives now just south of the San Juan area, in Trujillo Alta, where he has no power and intermittent water. He looks right at me, and tells me how disheartened he is by visitors who don’t seem to have the money for a decent tip. He tells me both his children own homes, paid for, which he has helped them with. He is proud, kind, without debt.

‘We have to be happy!’

Morning begins in my small rented condo with a sunrise over Pinones, and the benign water of the wide bay between Pinones and Isla Verde. I collect my recharged tool batteries, grab a couple of liters of water, and head for coffee and a breakfast sandwich to go at Piu Bello Gelato on the corner, where Marieangelie, known as Mare, greets me each day. She is a student getting trained in culinary arts, to become a pastry chef. Her school in Carolinas, very near the airport, has power now.

As usual I ask how she is doing and about her family. They are fine she says, living west of Ponce on the south side. Probing further, I learn that they have no power, no water, no services, and it is sometimes hard to find food. I say it must be hard, and she smiles back saying, “This is Puerto Rico and we have to be happy!”

From the first day she knows exactly what I would like for my sandwich to go, along with an 8-ounce café con leche. She heads to the espresso machine as soon as I walk in the door. This is natural for Puerto Ricans, to be welcoming, affirming and connecting. I feel so much hurt and love all at once that I start to tear up.

When I head back to get the car, I stop to talk to someone I will call Cliff, from Texas, standing by his big Dodge diesel truck, who is still here on “emergency response” after 81 days. He calls it “pre-utility work,” getting the basics like generators for cell towers and hospitals up and running so that utility workers can proceed. He pauses, and says “I tell you what, in the mountains it’s the worst I’ve ever seen anywhere. Bridges, roads, buildings, houses, just gone. They got hit with everything mother nature has to throw, except molten lava.” Still on rescue, no reconstruction. There is no evidence of housing repair underway that I can see.

On the way out to Loiza, I pass building after building where lively night life once flourished, now all smashed and boarded up, or just vacant with feral dogs wandering in and out. The Kioskos along one section are lively in season, but no more — they are mostly crushed by the storm surge. The beaches are beautiful especially in the early morning. Rush-hour traffic coming in clogs the opposite lane. Massive debris-hauling tandem trucks lumber along the narrow roads.

Our downstairs year-round neighbors in Loiza had left for Miami with their disabled adult daughter after the storm. They returned, and I saw them briefly as they headed to the hard-hit mountain area around Utuado, where Sylvia’s mother has a generator in her home.

For a break from chores one early afternoon, I head out to Luquillo for a walk and swim. Along this easterly section of 187 headed up to the main road, the tree canopy, and all the forested areas, are shattered. Precast concrete utility poles are leaned over, pulled out or literally snapped off. One lies on top of a Rio Grande municipal facility, where seven days a week trucks pull into a makeshift landfill for debris. They have to maneuver around a derelict and abandoned military surplus vehicle.

The little shop where they make windows and doors is up and running on its generator in the town of Rio Grande. After all this suffering, where many still cannot sleep at night because of fear of the winds and rain, if funds were properly available, reconstruction could be well underway.

In Luquillo, people are out in enjoying the beach in small numbers — the Balneario, the recreational park, is locked up tight, as the site is strewn with debris and downed trees. One truck and a crew pick away at the cleanup.

Utility workers’ difficulties

In the evening, the Embassy Suites Hotel’s main entrance remains shuttered with plywood and corrugated metal, but the side door gets you into the casino, going gangbusters, and Outback Steakhouse, where I was about to make the error of eating dinner. At the entry I fell into conversation with someone I will call Jack. I asked him if he was dining or gambling, and he said “neither, I’m going to bed. Been here 62 days and tomorrow we stand up our first poles. Problem is, at the beginning we could find the downed equipment with aerial reconnaissance, but now the foliage is coming back and we can’t see or find anything anymore.” Utility workers, heading into the rainy season, are in a race against more than one set of clocks. They are working hard in difficult conditions. There just are nowhere near enough of them.

One night I head out to find a place on the beach to have dinner, rather than one of the many excellent eateries on the main drag. I poke my way almost five miles west, into Condado, and come upon a right turn, between the sushi place on the right and punk bar on the left, marked Calle Vending. I can see sign a for an open restaurant down at the end, make the turn, pay to park, and discover Oceano, right on the beach. I quickly change to a clean T-shirt and hope for the best.

It’s a beautiful setting, open-air bar, tables along the rail looking out over the water. I sit briefly at the bar, and am attended by Mark, with perfect English (I later learn he is from Pennsylvania). He shows me the menu with its array of appetizers, entrees and sides, and also, a seasonal menu of smaller plates. Tapas, I think and ask. Yes, Mark says.

What is the season I inquire? “It is the post-Maria season,” he says. Lower-priced smaller plates of delicious food so people can still enjoy life for a little less, and maintain family occasions. Brilliant marketing that expresses both expanse and limitation, while helping the business to survive. Puerto Rican hospitality. Several birthday parties are heating up.

When I come back once again on another night, I meet Jorge, the manager, who tells me the back story. The storm ripped off the front of the building, filled the whole place with sand and debris. When I ask how they found contractors, he said there were none, that they had rallied the kitchen, bar staff, everyone, and had gone to work, for 62 days. “Everyone knows how to do a little bit,” he says. Yes, they had access to finances, but the resourcefulness, and the gentleness and welcome of the seasonal menu, overwhelmed me.

Walking down Loiza Beach my last day, my ninth day of mold and mildew skirmishes and repainting at our condo, I pass the ruined village beach front and a destroyed school. By chance, I meet up with Miquel, whom I have often seen in past years sitting among the now stripped or felled Casuarina trees. We have not seen each other since March, and he is so friendly in his greeting and introduces me to his friend. “Where your wife” he asks me always when I am alone, and I tell him she is at home. He makes an up-and-over hand and arm gesture depicting air travel. He is walking back from fishing by the Loiza River mouth, and I ask if he has any muhara today. He had told me about this small common estuary fish last year. No, he says, and turns slightly to show me his ancient red backpack, with the heads of two large red snappers poking out. “Fishing is good,” he says with a broad, nearly toothless smile.

Disorganized, underfunded

Walking back, I begin to recall another hurricane, Gilbert, slamming into Jamaica about 30 years ago with similar wind forces, causing most power lines to fail. I remember the news photos, just days later, of the big C-5A Galaxy aircraft, on order of the president and the secretary of defense, with the noses lifted up at Westover, and Massachusetts Electric trucks being loaded. No hesitation. Respond, repair, save lives. No such response to Puerto Rico now — it’s disorganized, underfunde, and caught in political conflicts.

About a month after Maria, the Department of Defense was still waiting for the word from the White House to mobilize and help. They had been ready in 72 hours. The order never came. Perhaps it’s one of the problems with having military in civilian positions — perhaps they take chain of command too literally.

The president was busy tossing paper towels at the airport hangar, and grading himself as a 10, when in fact, the government response has not moved the needle much off of zero. Puerto Ricans have learned to expect little, and to cope, but this episode without power, which is breaking the back of the people and their livelihoods, deserves a full-throated congressional or independent investigation. And it deserves and requires funding on a par with the level of damage.

It’s a big island, with lots of people, and it needs lots of help. Americans are good at rescue and providing hope for the future, but in this case, the effort is missing on all cylinders. It’s not the crews on the ground. It’s the lack of funds, management, authority, and North American will.

The island needs dozens, even hundreds, more utility crews, temporary housing which the military can set up in a few days, medical support and the prospect of a decent life for our fellow citizens. We must insist on just treatment for Puerto Rico now.

Perhaps privatizing the utility, along with a significant federal credit line could be part of the answer. It will take money. But be careful of the vultures. The financial control board has insisted on divestiture of public assets to raise cash.

The main airport has been sold to the Mexican outfit Aerostar Airport Holdings. I have been told that publicly funded hospitals are being sold to hedge-fund groups, and then resold at huge profits. The vultures are circling. The so-called congressional tax overhaul includes a new 12 percent tax on goods made in Puerto Rico on U.S. patents, as if they were a foreign country. Kick them again, harder, when they are down.

In the long run, a healthy rebounding Puerto Rico is the least costly and most secure approach. Hundreds of thousands of refugees and disrupted families is not a good outcome. People of Puerto Rican heritage like to retire there, and this is good for the island — grandparents, pension checks, family connections. Farming and restoration of destroyed farms should be encouraged and funded. Their tourist industry, along with manufacturing and agriculture, must be restored as quickly as possible.

I often get asked why they are not putting power underground. First, it is a monumental undertaking, with costs exponentially higher than overhead. Every electric service would need to be revamped. Those thin high voltage wires on poles, which are cooled in the air, when placed underground grow into very heavy gauge cable with pull stations and cooling requirements. Recently, an underground installation overheated and shut down America’s busiest airport in Atlanta. Underground is not in the cards.

After all, in downtown Northampton we still have power strung along the backs of Main Street buildings in some locations. We have 19th-century gas lines all over Boston.

I am told that Puerto Rico should be all solar, and indeed they have significant solar (Spanish vendors) and wind installations. My answer is yes, certainly. And why not Southern California, Arizona and Florida, which could be 100 percent renewable right now? It’s about the money and the interests that control utilities. In April this year Florida got its first solar grid interconnected panel! Meanwhile, Solar City has shown the way for San Juan Children’s Hospital. More, please!

From an international perspective, Chinese, Russian, as well as emerging powers, are all ears and many are loaded with cash. An independent Puerto Rico, which may be the only answer if neither commonwealth territory status nor statehood are viable, would be a great investment destination for them, and give them a hub in the core of the Americas. How’s that sound to us?

Puerto Rican recovery is a serious security issue for the U.S., and a drug interdiction nightmare, in addition to a massive, terrifying and totally preventable humanitarian crisis right on our continental “front porch.” The president of the United States has a distinct articulated direct responsibility for the safety and security of the American people.

What can any of us do? Be alert for Puerto Ricans here and be kind. Send money to your favorite charity. Raise a major stink with Congress. Encourage Puerto Ricans to register to vote. Visit Puerto Rico.

Even in shock and wounded, it is as beautiful and romantic as ever, the people are lovely, the air and water are divine.

Jonathan Wright, of Northampton, the founder and senior adviser of Wright Builders, is a poet and also writes about sustainability and other community issues.