I live in a San Juan suburb, and I’m one of the lucky few who were spared the worst of Hurricane Maria. It’s almost as if this disaster forgot to stop by my house. The reality for the rest of Puerto Rico, however, is far different.
Just two weeks after the storm, the death toll has doubled from 16 to 34, and that number is likely to keep rising. People’s homes have been destroyed or flooded. Some have had their roofs blown away. Some seventy percent of the country remains out of reach. No phone lines, no internet, no access to main roads. Texting, posting on social media or answering emails has become a privilege — and sometimes a nightmare.
Now, we’re focused on adapting.
Each night, I try to return home as late as the government-imposed curfew permits. I spend my nights sitting outside on the sidewalk where it’s cooler, trying to get some fresh air and talking to my neighbors. I wait until I’m sleepy enough to get a few sweaty hours of rest. The nights here are eternal: The heat, the mosquitoes and the buzzing of electric generators keep us up. So do the insecurity and stress.
In the mornings, I plan out every minute of my day. Even the smallest task, like going to the A.T.M. or supermarket, might take hours because of road blocks, traffic jams or endless lines.
Puerto Ricans drive everywhere, even to places that are just a few blocks away. That’s because our transportation system is not particularly reliable and because it’s hot outside. Now my neighbors and I arrange car pools with one another since gasoline is so scarce. But in reality, we’d rather walk because seeing the gas level dwindle is enough to induce a panic attack. Refilling the tank means standing in line all day.
The lines around the island are endless. Hundreds of cars wait for fuel, and some cars have even been towed because they ran out of gas. This is also a problem at supermarkets. But the situation is particularly dire in many rural parts of the island that already had limited access to fresh food.
This is intensified by the lack of traffic lights and the fallen trees and electric power lines that cover the streets. The authorities and ordinary people have taken it upon themselves to remove debris, and thankfully, we can drive through major roads in San Juan.
But on street after street, shops have been destroyed, others are under repair, and even more have closed. Many jobs have been lost and the economy will further deteriorate as Puerto Ricans leave the island. Some have fled because they lost everything and are searching for a new life; some are sick and need medical evacuation; some are skilled professionals looking for work. Others are unwilling to deal with discomfort, and I do not blame them.
However, Hurricane Maria has brought us together. I have met new neighbors and most of us talk to one another every day. We discuss our goings-on, play dominoes and share beers. The streets are lined with yellow extension cords so people can share power from what have become “neighborhood generators.” The traffic in the city is directed by policemen, volunteers and even homeless people. We sleep with the windows open or in a tent or hammock with the small frogs we call coquis serenading us.
Young entrepreneurs have spent the little money they have to clean streets, organize rescue brigades and bring food and water to those who are still incommunicado or who were not as lucky. Artists visit shelters to entertain those who now live there. And those who live off the island have worked tirelessly to send supplies and help get our voices heard. As we say here, “Boricua hasta en la luna!”
A few weeks ago my country was overflowing with generosity and solidarity with the other Caribbean islands devastated by Hurricane Irma. That was a great source of pride. Seeing how we now help one another gives me even more pride.
Josie Arroyo is the founder of Bien Cool, which designs Spanish-language greeting cards.