San Juan Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico a little over two years ago on September 17, 2017, with more force as a Cat-5 storm than any in the recorded history of the island. In San Juan, the damage seemed slight and hardly noticeable. Once on the highways crisscrossing the island to Ponce, the second largest city, and up the coast to Guanica, and later to the smaller island of Culebra, it was harder to ignore. Major highway toll roads would go from smooth to pocked within miles. Blue tarps still dotted the neighborhoods with some houses abandoned.
After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans fifteen years ago and, in the aftermath, I wrote a book, published in 2011, The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, Rebuilding New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster. I was curious whether or not we had really learned lessons and how they were implemented. The news from Puerto Rico had not been encouraging. On the two-year anniversary, the New York Times had reported,
With Puerto Rico still in the throes of a debt crisis and hurting from a 12-year economic recession, there is no money set aside for a study to identify the estimated 2,975 people who died as a result of the hurricane, [Wanda] Vázquez, Puerto Rico’s governor, told local reporters. Federal funds have yet to come in for a single permanent road reconstruction project, reported El Nuevo Día, Puerto Rico’s largest newspaper. The island municipality of Vieques still does not have a hospital. Up to 30,000 homes remain covered by blue roof tarps that were supposed to be temporary — about half the number of houses under tarps at the time of the one-year anniversary a year ago.
The clearest lesson of Katrina had been that the money had to get on the ground quickly. The grade on that lesson in Puerto Rico is a big, fat F.
I talked to Willie Cosme frequently after the storm, at least as frequently as was possible, since the entire island was without electricity and internet for many months. We sat in the back of the Poetry Passage in Old San Juan on Wade’s World to get his reactions. Willie lived and worked in Arkansas for thirty-seven years and brought Spanish language programming and his great show, Salsa from A to Z, to KABF thirty years ago and continues to be a volunteer engineer for AM/FM remotely from the center of the island. He said that people were hopeful the recovery money was coming soon, and that it appeared their federal monitor would release it finally. Puerto Ricans were “resilient,” he said, and population was increasing again after so many had been forced to flee to the United States without recovery. There were plans to rebuild the electricity grid in regions rather than the one-grid system that had plunged the island into darkness, but some wanted to privatize the system. No infrastructure money had made it difficult to rebuild roads, hospitals, schools.
People may have been resilient, but they weren’t happy, particularly at the government and the governor. Two weeks of protests had forced his resignation. The island’s attorney general, Wanda Vasquez, had been the last one standing. Willie thought she had done a good job, partially because, not having been elected, she was forced to work with both major parties, not just her own, the Progressives, the traditional statehood party. Elections are in November 2020, and though Vasquez had said she would not run, the new support and the public’s growing intolerance for corruption and ineffective government, might change her mind.
It seems trivial to say that Puerto Rico’s recovery is a work-in-progress, especially since much of the work has not even begun to progress, but my companero, Willie Cosme, is cautiously optimistic. Few lessons have been learned, but once again people prove that we all live the words of the old Donna Summers song, and “we will survive.”