Recovery and resilience in Puerto Rico
Less than a month away from the start of the next hurricane season, Puerto Ricans are continuing to be immersed in efforts to restore the island.
Syrmarie Villalobos, journalist at Telemundo 62, spoke with AL DIA last week from San Juan, Puerto Rico, telling us about her recent trip around the island and describing the situation faced by many Puerto Ricans on the ground.
It has been seven months since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, but the population of the island as well as thousands of evacuees that are now living far from their homes on the U.S. mainland are continuing to confront the aftermath of the disaster. After another blackout two weeks ago, the call for help and the necessity for recognition of the island’s conditions has been forcibly renewed and reinforced.
According to Villalobos, who prior to this trip had already seen Puerto Rico post-Maria during a visit to the island just two months ago, the current situation remains grave for many Puerto Ricans.
Villalobos reported that “there are still between 40 and 50 thousand families without access to electricity, and because of that it’s a huge challenge, both for them and for the government. It also is true that for the more isolated populations, those that live in the mountains, or perhaps the regions to the east, are those that have most suffered from the impact of the hurricane.”
All of this means that it will be more complicated for the government to meet its stated goal of having 100% of the energy on the island restored before May 31, said Villalobos.
The lack of electricity has continued to be a big problem for many island residents, but has proven to be a dire need for those with medical conditions, explained Villalobos, citing the case of a woman she was able to interview who found herself without the electricity necessary to make her dialysis machine work — a medical necessity which she depends on in order to live. For fourth months after the hurricane, the woman had to utilize a manual treatment method due to the lack of electricity to be able to use the machine, but this aggravated a separate heart condition which she also suffers from.
“She told me that her life was saved thanks to a nonprofit organization called Casa Pueblo, that installed some solar panels that allowed her dialysis machine to be turned on the 11 hours she needed to be connected to it every day,” said Villalobos, highlighting the fact that there have been other similar cases of people with medical conditions who, “thanks to solar panels, have been able to survive.”
However, in spite of the efforts of these kinds of organizations and initiatives on the island, the difficulties encountered by many people with or without medical conditions remain severe.
Casa Pueblo, similar to many other humanitarian aid organizations that have worked hard to rebuild Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, “is doing this work thanks to the donations of Puerto Ricans and Latin Americans in the United States who have sent everything from lightbulbs to solar panels and batteries, and everything else that is necessary.”
“And this organization has dedicated themselves to making sure electricity reaches precisely those mountainous regions that are more difficult for the government to connect to the power grid, making it possible for them to work,” said Villalobos.
Daily life for many Puerto Ricans is still very difficult, reported Villalobos — so much so that for many Puerto Ricans, “the simple fact of taking a shower with hot water is a luxury.”
The journalist explained that many people are still without power, and are depending on solar light bulbs and flashlights, are forced to make coffee in pots over a fire, heat water for bathing, and dress in lighter clothing in order to make it easier to wash clothes by hand and dry them outside, since without electricity no one is able to use a washer or a dryer. To charge electronic devices, the only alternative is to plug them in and charge them in vehicles an hour or so at a time.
Even those that have the fortune of having access to electric generators are generally only able to use them for 4-5 hours a day, and still have to constantly go to the supermarket or the local store because they aren’t able to keep the generator turned on long enough for adequate refrigeration to preserve food.
All of these imposed adjustments have affected every aspect of daily life - especially for those who are already lacking in resources.
“Those that are most affected are the poorest people on the island,” said Villalobos, adding that “this hurricane has shown another side of the poverty of Puerto Rico.”
According to Villalobos, the objective of the government has been to not only repair the energy grid, but rather “convert it into a stronger system, to try to avoid that this ever happens again.”
But this overhaul requires significant changes, and could last at least three to five years in implementation, and, as Villalobos noted, the fact that “we are already a month away from the start of the new hurricane season” means that completing restoration efforts and bolstering the system before hurricane season is as urgent as ever.
Villalobos, who is herself Puerto Rican, acknowledged that though her immediate family was spared the severest effects of the hurricane, some of her relatives lost everything and only regained power as of a few weeks ago.
The journalist added that among the many things that have gone unremarked and unnoticed on the mainland about the current situation in Puerto Rico is the fact that it has been very difficult to obtain certain medicines and drugs, owing to the damaged infrastructure and the fact that the production of medicine that takes places in factories on the island itself has been delayed. Aside from this, there are various supplies and foods that have been unavailable for months due to the fact that the island’s agro-industry was in good part completely destroyed by the hurricane.
One of the biggest challenges that many Puerto Ricans are confronting is that of reconstructing their houses to be able to return. On April 20 FEMA extended the vouchers for housing that hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees have been using to live in hotels, motels, or other forms of lodging until May 14, but the future for many Puerto Rican families who fled to the mainland after the hurricane remains uncertain.
Many of those that are living in the U.S. have not been able to return because they have nowhere to go, said Villalobos. “And many of them have been at the point of sleeping in the streets in the U.S., because the aid from FEMA was not extended until the last minute.”
She added that many are calling “on authorities to extend this deadline, and also activate other financial aid for those that do have a home awaiting them and want to return to the island.”
In spite of the challenges that they are confronting on the island, Villalobos said that in the course of her visit to Puerto Rico she observed at least a few small signs of hope.
“During these months, the natural world has been renewed. Everything is a little cleaner and looks a little more like how it was before the hurricane,” said Villalobos.