What Hurricane Maria taught me about the people of Puerto Rico

Ismael Freytes, 69, removes muddy debris as he tries to clean out his house in Arecibo, where the local river poured into the streets after Hurricane Maria. [CARL JUSTE?| Miami Herald]
Ismael Freytes, 69, removes muddy debris as he tries to clean out his house in Arecibo, where the local river poured into the streets after Hurricane Maria. [CARL JUSTE?| Miami Herald]
Published Sept. 27, 2017

SAN JUAN — After Hurricane Maria took their roof, water and electricity — but spared their chickens — Ana De Jesús and Santiago Quiñones packed a few basics and moved across the street into their windowless beachside kiosk.

The ocean breeze fluttered in through the pink walls. They powered a generator only in the late afternoon and overnight to keep cold the kiosk's surviving treasure: a three-day supply of beer.

They had nothing else for sale. Piñones, a picturesque strip of sand east of San Juan known for its fried street food, appeared deserted, Route 187 covered by felled palm trees and so much sand it looked like a dirt road, even though it is paved.

The couple offered visitors Medalla, Corona, Heineken, Busch Light, Coors — "Everything!" Quiñones said proudly. And when the visitors stayed awhile, De Jesús unexpectedly brought out a plate of munchies: cubed cheese and guava paste, ringed with Saltine crackers.

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It was the most comforting of staple Caribbean snacks, the kind my Cuban grandfather used to assemble for me as a child after school, and the sight of it almost made me cry.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were generous.

• • •

We'd just navigated across the deepest — and most foul-smelling — flood we'd seen yet with our rented Hyundai Grand Santa Fe. The nearby town of Loíza, the spiritual and cultural center of the Afro-Puerto Rican community, was under water, its isolated people tired and thirsty and hungry.

"Are you from FEMA?" asked a man on a bicycle.

"Are you from FEMA?" asked a woman sitting on her porch.

"Are you from FEMA?" asked a woman who crossed the street when she saw us.

No, I said apologetically. No. No.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were desperate.

• • •

María Iris Rivera — the woman who crossed the street — grabbed my hand.

"I'm going to show you my house," she said. "I'm going to show you what we lost."

The wind took her roof and left her little abode in shambles, perhaps none of it salvageable. Her niece, María Navarro, whose second story was dry, took Rivera in — along with at least five other relatives, seven cats, four dogs, two parrots and two cockatiels.

West of San Juan, in the city of Arecibo, cars slowed as they approached a Gulf station bustling with people. Was there gas?

No — just a small army of employees, friends and family stuffing black garbage bags with the unrecognizable entrails of the station's convenience store and pharmacy. Everything dripped with thick mud. The Arecibo River had burst in and ravaged all property in its path. As evidence, locals pointed to the walls of homes and businesses along Route 2, most smeared with brown up to seven or maybe 10 feet high.

"We have gas," owner Ivis González said. But her generator flooded too, so she didn't have power to get pumps working.

Her team, clad in thin gloves, stepped gingerly over the detritus, which included a dead fish on the sidewalk, and swept away the mud with brooms, brushes, their feet.

After Hurricane Maria, the people of Puerto Rico were industrious.

• • •

Further west, in the town of Quebradillas, where a crack in a dam loomed as a catastrophic threat that could wipe out the region's water supply, the mayor and emergency manager told me three days after the storm that their only line of communication with the island's government was a radio.

On Saturday, the town sent an employee to San Juan to make contact with the governor's office and plead for a satellite phone. On Sunday, the governor's administration said it still hadn't gotten in touch Quebradillas Mayor Heriberto Vélez.

After Hurricane Maria, the government of Puerto Rico was overwhelmed.

• • •

Even in San Juan, where life resumed in fits and starts, generators conked out from overuse. Many had been running since before Hurricane Irma, a stretch of nearly three weeks. At least one functioning stalwart of a hotel full of foreign and local guests ran out of water bottles, stopped offering mofongo due to a scarcity of plantains, and saw most of its air conditioning and both of its elevators fail.

Crushed by debt and slammed by two back-to-back storms, Puerto Rico's ability to return to any semblance of normality appeared months and months away. People routinely violated a curfew, certain that police had better things to do than go after them. On Saturday, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló threatened six months' jail time for those who get caught. Cops arrested more than a dozen people for looting.

Soon, food, water and medicine stocked for the hurricane will begin to run out. And Puerto Ricans — 3.4 million American citizens disconnected from their loved ones and the world, unaware of goings-on in Mexico City, North Korea, the NFL sidelines — will probably, and understandably, become more anxious and frustrated.

Yet, during my six days on the island, the people of Puerto Rico remained characteristically sunny. In the San Juan neighborhood of Miramar, outside a convenience store that opened soon after the storm, Melanie Pérez poked fun at the salt-ridden shopping choices and wondered aloud if the hurricane would help her finally quit smoking.

"Why spend 10 pesos on cigarettes?" she asked. "What I want to do is help. I want to know where I can show up and be most useful."

A couple of blocks away, La Bodeguita Verde de Lima, an eco-friendly foodie store, displayed plywood shutters encouraging the island to bounce back. "Vamos Puerto Rico carajo!!!" one of them read. Let's go, Puerto Rico, damn it.

Read another: "No one separates us, in good times or in bad."

Contact Patricia Mazzei at Follow @PatriciaMazzei.