The nights are long in Puerto Rico these days. On hot nights, my wife, Nieves, and I spend hours sitting in the patio, sometimes taking showers at 3 a.m. Cooler nights come with rainfall that worsens the still-roofless homes. Of course, there’s still no electricity. A month later, Hurricane Maria is still with us.
We are holding out in our empty nest (our two daughters live in the States). Easy to say, perhaps: Our middle-class San Juan suburb did not feel the worst of the hurricane, and our flat-roofed house collects rain water easily. Except for piles of debris awaiting pickup, our neighborhood looks pretty normal. For now, I am lucky to have my university salary, and classes are set to resume soon.
On days I can get my laptop charged, I do some work at night. I’m reading histories of hurricanes and trying to write something about these juggernauts “that seem to announce the last convulsions of the universe,” as an 18th-century friar described major hurricanes such as Maria.
I’m told that the news coverage of Puerto Rico shows devastation and astonishing, heart-rending images from around the island. Puerto Rico finally makes big news — bigger even than our debt crisis — and most of us saw almost none of it.
This has been hard to take in a home where the 6:30 p.m. news is a daily ritual, not to mention “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” and “Saturday Night Live.” Even the local newspapers shut down for several days after the storm. In the past week, cellphone service has been improving, but reception is still spotty and slow even in San Juan. And I refuse to line up on an expressway bridge to catch a signal, as many continue to do.
Puerto Rico used to glow in satellite photos, but it won’t have electricity for months. That’s how long it will take to replace the thousands of utility poles and miles of power lines that crisscrossed this precariously modern island. The gasoline lines are shorter, but one month after Hurricane Maria, one-quarter of Puerto Rico still doesn’t have clean drinking water, including many who haven’t had it since Hurricane Irma.
Supermarket food shelves are still unevenly stocked, especially outside the San Juan metro area. A complex distribution snafu persists, on account of low pre-existing inventories, FEMA operations, and difficulties in communications and transportation. There are many communities in the highlands that have been isolated by fallen bridges, impassable roads and landslides. Above all, they are the ones that need food and water.
The island government initially portrayed its response as organized, but it has been overwhelmed by the tasks of post-hurricane recovery. Information is opaque, slow to emerge and often contradictory. Key officials such as the head of emergency management, the police superintendent and the adjutant general of the National Guard are virtually missing in action; for weeks, the health secretary was so elusive it became a running joke on the radio.
FEMA and the Army Corps of Engineers, despite major funding and overall good will, seem somewhat detached from the island’s reality. And the nearly $5 billion loan requested for the island is generous but will essentially only salvage the government’s liquidity until January or so.
And so it goes. Even with growing access to news coverage, we remain in the dark.
At home, we are getting by, so to speak. Days after Hurricane Maria, my wife woke up thinking this is perhaps a nightmare. I try to assume our new reality with a kind of mindless optimism — a self-reliant Puerto Rico is being born! Or not. Perhaps an unplugged Puerto Rico for months on end may really be a nightmare.
Puerto Rico was hit by natural disaster on top of fiscal disaster on top of our secular disaster of being neither fish nor fowl: voteless United States citizens, most of whom pay no federal income tax; political and fiscal oddities. Second-class citizens with a second-class disaster. At best, we’re seen as American citizens but not as Americans. Which, truth be told, doesn’t make me lose any sleep; what I am is Puerto Rican. In any case, as a territory, and for better or for worse, the Constitution places Puerto Rico under the responsibility of Congress. Maybe invading us in 1898 wasn’t such a great idea.
We’re facing months of daily inconveniences and nightly darkness. But we’re dealing with it, with whatever outside help we can muster. Once again we have to come to terms with being one of the Caribbean peoples on the hurricane highway, who, through slavery, colonialism and hurricanes, invented resilience.
Juan Giusti-Cordero is a professor of Caribbean history at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras.