Like most members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, I couldn’t reach my family and friends on the island for more than a week after Hurricane Maria made landfall on Sept. 20. All I had to work with was a quick phone call my mother’s neighbor had made to my sister. The neighbor said that my mother and my aunt had ridden out the storm together, that they were basically fine. My mother’s home, made of sturdy concrete, was intact.
My sister, her husband and I spent several days booking flights to San Juan that wound up being canceled. We were finally able to get one in early October. I’d been poring over media images of the destruction, but I was still shaken by what I confronted as we drove the 25 miles or so from the capital to my mother’s home near the El Yunque rain forest.
Everywhere were dystopic vistas of piled debris: pieces of zinc roofs, cracked porcelain fixtures, discarded mattresses and an uninterrupted line of tropical trees stripped, snapped and splintered like matchsticks.
The catastrophic effects of the storm, which have arguably been exacerbated by the slow and indifferent response of the federal government, left the island and its residents battered yet defiant. They are facing a yearslong process of recovery.
Many of Puerto Rico’s existing problems — its $72 billion municipal bond debt, archaic and brittle electrical energy infrastructure and health care collapse — have accelerated in a scary fashion because of the hurricane. While hundreds of thousands are predicted to move to the mainland United States, there are many who can’t or won’t, and they are holding on tightly to a tradition of community-based acts of survival. Listening to those stories of survival, told in the particular singsong that characterizes the island accent, resonated with me as if they were my own.
María Maldonado, who lives in Alto del Cabro barrio, just a few minutes’ walk from the tony Condado tourist district, lost the roof of her house. She’s in the process of submitting a loan application to the government but first must prove that the ownership of the house she grew up in has passed hands from her father, who is no longer living, to her.
“I had spent years repairing the roof, spent $4,000 on it, but Maria came in and tore open the zinc like the lid off a tin can,” she told me. FEMA declared her house a total loss.
Ilda Sánchez and Alberto Luquis found a crocodile in their flooded house in Caño Martín Peña, a Santurce neighborhood of the working poor who settled along a canal that once nourished mangroves.
The neighborhood was precarious before the storm; people feared displacement by tourism developments, as had happened in the 1980s in a nearby neighborhood. The hurricane’s destruction will encourage people to move along even faster, leaving behind a community that came to exist because of rural displacement after hurricanes in the early 20th century.
Just as the hurricanes did then, this storm exposed the dividing lines between well-off Puerto Ricans and those in need. In the San Juan metro area, cafes, bars and restaurants are running at half-speed with diesel generators. Just an hour’s drive into the countryside, communities are cut off from sustainable supplies of food, water and medication.
Near Mameyes, the town at the foot of the mountains that are home to El Yunque rain forest, I saw people washing their clothes by hand in the Espiritu Santo River, returning to a 19th-century reality that didn’t depend on electrical appliances. Up the road, a brigade of workers struggled to restore fallen lines. The grid, already in trouble before the storm, had been shattered. Everyone, no matter their political orientation or desire for statehood or independence, had been plunged into the darkness of no cellular signal or internet. They knew about as much about their relatives elsewhere on the island as people stateside did.
As I drove around the island, I kept seeing Puerto Ricans who had pulled over on the side of the road, standing in just the right spot where a stray signal could be caught, and a few precious words with a loved one could be stolen from the trauma of extreme weather dislocation.
I gave my mother a smartphone a few years ago, in an effort to edge her closer to tech savviness. She was a bit reluctant then, but now, I saw sadness in her eyes over not being able to reach anyone or anything with her phone. We’d come down with the intent to bring her back to New York, at least for a few months, and after a brief moment of regret, she finally agreed.
With so much loss, there was a gain, though. The community organized so quickly, with brigades clearing the roads and tending to the elderly, the sick and those who’d lost the roof over their heads. Some time may pass before cell towers restore the virtual community, but now, more than ever, the actual community is resoundingly “presente.”