Puerto Rico, a tale of two tempests

Tale of Two Tempests

By Elizabeth Ferszt, Copyright December 15, 2017   “Sit still, and hear the last of our sea-sorrow. . . this sea-storm . . . this tempest” – William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611).

A Tale of Two Tempests

[Note: This is not a study but a story; and this is not quantitative research but rather qualitative observations of my four days as freelance researcher and writer, in the San Juan area only – Dec. 4-8, 2017, to observe and record how business and daily life seems to be getting on in the capital of Puerto Rico. All impressions (and photos) are my own and do not represent ASU or any other entity. However, I am informed and influenced by the values of my University and take them with me as travel, talk to people, write, and take pictures. As a college Instructor of Business Writing, I am always looking for examples of innovation and entrepreneurship to share with my students, particularly in the tech services and light manufacturing/design sectors.]

Prior to traveling to Puerto Rico, I asked myself this simple question: What do I hope to accomplish in San Juan? Answer: Observe the aftermath of Hurricane Maria almost three months later. Document what conditions are like on the ground; in particular, do they have electricity, water, cellphone service, wifi, food, roads, schools, hospitals, and other infrastructure such as public transportation and bridges. I would have to talk to locals. I would look for opportunities for entrepreneurship and/or joint ventures between public and private partnerships. I would ask: What do people still need? It was an ambitious yet simple plan, and I thought that maybe I could pitch it to Bloomberg or Huffington Post as a ‘guest’ piece. But on the very week I was in Puerto Rico, I got scooped by Bloomberg Businessweek (12/7/17), in a story by Nick Leiber about the negative effects of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Rico, and in particular, on the business community in San Juan – see: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-12-07/puerto-rico-s-slow-hurricane-recovery-is-suffocating-small-business

It’s a good article, but some of what Bloomberg covers is not completely accurate, which I will explain in part below. Another more recent story came out on Marketplace (NPR, 12/12/17) which started with the claim that “Puerto Rico has no capacity to make any debt payments in the next ten years, which means some kind of debt restructuring or forgiveness may be inevitable.” In other words, a form of bankruptcy may be in the works. According to reporter Ryan Kailath, Puerto Rico has been in economic decline since 2011, when it issued municipal bonds that offered a super-high 8.5% interest rate; but it could not repay creditors, who then sued for their money, which cut into Puerto Rico being able to pay for basic services like trash pick-up, roads, schools, etc. Evidence of that decline was and is visible in San Juan; for example, here is a derelict house, less than one block from the beach in Santurce/San Juan, which looked this way BEFORE the hurricane.

Over all, my trip to Puerto Rico last week was not what I expected. In fact, the story that I wanted to write was not nearly as interesting as the story that I found. It seems to be a tale of two hurricanes, two tempests, with two grand effects, wherein the City of San Juan remains largely unaffected or at least does not appear to have suffered massive, catastrophic damage like New Orleans after Katrina (2005) or Houston after Harvey (2017). But southeast of San Juan, where Maria made landfall, these areas were hard hit, and still remain hurting. The hurricane made landfall in Yabucoa, PR on September 20, 2017 as a high-end Category 4. It caused 499 deaths, and $103.45 billion in material losses. These numbers are conservative and/or still estimates.

Yet, in the San Juan area, cruise ships are now operating again, disgorging ‘ugly Americans’ to wander the typical streets near the pier, buying up Puerto Rican souvenirs likely made in China, and drinking cans of local Medalla Light (‘la cerveza de Puerto Rico desde 1979’), and of course rum-based Daiquiri drinks at the plentiful bars and restaurants.  After all, Puerto Rico is the home of Barcardi Rum. Map: San Juan contains Santurce, Condado, and Old San Juan neighborhoods. Notice Yabucoa to south east; Santa Isabel to the south. In its recent Puerto Rico story, Bloomberg provided granular, albeit hyperbolic details of what life is like in San Juan; for example, they reported that a business woman named Carla Lopez de Azua “who rents spaces to artisans and restauranteurs in San Juan’s Santurce area,” describes the situation as grim: She says that supermarket prices have “skyrocketed”: “I know people who don’t know what they are going to feed their kids” (qtd. in Leiber par.7). In my experience living in the same Santurce area for four days, this is erroneous if not an exaggeration. Indeed, every night, I walked over to the SuperMax grocery store at the busy corner of Avenida De Diego and Calle Loiza to buy dinner and supplies for my room. This is a well-stocked store the size of a Kroger, Ralph’s, or Jewel-Osco. All the check-out lines were always packed with customers paying with cash, debit card, and even EBT.

People, including children, looked well-fed if not over-weight. According to the cashier, they “never closed during Maria.” The lines at the deli/hot food bar were also long and cheerful, as customers were buying whole roasted chickens, potato and pasta salads, ribs and fish, and other delicious foods. Nobody’s kids appeared to be starving.  Here is the produce section at SuperMax, Santurce. These varieties of apples (Golden, Fuji, Granny) were priced reasonably, at $1.29 to $1.99 per pound.

Yet the First Lady of Puerto Rico, Beatriz Areizaga Rossello, is still conducting a kind of moving, pop-up soup kitchen in various parts of Puerto Rico. According to the local newspaper, The San Juan Daily Star, Mrs. Rossello is still appearing in various “Emergency Stop and Go Centers” in Puerto Rico so that families can receive a hot meal, and children can play freely, and  receive love and support. On the other hand, a local, sidewalk, beverage and snack vendor, stationed at the bridge from Condado into Old San Juan stated that her business is slow, and that foot traffic and tourists are sparse. She also stated that she has a “Patron” and so does not pay for the space to sell her goods. But the city is paid by the patron who rents or reserves the space. She pays only for her inventory. Food trucks and other street vendors likewise seemed on the thin side – I was looking forward to eating street food like the many famous Puerto Rican pork dishes such as ‘pernil.’ The closest thing I came to authentic Puerto Rican food was a cheeseburger (prepared like a meatball) at a locals-only ‘al fresco’ restaurant hugging the ocean bluff near the Capital building. It was full of teenagers whose high school had just let out for the afternoon, and other locals taking a break for a late lunch. This was my homage to Jimmy Buffett, y’all.

To be fair, I did see some power or phone lines down, and at least one working utility truck with state of New York license plates; it had just restored power to a group of historic (over 100 years old) apartments on a narrow side street in Old San Juan. One resident was literally jumping for joy and singing (in English) ‘WE HAVE POWER!’

Santiago’s story

He returned to Puerto Rico to help his family in the Santa Isabel area, along the south coast of the island; his father’s house looks like a tornado hit it. Yet, according to Santiago, his father has already been denied FEMA relief. So, we decided to investigate. We called the FEMA hotline; a Latina voice answered. I asked her about the steps to apply for relief. While speaking with her, I was on the FEMA website as well. The application does not seem any more invasive, and perhaps less so, than the application for FoodStamps or EBT, Disability or SSI, Obamacare or Medicaid at Healthcare.gov. I know this because I have helped my son apply for each, as he is unemployed, address-less, and disabled. For the FEMA application, there appears to be a means test or at least an income question, as you do have to report yearly income. But the FEMA representative said that “this shouldn’t matter” and “you will not be denied based on how much money you make.” Santiago’s father makes less than $10,000/year. Yet he was denied. His little blue house has four crumbled exterior walls, no roof, and no windows, yet he was denied aid. I asked Santiago if he could re-apply using HIS name with his father’s address to see if he could get a different result. He was worried that this would create a kind of fraud; he then candidly proceeded to tell me that he is a felon and did time for assault: When he was 17, living in and out of foster care and group homes in Connecticut, he was jumped by a gang. He states that he acted in self-defense, but was charged as an adult, convicted, and then incarcerated for about three years.

He also stated that he has a four-year college degree in Environmental Studies that the government paid for via the FAFSA program for young adults in foster care (the only good side of the current broken foster care system – can we please revisit the orphanage system – a stable place until either adoption or adulthood!?). Now, with a record, at age 32, he can only find work as temporary worker where employment screening is typically not required. He says he now works in Oregon, farming legal marijuana, and can make enough in this line of work to fund a trip (in this case) to San Juan. But his money ran out and he, like me, was staying in a hostel, hoping to make it out of Puerto Rico and back to the West Coast, specifically San Francisco. From there he will hitchhike north back to Oregon. Meanwhile, his father self-evacuated to Florida, after his frustration with FEMA and his own failing health. Santiago says that his father is now hospitalized and does not plan to return to Puerto Rico. By the way, the Conturce Hostel is very well run, affordable, friendly, and great location if you like to stay among real residents and not just tourists. It is just a block from the beach, which looks mostly intact, except for a section of busted concrete seawall.

FEMA does have an appeal process: provide them with more documentation such as more photos and videos, and receipts for materials and labor for repairs, DIY or contracted. Maybe this is FEMA’s angle – to deny most claims, force the people to make the repairs themselves, then reimburse on the back end through appeals. The FEMA rep that I spoke with said that the first thing FEMA will do is “ask if you have homeowner’s insurance” and then, if you do, they will ask if there has been a settlement. If yes, then FEMA might fill in the differential or gap between what the insurance paid, and what the real needs are at the home site.  If no, then FEMA is likely on the hook for total price for disaster relief and rebuilding.  At one point, prior to November, FEMA was offering a one-time $500 Critical Needs cash/card payment to individuals or families to be used for whatever purposes, but that money cannot be reimbursed or rolled into a FEMA application as money spent toward home repairs.

There are also two kinds of relief: House/Home Assistance, and PPA (Personal Property Assistance). The first is for the structural and mechanical aspects of the house, such as the roof or the plumbing. The second is for items inside the house such as furnishings, bedding, appliances, kitchen necessities, linens, decorations, etc. You can also apply for rental assistance, and co-register with a spouse. “Everything is in the same application,” according to the FEMA rep. On the FEMA application, they ask you for:

Social Security Number (SSN)

Financial information

Contact Information

Insurance Information

Electronic Funds Transfer/Direct Deposit Information

The FEMA rep also stated that “you don’t lose anything to total income,” and that “even if you make for example $40K, you will still qualify, it’s not like that. You have the right to apply.” Which is why it seems impossible that Santiago’s father could be denied aid. On its website, FEMA says that it has approved over 300,000 applications, and approved over $500 million in aid:

Individual Assistance Applications Total Individual & Households Program Total Public Assistance Grants
Approved: 317,796 Dollars Approved: $520,415,838.64 Dollars Obligated: $453,389,435.80

Numbers on how many Puerto Ricans have been denied aid are not available on the FEMA website. But how many Puerto Ricans can stomach this kind of bureaucratic and traumatic marathon – Santiago’s father could not.  Some 300,000 other Puerto Ricans also could not, and are now resettled in Miami, Tampa, Orlando, and the New York city area. This is the tale of the two tempests: in high profile San Juan, which is relatively wealthy, things are okay. In Santa Isabela and areas in the south of the island, where things were not as well-off to begin with, things are not okay.

(Right) Art Deco apartment, after Maria in the Condado area — mostly untouched and fully functioning.

Moreover, according to Nick Leiber of Bloomberg (12/7/17), “As many as 470,000 Puerto Ricans may move to the mainland through 2019 . . . because of Maria’s destruction” (par. 3). This means that people are abandoning ship.  This was true for Santiago’s father — Puerto Rico was damaged by Irma in early September, then hit harder in mid-September, a TKO in fact – and the ubiquitous blue tarp – a kind of FEMA regulation blanket, could not re-roof these people’s houses nor reshape and save these peoples’ home life. So Santiago’s father just said fuck it, and took a plane to Florida to stay with family. Abandoned houses in the south and east of the island may remain and proliferate, if FEMA denials rise.

As Santiago explained, Puerto Rico is country about 120 miles long and 96 miles wide, with 78 municipalities or counties, which “creates a clash of egos and is ripe for corruption.” This is another reason why the relief effort may be taking so long – infighting over the FEMA pie. Santiago just cannot understand why his dad’s place — near Santa Isabel in the far south of the island, which still has no water and no power, was denied FEMA. His house was demolished, but he was given no tarps, no repairs, and on what grounds? Santiago thinks that it was because his credit is not good, but that can’t be, because FEMA natural disaster loans and/or grants are not based on credit or ability to repay, but rather on simply residing in the declared disaster zone. But Santiago still believes, “If you don’t have money that means you are not human, it’s not like we made this disaster happen to ourselves, like we deserved it.”

Three signs tell the tale

There were many signs that tell the tale of Maria, and Puerto Rico’s response to it. Non-literal signs, that the grocery stores were well-stocked and crowded; that the cruise ships are again operating; and that the core attractions of Old San Juan are open and welcoming for visitors. There were also literal signs – painted and posted in public view, that use language to confront and communicate to the personified storm Maria, to the people of Puerto Rico, and to the U.S. government. They are:

  • Fuck Maria
  • Puerto Rico se levanta
  • FEMA es la problema (painted on a door in Isla Verde area on way to airport)

The first sign is obvious in its message – yet unusual as it is written in English. It was painted on the façade of a bar-nightclub a few doors down from the Conturce Hostel on Calle Loiza in Santurce, San Juan. It’s attitude, also obvious. Defiant, funny, and appropriate to its late-night club-going audience. The second sign was painted by students at a school between Avenidas Munoz Rivera and Ponce De Leon, in Old San Juan. It means ‘Puerto Rico will rise’ – it’s in Spanish against the Puerto Rican flag. Significant, symbolic, hopeful. This message was repeated in other venues in the area – but the youthful, amateur hand who designed this version of the sign is perhaps more credible than the bold graphics of the profane sign.

The third sign was also hand-lettered, reading (in Spanish) ‘FEMA is the problem.’ This sign is probably the most accurate in terms of how many people feel – that they were told to expect help from their government, yet help was slow and only reluctantly offered by an ungenerous, disbelieving President. And, if we can take Santiago’s father as an example – indeed, FEMA was no help at all, and in fact the problem – getting people’s expectations up that they would be helped, having them go through the application process, and then denying their very worthy claims. Most Puerto Ricans will stay on the island, some because they are young enough and strong enough to embrace the ‘fuck it’ attitude; some because they are optimistic and ethnically patriotic (‘Puerto Rico se levanta’). But others will leave the island for good, because FEMA was and still is the problem.

National Parks, Feral Cats, and Jean Prouve

The U.S. National Parks Service just recently (mid-November) re-opened their two main sites, El Morro and Castillo San Cristobal, part of the San Juan National Historic and World Heritage Site. According to NPS park rangers, neither monument saw any real damage – the take away is that an edifice built in the 16th and 17th centuries for the purposes of fending off invading marauders who literally would storm the walls and attempt to reverse Spanish control of Puerto Rico — the first, best, largest leeward island that sailors and ships would reach when crossing the Atlantic – these structures have lasted 500 years. One more hurricane is not going to affect their monolithic stability.

These sites are crucial to our understanding of how Puerto Rico was colonized as early as 1493, in Columbus’ second voyage, and in 1508, when Ponce De Leon “displaced native Taino Indians” to set up Spanish-rule on the island –this is according to the NPS own guide and pamphlet, and map, of the San Juan site. In 1511 the indigenous Taino people revolt, but later this results in a de facto genocide of them at the hands of the Spanish. In 1521 the City of San Juan is founded. In 1533, La Fortaleza is built – a structure which is now, still, the official residence of the Governor of Puerto Rico, and where President John Kennedy and his wife were received by Gov. Luis Munoz Marin and his wife in 1961, when the parties discussed an ambitious arts, music, education and cultural program for the island – you can see images of this historic meeting at the Luis Munoz Marin (SJU) Airport. In 1539 Castillo San Felipe del Morro (‘El Morro) was built. In 1634, Castillo San Cristobal was built or commenced. The English attacked in 1595 and 1598; in 1625 the Dutch attacked; in 1797 the English attack again. In 1898, the Americans attack and Puerto Rico surrenders, becoming a U.S. territory. 

Law of Unintended Consequences

According to historical legend, Christopher Columbus himself brought European cats to San Juan to act as biologically correct extermination force against ‘los ratones’ – rats. But now, 500 years and ten generations later, there is a cat problem. Indeed, in the Cathedral of San Juan, one irreverent tabby slinked down from the framed, open grotto of the Virgin Mary, a huge Madonna in recess, with the Puerto Rican Flag behind her larger than life; the orange cat yawned and continued down the small chapel’s altar and railing, into the church proper. Are the cats tolerated during Mass? Look closely in the bottom right corner! Cats in the cathedral, Cat-olics?

IMG_7895 2

Re-building with intelligent design

Finally, Puerto Rico has the opportunity to experiment with the avant-garde in terms of rebuilding the housing supply on the island. One such solution is the utilitarian shipping container – here used as a restaurant in the Santurce area on Calle Loiza. Another idea might be pre-fab housing like that of Jean Prouve’s ‘Maxeville Design Office’ or other similar uniform Prouve designs. The California based company, Cover_build (https://cover.build) also might be something to try – low cost, simple design with DIY and/or contractor construction and assembly on site.

Puerto Ricans that I met seemed resilient – the old cliché about people being able the battle back from adversity, without bitterness seems accurate. Would they be interested in ultra- modern, modular housing? Would they be happy if FEMA helped pay for it? Or would they simply keep on keeping on living under whatever circumstances in this most beautiful island, where the ocean can bring a tempest or two, but it also can bring daily joys such as surfing. For example, this surfer at Escambron beach gives thumbs up. A guard tower gleams near La Fortaleza. Art work drawn by an officer who was held in the dungeon of

Castillo San Cristobal (for mutiny? in the early 18th century?) can take you into the world of Pirates of the Caribbean.

Public art such as murals and

mosaics also fill the streets and walls of San Juan. If a community and culture can survive in a mix of European and Island influences, while supporting the arts as public policy at least since the 1960’s, then maybe 

Puerto Rico’s best bet is to re-invest (again!) in the arts to rebuild and move forward, with or without help from FEMA or the

blessings of its protector, the U.S. mainland. As a lingering post-script to the Maria story, in which catastrophe was surely averted by most of San Juan, but was experienced sorely by south and east Puerto Rico, the silver lining is the media attention. Major news services and internet sites have not neglected reporting on Puerto Rico. Indeed, People magazine’s recent cover was an homage to Puerto Rican and Nuyorican pop music, and other high profile artists with roots in Puerto Rico  (J-Lo, and Benicio Del Toro, et magna alia) have leveraged their celebrity status to offer help, even if it is just raising awareness (but many have also raised funds). Hamilton and In the Heights creator Lin Manuel Miranda visited the island (and his grandparents’ former home), and recorded “It’s almost like

praying” with an all-star vocal Puerto Rican ensemble, including Jennifer Lopez:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D1IBXE2G6zw

Addendum: Baxter Pharmaceuticals in Jayuya, Aibonito and Guayama, Puerto Rico (since 1958) has also been effected by the hurricanes. Recent stories about I-V bag shortages at hospitals in the mainland have been covered by several news outlets such as the New York Times and NPR health news https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/11/15/564203110/hurricane-damage-to-manufacturers-in-puerto-rico-affects-mainland-hospitals-too.

Update: As of June 2018, the death toll in Puerto Rico following Maria has been re-counted from 64 to approximately 4600. https://www.npr.org/2018/06/13/619440877/puerto-rico-releases-data-on-hundreds-of-deaths-following-hurricane-maria

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