With almost no power and shortages of water and medicine, this island is full of people suffering from PTSD.
By Ed Morales
October 13, 2017
San Juan—As Donald Trump’s rule-by-disinformation strategy intensifies, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, a reeling Puerto Rico is becoming more of a sideshow for his callous stereotyping and ruthlessness. He is subjecting the island’s citizens to layers of anguish, at once revealing the resourcefulness of a sturdy rural culture and the banality of government by public relations. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are suffering that all-too-human affliction, the desperate need to connect.
One of the enduring images from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria is people crowded together near outposts of cable or wireless companies, trying to get a signal so they can communicate. By now most people know that their friends and loved ones have survived; that they may in some cases have water but almost never electricity; that they may need precious medications, or may have stood online at their local pharmacy for hours to get them; that they may have lost all or part of the roof to their home. Survivors have seen their neighborhoods strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, discarded mattresses, and refrigerators; have spent hours trying to get cash out of the few working ATMs in their area or—now a less common complaint—waiting in a gas line.
Sustaining contact on an island littered with fallen power lines and cell-phone towers is difficult, and it contributes to a pervasive feeling of disconnection and chaos. This island is full of people suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine finally reaching the remote mountaintop home of a close friend or relative, who sits there with a municipal government–issued packet of crackers, applesauce, and bottled water, looking up at you watery-eyed and saying, “I was wondering whether you even wanted to talk to me anymore.” The disconnection has exposed the inadequate response of the federal government as well as Puerto Rico’s executive branch, led by Governor Ricky Rosselló.
“The problem is that Hurricane Irma allowed the local government to exploit public relations and say ‘Look how well we responded to the storm; this has been a success,’” said Heriberto Martínez, an economist, radio host, and occasional political consultant, in a packed San Juan cafe. “Apparently they wanted to maintain the same standard after Hurricane Maria, and when they realized it was unmanageable, they started to look for help outside, but they wasted a week already. What has happened in that week was the self-efforting of the people, who went out on the streets with tools and small cranes to clear streets and roads.”
So it was with Melvin Encarnación, a neighbor of my mother’s in Barrio Barcelona, a remote community near the El Yunque Rain Forest. Just a day after Maria hit, he organized a brigade of local residents to clear with machetes the road that connected with 191, the artery that leads to the entrance of the rain forest park. After hours of work in hot, humid conditions, they trekked up 191 to a well that was operated by barrio residents, cutting through an intense tangle of flayed foliage. Within days of the hurricane, water was restored, just as it was in the days following Irma.
Puerto Rico has a rickety infrastructure, with an electrical grid powered by fossil fuels and tied together by a system of highways and roads that make transportation by anything other than gas-consuming vehicles inconvenient. Puerto Ricans today, unlike the islanders who slowly emerged from two powerful hurricanes in 1928 and 1932, cannot simply go back to the land. We must think carefully about how to rebuild by drawing more on the island’s natural resources—our fertile land and deep maritime ports—and connecting communities with solar and wind energy, rather than merely rebuilding what had already existed.
Martínez calls this economía ecológica, an economic system that is a subset of an ecological system. We have to recognize that what used to be considered a positive development from a traditional economic perspective—say, a garbage incinerator—generates a negative social cost and thus actually fosters underdevelopment. The idea of ecological economy that Martínez and University of Puerto Rico (UPR) economist Joseph Vogel have promoted could be applied to two crucial areas: the battered agricultural sector and the energy-production sector.
Meanwhile, the collapse of the communications system has contributed to the distortion of politics here and the meager and insulting responses from the Trump administration. The president’s visit will be remembered, of course, for the infamous paper towel–tossing photo op, his series of inane comments about how the recovery effort has been going, and the use of the military. While military vehicles have been helpful in distributing diesel fuels as well as the generators dependent on diesel, the Army’s presence has generated nonplussed reactions from locals—a far cry from the visceral, welcoming response to the stories of sacrifice and survival of community members.
The Class and Geographical Divide
The longstanding rift between metro San Juan and its far-flung municipalities is clearer after Maria, as urban areas like Condado and Guaynabo have their power slowly return, while the countryside remains blanketed in darkness and, often, desperation. Puerto Rico is famous for its gated communities, but in many cities and towns the social divide is marked by a kind of convivencia, or “living together,” where better-off residents live in close quarters with their poorer neighbors. This is evident in San Juan, where the posh Ocean Park community, which was flooded for days, is just a block or two away from neighborhoods like Barrio Machuchal, which has a large elderly and poor population.
One of the borders between Machuchal and Ocean Park is Calle Loíza, which is currently undergoing a renaissance not unlike that of Bushwick, Brooklyn, with cafes and art galleries driving a vibrant youth-culture scene. Mariana Reyes, who is the leader of La Calle Loíza, Inc., a nonprofit that tries to keep a reverence for local residents and Afro-Caribbean culture in the midst of the area’s revitalization, is a bit rattled when I meet her at a Chinese restaurant across the street from the apartment she shares with her husband, folkloric plena musician Héctor Matos. She has been using the organizational capability of La Calle Loíza to help send out volunteers to take inventory on what residents need, often trying to connect with relief efforts of diaspo-Ricans on the mainland.
“We’re trying to get a mattress for one of our 90-year-old neighbors,” she said, visibly strained from both Irma and Maria. “We organized a brigade of construction workers in the neighborhood to clear the streets—anything we can do.” She and her husband were also in the process of raising funds for the bar-restaurant they own and operate, which is ironically called La Junta, the same sobriquet used for the Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB), which currently controls Puerto Rico’s budgetary process and debt restructuring. The restaurant was named after a group of ex-UPR students who coalesced in New York in the 1990s: university professors, artists, and workers who remain in contact as they participate in a circular migration between New York and Puerto Rico.
“It’s hard,” said Reyes, who was tending to her small child as Matos spoke to the Jazz Foundation of America, who seemed willing to donate to repair the major damage to La Junta, which also doubles as a music and theater performance space. “We are people with some means, though by no means wealthy; but I think about the average people who live here. The people we employ are mostly at the poverty level and now have no job and no source of income, and maybe the roof flew off their house. What are they going to do?” Reyes worries how—after the gasoline shortage and diesel-distribution problems are solved, and ATMs and hospitals struggle back to full operation—people will react to a new normal of shuttered businesses that will not recover; neighbors lost to illness, death, and migration; and the prospect of sporadic electricity and spotty cellular service.