When I was a child I used to lie my head down to sleep while listening to the sound of coqui. It wasn’t because I had wanderlust at the age of eight, it was because Puerto Rico was always such a huge part of my life and my happiness. We took trips back as often as we could because my great-grandparents lived there and my grandmother moved there. When we went back year after year, we created as many memories as there was sand stuck to us while leaving the beach. The memories that I have from my childhood are the memories that I recreate every single time I go back. We would go to our local beach and I would make a new friend each time, I remember once I made a friend who lived fairly close to our Colinas so we met up every single day while I was there. The people are the kindest that you will ever meet and they are also the most resilient.
Our home is on a mountain overlooking the valley in el Yunque and young men would often come by and ask to harvest our coconut palms; after they climbed the trees they always left us a few fresh ones, perfectly cut with the machete. A lot of them sold the coconuts at the beach with drinks in them or a few of the local artisans would create pieces of carved art with them. When we weren’t at the beach we were home, hiking through the forest in between the palms. A short hike into the forest there’s a river and a tiny waterfall; at night when it rains, in between the sounds of the coqui you can hear it rushing through and down the mountainside. And in the morning we would get up with the sun and sit in the hammock while we watched the green parrots fly across the valley. If you looked away for a second you would miss them, I learned quickly to ignore the green lizards on the deck until after we saw the parrots.
Despite how beautiful the island is and all my memories, I would not call it a paradise. There are real problems that the people face and they cannot be ignored, especially now. Puerto Rico had a middle class in the 1970s, but the economy took a hit and we have seen poverty and unemployment worsening ever since (especially after 2006 when US corporations left the island). The reality of the history of the island is that it was colonized by the United States and no real solutions were made or implemented to solve the growing economic problems. I’m not going to say nothing was done because there were policies put into place and public housing, however, the goal was never to get rid of the poverty, the goal was to hide it and increase the tourism areas for people on the mainland. Over 46% of the people live in poverty and the unemployment rate is over 10% which is more than double for the united states. Due to the financial situation, the poverty and debt the island is in, a majority of the island has poor infrastructure. Having a devastating hurricane hit right after another one put the island over the edge. I will say right now before I get into the hurricanes any further; I am still mad and beside myself with how this administration has chosen to handle this crisis and I’ll save that analysis for another day.
Hurricane Irma hit with 180mph winds on Sept 6th, 2017, weakening the infrastructure of the island. It was originally supposed to hit the island directly but the hurricane skimmed the island instead. Not long after this storm, Hurricane Maria hit the island full force directly on September 20th, 2017 with winds of over 175mph. The hurricane devastated the island. There was flooding, catastrophic destruction of homes and any infrastructure that was left after Irma. Roads washed away, bridges and dams collapsed, and peoples lives destroyed.
My great-grandmother and grandmother left el Yunque prior to hurricane season for fear of a, particularly hard season. My great-grandmother is over 90 years old, she would not have been physically able to leave home if a disaster hit her remote community. The days and hours leading up to hurricane Irma I spent watching my phone. Checking Twitter, periscope, and Instagram for any updates. We were relieved to learn the Irma did hit as hard as expected and while there were damage and loss of power and other resources; the damage was manageable. Hurricane Maria was a whole different monster. Again, I followed social media to see if I could find out how our neighbors and friends were doing. Nothing. From the moment that the hurricane hit, there was nothing coming out of the island. No updates, no calls, no photos. Our biggest fear was that our house wouldn’t make it through the hurricane. It’s situated on the side of a mountain in el yunque and we have had concerns about landslides prior to the hurricane. With the destruction that we heard of and saw on television, there was no chance our home survived.
We finally got news that our home made it through the hurricane but it was damaged so we needed to head down to meet with FEMA and the insurance companies. A few weeks after the hurricane hit, I packed up my work boots and sneakers, grabbed my camera and packed extra granola bars, nuts, and water bottles. Looking back I’m so happy that I did pack that extra food and water bottles. I got dropped off at the airport at about 4:30 in the morning and my flight was at 5something. I got on my flight, flew up to Boston and then I got on my connection which will bring me to Puerto Rico. I was flying JetBlue which I go out of my way to book by the way. But I got on my connection and settled in. Turns out the plane was delayed about 45-60 minutes which I was not bothered by at all. The reason why we were delayed was that JetBlue decided to fill the plane with relief supplies which were incredible. The flight down was fine, it just had a very strange vibe the whole time, especially as we got closer to the island. At this point most of San Juan was back to normal life, electricity was working and apparently, cruises were back and running. That’s why the vibe was so strange. People were so excited to get the San Juan to head to their cruise ships and start their vacations, while the other half of the plane was somber and quiet. They were heading back to the island to help family and friends or to see what was left of their homes. The man sitting next to me honestly would not stop talking about how excited he was to get on the cruise and gamble; he even went so far as to say that people were overreacting about the hurricane.
My trip back was only about a week but it felt like the longest trip I have ever taken down there. There’s so much that I can explain and I’ve been writing my real post for months now, trying to come up with the right words to explain everything. I decided that I am going to complete the actual post but for now I’m sharing photos from the trip. If you have questions feel free to ask. As of now, water has been turned back on and few areas in our community now have limited electric. Parts of El Yunque have also begun opening up after the disastrous landslides.