After the Storm: Volunteer trip to Puerto Rico reveals island still recovering 5 months later

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — When Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico for 12 hours last September, I watched the news in horror like everyone else. Although I am not of Puerto Rican descent, it felt personal.

I was 13 years old when my family moved from our quiet, suburban ranch house in Charlotte, N.C., to a high-rise apartment in San Juan for my father’s job. We only lived there a few years, but they were formative years. The island got under my skin in a big way.

Years later, I parlayed my love of the island into a publishing contract to write a travel book, which had to be updated often. Ever since then, I’ve returned nearly every year, traversing the island back and forth, up and down so many times, it’s as familiar to me as an old friend’s face.

I spent three weeks there last June researching my fifth edition and was ahead of schedule for meeting my deadline. Then Hurricane Maria slammed it with 155 mph winds, obliterating homes and knocking out water and power across the island.

For the next few days, I was glued to the news, watching videos of roofs taking flight and rivers rushing through towns. I tried to identify familiar landmarks in news footage and grew frustrated by conflicting reports. I cringed at headlines proclaiming the island had been “destroyed,” implying it couldn’t be repaired. And I cried like I’d lost a loved one.

I felt so utterly helpless. All I could think about was helping out. I donated money to various causes, but that wasn’t enough. I was itching to get down there to volunteer.

In early February, I finally didand the experience left me humbled in the face of such resilience.

2. Return to normal

Five months after Hurricane Maria, vestiges of her wrath were still apparent. A quarter of the population remained without electricity. Traffic lights were out, turning intersections into a game of chicken. Blue tarps covered roofs as far as the eye could see, and stacks of dead trees lined the roadways. The sound of generators rumbled day and night, and homemade signs identified addresses where electricity had yet to be restored.

“Pockets” is how people referred to areas not yet back on the power grid. Sometimes a pocket was a single structure located across the street from a building that had hummed with electricity for weeks.

But in a lot of ways, the island seemed to be back in business, at least the parts I saw.

People still packed the streets and bars around La Placita in Santurce, drinking cans of Medalla beer and listening to salsa music. The wait was still an hour long to get into José Enrique restaurant. Cruise ships were back, bringing boatloads of tourists to Old San Juan, and sun worshippers had returned to lounge around the pools at the beach resorts along Condado.

There were still people in need, of course. Power down, homes damaged, bridges out, particularly in the mountains, on the small island of Vieques and on the southeastern coast where the storm made landfall. I was frequently reminded that people were still reeling from Hurricane Irma when Maria hit. But from my perspective, which, granted, was as an outsider parachuting in, life around San Juan and the northeastern environs appeared to be returning to normal. I couldn’t help wondering, though, would it ever be the same.


Forgoing a hotel in the tourist district, I stayed in a third-floor-walkup in Santurce, a densely populated working-class neighborhood in San Juan.


Like many urban neighborhoods where rent is cheap, Santurce is undergoing gentrification. First came the artists and the galleries, then came hipster joints like Coctelera, a craft cocktail bar run by an affable bunch of bearded millennials. But there were still plenty of the businesses long-time residents relied upon for their daily needs — hardware stores, discount clothing shops, car repair shops, barbers and panaderías, serving rice and beans, plantains and stewed pork from steam tables. The majority of businesses appeared to be open.

Street art was prolific, much of it political. A wall near my apartment was covered with a mural of a girl swinging from a tree limb. Instead of leaves, the tree was covered with light bulbs.

I spotted a phrase stenciled on a wall — “FEMA es el problema” — and snapped a photo. A kindly woman who looked like someone’s grandma was sitting in a lawn chair in front of the building next door. When she saw what I was doing, she walked over to tell me that most people didn’t feel that way, “only people who want no government,” she said. She indicated that she would like to get her own can of spray paint and cover it up. When asked why she didn’t, she smiled and pointed to a security camera on the corner of the building.

For decades, Puerto Rico has ping-ponged between two fairly evenly divided political philosophies: those who want to remain a commonwealth and those who want to become a state. But there has always been a small contingent in favor of political independence. If the graffiti in Santurce was any indication, disappointment over U.S. response to Hurricane Maria appeared to have fueled sentiment for the independence movement, particularly among the young.

For dinner that night I met an old schoolmate of mine whom I hadn’t seen in more than 40 years. Carlos Dávila Rinaldi and I were not close friends back in the day, but thanks to Facebook we’d reconnected. He had become a successful artist, whose work hung in the island’s most prestigious museums. I was eager to hear how he was affected by the storm.

Over plates of grilled fish, tostones and glasses of rum, he told me his power had only recently been restored at his home in an affluent suburb of San Juan. He fared pretty well, considering the circumstances, just a few downed trees and some broken glass. Like many people of means in Puerto Rico, he had generators to keep the refrigerator on and the fans going until his power returned four months later. He was able to return to work at his advertising agency soon after the storm thanks to Sprint, one of his clients, who helped get him back up and running. But his art studio 20 miles south of San Juan near Caguas still had no power.

Carlos’ 24-year-old son was not as fortunate. Pursuing a career in the culinary arts, he worked at a restaurant near the Puerto Rico Convention Center. The restaurant closed after the storm and had yet to reopen. Over time he became depressed and grew thin. Carlos began to worry, so he sent his son to live with his uncle in Winston-Salem, N.C. Carlos had just returned from visiting him and said his son couldn’t be happier. He was cooking at a country club and had gained 42 pounds.

It’s impossible to quantify the number of Puerto Ricans who left for good after Hurricane Maria, but the island was already experiencing an exodus before the storm, thanks to a high unemployment rate and a bankrupt government. In the decade preceding the historic storm, an estimated half-million people left, reducing the island’s population by one-eighth. Hurricane Maria accelerated that exodus.

“A lot of people who had money got on a plane and left. They came back when the worst was over,” said Carlos. “Some people left and didn’t come back.”

A couple of nights later, I got a small taste of post-Maria life when the power went out in my building. Puerto Rico’s electric grid was already fragile when the storm hit, a factor that severely hampered attempts to repair it. That night a fire caused by mechanical failure at a power substation created a blackout across much of northern Puerto Rico. I was lucky. My electricity was back on in an hour. Some people were out for days, left fumbling around in dark pockets.

3. The great equalizer

Before arriving in Puerto Rico, I worked the phones trying to line up some volunteer opportunities for me and my traveling companion, Shelly Williams Kuras of Atlanta. I took it as a good sign that many of the organizations I contacted said they were transitioning out of emergency services into more strategic efforts that required Spanish language skills I did not have.

Then someone suggested I contact Banco de Alimentos, the food bank in Bayamón. Bingo.

food bank.jpg

We spent our first morning in Puerto Rico in a warehouse surrounded by the constant beep-beep-beep of rolling forklifts, the occasional shrill blast of an alarm and the hum of a dozen fans. Everything was covered in a fine dust that went unnoticed until it turned the tips of our fingers black. Assembly-line style, we filled plastic sacks with boxes of shredded wheat, macaroni, cereal bars; cans of pears and green beans; a jug of grape juice; a handful of Rice Krispies Treats; and something called “Snack Bites,” made from chicken sausage.

For 28 years the food bank had been serving those in need on the island. After Hurricane Maria, that included everyone.

“Even people with money needed the food bank because there was no food to buy in the stores,” said volunteer coordinator Valerie Martínez.

It was a story I heard often. Hurricane Maria was the great equalizer, erasing the distinction between the classes. Everyone, rich and poor, old and young, had to stand in line for food, gas, water, ice.

What surprised Valerie most after the storm, though, was the groundswell of volunteers who showed up at the food bank unbidden. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to help.

Joining us on the assembly line that day was 15-year-old Camila Ramos of San Juan, whose father worked at the food bank. She was skipping school so she could spend the day volunteering.

“We weren’t doing anything important today,” she said about missing class.

There were also several office workers from a local insurance company and Nelson Santos, 34, of Miami. It was Nelson’s first time in Puerto Rico, and he’d come for the sole purpose of volunteering. In fact, he’d spent the last two years traveling the world and doing volunteer work, including a two-month stint at a hospice in Myanmar, he said. His dream was to start a nonprofit that brought volunteers to disaster areas and housed them in homestays. He came to Puerto Rico to learn about disaster management.

Asked why volunteering was so important to him, he said, “It’s my passion, my life, my purpose.”

At 10 a.m. Valerie appeared and handed us each a Lunchable, containing crackers and slices of cheese and ham. It was break time, so we all crammed around a table in the tiny break room. Jose Irizarray, a volunteer from the insurance company, pulled a cellphone from his pocket and showed us all a video of him driving his VW Jetta through a river near the mountain town of Morovis. The bridge had been washed away in the storm. Afterward, we engaged in that awkward, halting conversation that occurs when you don’t speak each other’s language. Together we shared in little victories of understanding and ate our snacks.

4. ‘We’d forget to eat’

Our next volunteer job was in Dorado, 18 miles west of San Juan. Once home to grapefruit and pineapple plantations, Dorado was now known for its golf resorts.

Ironically, World Central Kitchen was operating out of one of the area’s most exclusive resorts, which had temporarily closed after the storm.

World Central Kitchen was started by chef José Andrés, a James Beard Award-winning chef from Spain, in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. The nonprofit brings a variety of services to disaster areas, including free, fresh-cooked meals. The organization arrived in Puerto Rico in October and at its peak operated 23 kitchens around the island. They had served 3.3 million meals to date.

En route we stopped to pick up Nelson, who had asked to join us, and Carla Dávila Ortiz, 27, a photographer we’d hired for the day and the daughter of my friend Carlos. I was eager to quiz her about her politics, since her father told me she had pro-independence leanings.

My clumsy inquisition made her squirm, but she explained that the independence movement today was very different from the island’s violent Independenista movement of the ‘50s and ‘60s.

“It’s not Communism,” she said. “But I’m not sure what it is.”

She said a growing animosity toward the U.S. has taken root since hurricanes Irma and Maria, creating a divide between the island’s residents.

“The U.S. is helping, but you can’t see it,” she said. “Some people think they’re helping, but others don’t.”

She paused, then added, “My neighbor got a roof from FEMA last week.”

After the storm, Carla had to live with her parents until she could get a generator for her house in Bayamón. Her electricity was finally restored in late January.

Asked what it was like riding out the storm, she said: “I’ll never forget the sound. I have flashbacks when I feel the wind.”

* * *

At World Central’s kitchen, we were greeted by manager Griselle “Ñaña” Vila, 32, who doled out hairnets, rubber gloves and butcher knives before pointing us to a 5-foot-high rolling rack of raw pork butts. We proceeded to spend the next several hours cutting the meat into chunks. For entertainment we watched the chefs cook up vats of red beans, rice, stew and picadillo, a sort of hash made with ground beef. The food was packed into industrial-sized foil containers and dispersed to volunteers from churches and charities for distribution around the island. Every day the kitchen produced between 5,000 and 6,000 meals.

Puerto Rico

I watched a chef take some of the fat we’d trimmed off the pork, slice it thinly and fry it up into fresh chicharrónes. Standing around the steel table with the chefs after our shift, we devoured the hot, salty flavor bombs, along with cups of rice and stew. It was comforting to know that people in need were eating such delicious, high-quality food.

During a break, we sat outside at a picnic table on the loading dock, and Ñaña joined us. She told us she was a caterer who found herself without a job after Hurricane Maria. Now employed by World Central Kitchen, she started as a volunteer when it was still operating out of the coliseum in San Juan and producing 75,000 meals a day. One day, Ñaña recalled, they made 90,000 meals.

“We would work 12 hours a day cooking food, and we’d forget to eat ourselves,” she said, laughing at the memory. “We would drive home at night and there would be nothing open and we’d be starving.”

Ñaña found herself in a unique position after the storm. Because of her home’s proximity to a major hospital, she discovered she shared its underground power grid. One week after the storm, she had electricity.

“I was ashamed of telling people,” she said. “People would come into work and go, ‘Oh, I don’t have power. I don’t have a shower,’ and I would come in with my hair blow dried.”

She felt especially guilty when she saw parents volunteer at the kitchen just so they could bring their sick children into the air conditioning.

“We saw a lot of things,” she said. “You start to block it because you can’t go on if you take everything in.”

5. ‘All that happened’

Saturday morning I drove 20 miles south of San Juan to visit Carlos’ studio. The 70-foot-long, silver Quonset hut was located on a verdant piece of remote land overlooking Río Cañas.

Here Carlos spent his weekends listening to music — Latin rock, jazz, reggaetón — and painting his 6-foot-tall canvases. Comprised of big, bold gestures and saturated in color, his paintings typically sold for five figures. The abstract pieces he called his “pretty” work, while the figurative work he reserved for social commentary, typically delivered with barbed humor.

“That’s the work I do with a grudge,” he said.

On that day, his grudge was with the fallout from Hurricane Maria. He was working on his new solo show opening this month called “Aftermath,” inspired by “all that happened,” he said.

The show included a series of three-quarter portraits — a tattooed hipster, a big-bottomed woman, a business executive whose necktie doubled as a noose, each of them carrying a red gas can.

After Hurricane Maria, Carlos saw the same thing everywhere he went: “People making lines to get gasoline: the banker, the prostitute, the merchant, the unwed mother with three kids. Everyone needed gas and ice,” he said. He was struck, “seeing how all the social classes were all together with the same mien.”

In a related painting, a military guard was depicted holding a firearm as a long line of people waited to buy gas.

Shocked, I asked him if that really happened.

Puerto Rico

“Absolutely,” he said. “I saw DEA, Fish & Wildlife agents, Oregon State Troopers. They would hold automatic weapons while people stood in line for gas and water.”

I stared at the painting and tried to fathom that level of desperation. Carlos referred to his socially charged paintings as “bullets,” but the longer I looked at it, the more this one felt like a punch to the gut.

In other paintings diesel trucks and electrical towers were rendered in gold to signify their value, and Bounty paper towels loomed large, a reference to President Donald Trump tossing them to hurricane victims on his visit to the island. One painting showed a haunting image of men and women walking toward a horizonless background of pale blue. It was titled “Departure.” I wondered if he thought about his son when he painted it.

Reflecting on Maria, Carlos said, “We have been so lucky throughout my life. Puerto Rico had never been hit like this.” As he spoke, his eyes grew wide and he wore the expression of a man who still couldn’t believe what he’d witnessed. And who could blame him? Hurricane Maria had blown his son 1,500 miles away and his daughter toward radicalism.

Initially Carlos felt shut down after the storm, his voice silenced, but he soon found solace when he began sketching again. And he took matters into his own hands. Tired of waiting for power to be restored to his studio, he installed solar panels. He was not the only one, either. A lot of people he knew had gone solar since the storm.

“People are saying, this ain’t happening to me again,” he said.

6. Tourism dollars needed

I have no illusions that our small volunteer efforts in Puerto Rico made much of an impact. But I do know it made me feel better having done something as opposed to nothing, and it introduced me to some extraordinary individuals whose altruism inspired me. It also confirmed what I already knew: Anyone who thought Puerto Ricans sat around waiting for someone else to help them after Hurricane Maria couldn’t be more wrong.

After I returned home, I got a message from my publisher. The next edition of my travel book had been put on hold until the island had more time to recover. I understood the decision, but I was disappointed, primarily because what Puerto Rico needs most right now is tourist dollars. Tourism is Puerto Rico’s lifeline, and the infrastructure has made a remarkable recovery. The majority of hotels have reopened, restaurants are in business, roads are cleared and the island’s unparalleled natural beauty has been restored. Whenever someone asks me what they can do to help Puerto Rico, I tell them to go there and spend money.

As for people’s spirits, they are still frayed. The symptoms of PTSD from surviving a cataclysmic natural disaster and the mental anguish of living without power for so long has taken a toll. An event this epic will leave an imprint that lasts generations. And I can only imagine the trepidation that will arise when hurricane season starts again in June. So while Puerto Rico may be on its way back to normal, it seems unlikely it will ever be the same.
Story and Photos (except #4) by Suzanne Van Atten
Photo #4 by Carla Davila Ortiz

Published April 15, 2018, in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Click here for a PDF of this article




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