Puerto Rico on Her Mind: How to Help a Stricken Island Called Home

Puerto Rico on Her Mind: How to Help a Stricken Island Called Home

Hurricanes, some tour operators say, tend to scare away leisure travelers or steer them to other destinations unscathed by the weather as they make plans for winter travel. For every Puerto Rico, St. John, St. Martin, Dominica and other islands ravaged by hurricanes this year, operators said, there’s an Aruba, St. Lucia, Jamaica and other Caribbean spots ready and open for business.

But many loyal visitors, especially those with relatives, friends and property in the affected areas, say they are still planning to travel to their getaways, eager to somehow help out, if only by injecting tourist dollars into battered economies.

That would be me.

I have lived in several states for more than 40 years but was born and raised in San Juan and visit every New Year’s Eve with my husband, Jim. In the agonizing first weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, I learned about the fate of my sister and extended family, including a cousin with Alzheimer’s living in a home for the elderly, at an excruciatingly slow pace and only through sporadic emails, texts, Facebook postings and snippets of phone conversations before the calls dropped. It was hard to sleep at night.

Through a cousin in Texas I found out about another cousin who lives near El Yunque National Forest in the northeast of Puerto Rico. Through another cousin in San Juan I learned about other relatives scattered in both urban and rural areas around the island. All my loved ones were safe, though in survival mode.


El Yunque rain forest in Puerto Rico was severely battered by Hurricane Maria.

Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo for The New York Times

My attention turned then to the touchstones and places that give Puerto Rico its beauty and culture and that I now realize I have taken for granted all my life.

What was left of “El Yunque,” known for its waterfalls and endangered parrots, I wondered? I later learned that the 28,000-acre treasure, El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States forest system and a major driver of the island’s tourism, was obliterated.

What about the restaurants and kiosks nearby along Luquillo Beach — Jibaro’s, Terruño, La Parrilla — always good for fritters like alcapurrias, home cooking and music after a day in the sun? Was Old San Juan still recognizable? Did the ice cream place with the long lines for the freshly made waffle cones, Mantecaditos Los Chicos, survive in Culebra, the Puerto Rican island municipality to the east? What was the damage to the delicate bioluminescent bay in Vieques, another island municipality?

What did Hurricane Maria not annihilate? How long would it take for it all to come back?

Ms. Westerman, who eventually confirmed the well-being of both her neighbors and condo and who has been mailing checks to some friends to help them cope, said she planned to see for herself.

She and her husband were planning to go back this year for their usual December to mid-April stay in Boquerón, a beach village in the town of Cabo Rojo on the southwestern tip of the island, with one condition — they will not fly down until the electricity is back on.


La Mina Falls in El Yunque before the hurricanes.

Laura Magruder for The New York Times

“If worst comes to worst we go a month later,” she said.

Restored power was a big “if,” though. By early November, more than a month after the hurricane hit, the power company was generating less than 40 percent of electricity, government figures showed. Close to 20 percent of the island was without running water and about a third without telecommunication services.

The Army Corps of Engineers, charged by the White House to rebuild the power system, has warned that total power restoration could take nearly a year, partly because of the challenge of getting supplies like utility poles quickly to an island.

Neighboring St. Thomas and St. John in the United States Virgin Islands had not fared much better.

“Power lines are strewn across our roads; utility poles snapped in half like matchsticks; boats lie sunken in the harbors; many thousands of our homes stand heavily damaged or destroyed and some of our major road systems are impassable,” Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp of the United States Virgin Islands wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Congress, estimating that rebuilding would cost $5.5 billion.

Both governors in the American Caribbean — Puerto Rico with a population of 3.4 million, and the United States Virgin Islands, with about 110,000 residents — have optimistically said that nearly all power should be back by Christmas because of a ramp-up in restoration work.

In the meantime, tourism officials, hoteliers and others in the service industry were scrambling to get hotels, beaches and tourist attractions back on their feet to salvage at least part of their peak tourist season, a crucial economic engine that runs from mid-November to April 1.


Luis Menendez, a postal worker, delivers mail at an area affected by Hurricane Maria in the island of Vieques, P.R.

Carlos Barria/Reuters

But while cruise ship traffic has been rebounding, top hotels in Puerto Rico like El San Juan Hotel and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, shut down because of damages and many of those that remained open with the help of generators were housing workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency and local government officials have warned against bathing in beaches, rivers and streams because of possible raw sewage discharges as a result of hurricane damage to treatment plants.

In St. Thomas and St. John, major hotels have closed for 6 to 18 months and officials expected a significant decline in overnight visitors.

“We lost the last quarter of the year,” said Beverly Nicholson Doty, commissioner of tourism for the United States Virgin Islands.

It is true that tourism-dependent islands have been able to recover quickly after hurricanes, even if visitors have to look at topless palm trees. When I reported from St. Thomas, St. Martin (divided into French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten) and Antigua less than two months after Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, I found varying degrees of progress, but much of the tourist industry was ready for visitors and some tourists were trickling back.


Vieques, P.R. before Hurricane Maria.

Dennis M. Rivera Pichardo/Associated Press

But tourism officials in the American Caribbean acknowledged that Irma, which made landfall in the Virgin Islands on Sept. 6 as a Category 5 hurricane, and Maria, which hit Puerto Rico barely short of that magnitude as a Category 4, were like no other hurricanes in recent history because of their power and overwhelming reach. In Puerto Rico, hardly a corner of the island was spared its destruction, officials said.

José Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, said that such impact has led the agency to appeal to new types of travelers. One local tour operator that the agency has partnered up with, Local Guest, planned to take volunteers to mountainous regions where brigades of about 15 people each could plant crops of coffee and root vegetables, rebuild bridges and homes and help in other recovery efforts.

Some travel companies, like Global Works Travel, are signing up high school students to visit in 2018 and combine community service with a vacation.

Mr. Izquierdo said that he also expected more Puerto Ricans to visit from the mainland, perhaps those who had not visited in several years and were anxious to reunite with relatives on the island after the disaster. The local newspapers have noted the influx and I personally know friends who headed for the island as soon as flights became available to bring supplies and money and to check up on relatives. (By the same token, others were hosting Puerto Rican friends and relatives escaping the hardships of the island temporarily in New York and New Jersey.)

“A hurricane like this changes the profile of tourists,” Mr. Izquierdo said. “The diaspora now takes a greater prominence.”


A boat destroyed by Hurricane Irma in St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Erika P. Rodriguez for The New York Times

Within days of the hurricanes, volunteers started showing up in St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, where the organization All Hands Volunteers set up operations in the gym at the Kingdom Life International Christian Center in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie.

The disaster relief group, based in Massachusetts, had received more than 1,600 applications by the end of October but can accommodate only about 70 volunteers at any given time in spartan quarters. People can come for as long as they want to work in cleanup, mold remediation, building temporary classrooms and permanent reconstruction, among other efforts.

Erik Dyson, All Hands executive director and chief executive, said the organization planned to extend its work to Puerto Rico by early 2018.

“Anyone can help,” he said. “There’s a need for people to carry things. There’s a lot of not highly skilled jobs.”

One volunteer who arrived in early November, Sid Sharma, 48, of Allen, Tex., spent his honeymoon 26 years ago in St. Thomas, which he remembered as “lush, green and beautiful.” A general contractor who does residential remodeling, he committed to three weeks of volunteer work.


A red starfish in the crystalline waters of Vieques, P.R.

Laura Magruder for The New York Times

“Seeing the devastation on the news, I just had a little time on my hands and a push from my heart,” said Mr. Sharma, who is still married and the father of two children. “This is something that I should be doing.”

Regular visitors to the Virgin Islands like Joanne Barker, a resident of Washington who last went to St. John in January, have found ways to send care packages directly to those in need. Ms. Barker said she was shopping in October to fill up boxes with items like baby powder milk formula and diapers after being paired up with families through a siteAdopt a Family in USVI — that matches donors to specific people.

“At least you’re doing something,” she said. “You just feel so helpless up here.”

Tourism officials say they have not totally given up on leisure travelers. Mr. Izquierdo noted that big attractions like Old San Juan suffered only “minimal” structural damage (although it lost many trees).

And, he added: “At the core of every successful tourism destination is the quality of the people and hospitality, and that wasn’t washed away by the hurricane. That’s stronger than ever.”

But some in the tourism industry warned that a minimum level of services is required to lure travelers back. Jack Richards, president and chief executive of Pleasant Holidays in Los Angeles, which books trips for 23 countries in the Caribbean, said that the destination must have electricity, phone service, internet, clean water and medical supplies — and no public health issues.


A banner on the Caribe Hilton Hotel in San Juan with the Puerto Rican flag and the Spanish word strength one month after Hurricane Maria.

Carlos Giusti/Associated Press

“Given the level of devastation in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Richards said, “it’ll take a long time for things to get restored.”

Puerto Rico residents like my younger sister, Mari Navarro, and two nephews were still living day to day in a kind of surreal, stressed-out world as November approached. Our family home in San Juan, not far from the airport, suffered only minor damages except for the landscaping, which was gone. But without electricity Mari was cooking on a small gas stove, washing clothes and towels by hand and using flashlights to see at night.

My sister had prepared well for Hurricane Maria, but supplies were running low and she asked me to send D batteries for flashlights and a battery-powered fan. She had to line up for food and bottled water at stores.

She was back on the job as an account executive with a health insurer but she avoided driving except to work, she told me, because most traffic lights were not working. On a recent outing, two cars in front of her had crashed into each other, setting off a panic attack.

“I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head, that we’re all working and that we’re doing better than a lot of people,” she told me over the phone, “but sometimes it’s hard not to get depressed.”

Then she burst into tears. And I teared up too.

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