What the hurricanes revealed about Puerto Rico

José Luis Vázquez sought refuge in his daughter’s house as Hurricane Maria ravaged the mountainous village of Las Marías, Puerto Rico. The storm snapped bamboo like toothpicks.

Some of his neighbors died when mudslides swept away their homes. After the hurricane had passed, Mr. Vázquez, 83, peeked out the door and saw the roof of his house in the middle of the road.

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“I had never experienced anything like that,” he says. “We felt the earth shake during that storm. It left the roads covered with trees. We don’t expect to have electricity for, I don’t know, two years.” A tractor driver slid over a cliff and lost his life as he tried to clear debris. It took weeks to clear the roads.

Mr. Vázquez says he has seven children living in the United States. “I haven’t spoken to them for years,” he says of his estranged children through tears. Reconciliation will have to wait, as telephone lines have been knocked down and Mr. Vázquez cannot afford a cell phone.

Stories like his are common across the island.

Archbishop Roberto González Nieves
Archbishop Roberto González Nieves

“One of the things Hurricane Maria has done is to uncover the great amount of poverty that there is in Puerto Rico, which had been camouflaged by the trees, the leaves, the forest,” Archbishop Roberto González Nieves of San Juan says in an interview with America. “Now it’s all out in the open.”

The archbishop welcomed us into his humble office at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in San Juan. His workspace, complete with sugary, strong coffee, water and a refrigerator, also serves as a breakroom for the staff. Stacks of St. Francis of Assisi and Blessed Oscar Romero prayer cards sit on the archbishop’s desk as he speaks. His residence is still without power. The church and parochial school rely on a generator to serve the community.

Yet the parish community is better off than most. Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, and flooded the coastal valleys and unleashed mudslides in the mountain terrains of the small Caribbean island. The hurricane came at what may have been the worst possible time. The island was still recovering from Hurricane Irma, which hit weeks before Maria. These tragedies only added additional hardship to a territory that since 2006 has been in the middle of a severe economic crisis.

For years the church in Puerto Rico worked to raise awareness of the 60 percent of children who live in poverty.

For years the church in Puerto Rico worked to raise awareness of the 60 percent of children who live in poverty on the island, but the efforts met with a disappointing response. “It seems to me that some people, especially [government] leadership, did not believe that the percentage is that high,” the archbishop says. “Now, it’s unquestionable. It’s impossible to not see it.” The high level of poverty among the elderly, many of whom rely only on their monthly Social Security check, which typically ranges from $500 to $800, has also been laid bare.

“It is very difficult to pay for your medicines and adequate food supply, your rent, your water, electricity,” Archbishop González says, adding that the hurricanes have uncovered the island’s poverty and unemployment.

‘The World’s Oldest Colony’

Murals decorate walls lining Calle Tiburcio Reyes, a street in Old San Juan. “The World’s Oldest Colony” one reads; “PROMESA es Pobreza,” reads another. The latter refers to the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability Act, which gives power to approve the island’s budget to board members appointed by the president of the United States. The street leads to Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a 16th-century citadel that the Spanish built to defend the island after they conquered it. Santa María Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery, where remains of prominent Puerto Ricans have been buried for hundreds of years, sits just outside the walls. The hurricanes damaged some of the graves.

El Morro, one of the oldest such structures in the Caribbean, is symbol of both fortitude and conquest. Columbus encountered Taíno indians when he arrived here in 1493. While the Spanish adopted some things from the Taínos, like straw huts, hammocks and maracas, the population of the native peoples plummeted not long after the European arrival. Boricua, another name for Puerto Ricans, has its origin in Borikén, the Taíno name for the island.

Columbus renamed the island San Juan Bautista after Jesus’ cousin. After colonists found gold in the river, it was renamed Puerto Rico, or Rich Port. For 400 years, Puerto Rico remained under Spanish rule.

As early as 1868, beginning with an uprising known as The Cry of Lares, separatists began working for the independence of Puerto Rico. Thirty years later, during the Spanish-American War, the United States invaded Puerto Rico. In 1898 Spain ceded the island to U.S. governance through the Treaty of Paris.

According to Nelson Hernández, a history professor at San Juan’s Universidad Sagrado Corazón, Puerto Ricans hoped the United States would grant them more freedom than they had under the Spanish. Perhaps someday they would become an independent nation like Cuba. The U.S. Congress dashed those hopes with the Foraker Act of 1900, which established a U.S.-controlled government in Puerto Rico. While residents would vote for local representatives, they would not have a vote in the U.S. government.

“Through the Foraker Act, the United States absorbed much power,” Mr. Hernández says. “It marks a beginning of U.S. colonization and imperialism.” The law lasted 17 years, during which the promise of independence was not fulfilled, he says.

The Jones-Shafroth Act of 1917 granted Puerto Ricans U.S. citizenship and the right to vote in presidential primaries, but residents still do not have an electoral vote or a voting representative in Congress. The Jones Act, also known as the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, mandates that U.S.-flagged ships be used between U.S. ports. Those ships must be built in the United States and staffed by U.S. legal residents. While it benefits U.S.-owned shipping companies, the regulation drives up the cost of imports for Puerto Rico, an island that relied heavily on imports even before the hurricanes.

“It is really strangling us,” Archbishop González says. “If we buy Bibles in Spanish, for example, from Colombia or Peru or wherever, you have to put them on a ship to the United States and then from there to Puerto Rico. So that doubles, triples the cost of the Bibles.”

Mr. Hernández says that in the 1940s Puerto Rico began receiving a series of minor concessions from the United States. In 1948 the island elected its own governor. “But in essence, little changed,” he says. In 1952, the title of Associated Free State of Puerto Rico, known as ELA an acronym from the Spanish, was adopted when the island drafted its commonwealth constitution.

Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. mainland continues to be a contentious issue.

Puerto Rico’s economy slowly began to pivot from sugar cane, coffee and tobacco to pharmaceuticals and technology manufacturing. Starting in 1976, tax incentives lured more corporations to the island. The incentives ended in 2006, but some economists argue that it helped investors more than Puerto Rico residents.

Many believe the loss of incentives led Puerto Rico into a deep recession in 2006, one from which it has yet to recover. Trade agreements, like the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2003, weakened Puerto Rico’s exports. Puerto Rico sought bankruptcy protection this year for its $70-billion debt crisis.

Puerto Rico’s relationship to the U.S. mainland continues to be a contentious issue. A poll conducted this fall found that nearly half of Americans did not know that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, The New York Times reports. This despite the fact that there are more than five million Puerto Ricans living on the U.S. mainland. In 2012 Puerto Ricans voted on statehood for the fourth time. The majority of voters wanted a change from its current status as a commonwealth. Some states, like Massachusetts or Kentucky, refer to themselves as commonwealths. Puerto Rico, while it calls itself a free state in its Spanish-language constitution, is not a commonwealth in that sense, nor is it a state.

Puerto Rico is also referred to as an unincorporated territory, but that name does not fit perfectly either, because Puerto Rico elects its own government. Some economists argue that this mixed relationship with the United States contributes to the island’s sputtering economy, and resolving it might be a step toward recovery. But, Mr. Hernández says, hurricanes Irma and Maria have put talk of statehood on hold indefinitely.

Migration to the Mainland

Hurricane Maria blew the roof off Françoise Cepeda’s two-story house in San Juan. The flooding destroyed the first floor. “What wasn’t ruined from above was wrecked from below,” she says.

Françoise Cepeda and her three boys
Françoise Cepeda and her three boys

The single mother of three young boys has nothing—no furniture, no clothes, no food. In what is left of her home, there is no access to electricity and no water. Her boys—ages 5, 8 and 10—had to change schools because their old one has yet to reopen. Ms. Cepeda spends $20 a day on public transportation to get them to class on time, and her employer has not given her hours to work since the hurricane.

The single mother of three young boys has nothing—no furniture, no clothes, no food.

“These aren’t the ideal circumstances, but we have to fight through it,” she says. She is standing in front of a Santurce community outreach center supported by Universidad Sagrado Corazón. She will receive clothes, food and toiletries to help her get by. The boys, donning their aqua blue school uniforms, stand close to her. The eldest flicks the ear of the youngest. Even before the hurricane, Ms. Cepeda’s life was far from ideal. She lives in a San Juan neighborhood run by gangs.

Residents there crammed ruined furniture and debris between the cramped cement homes. Mosquitos and flies multiplied after the flooding. Streetlights dangle from broken wooden posts, but they do not come on at night.

Puerto Rico’s population had been steadily growing until 2004, according the U.S. Census Bureau. That year, the population topped out at 3.8 million. Today there are fewer than 3.4 million Puerto Ricans living on the island, and many estimate the number may sink below three million in the aftermath of the hurricane.

Pascual Cubero, a teacher at José Celso Barbosa School in San Juan, says his sister left the island after the hurricane. She returned eventually, but then left again because “she couldn’t take it.” His mother, who lived in rural San Sebastián, left because she could not count on getting access to medication for her diabetes.

“I can get up at 4 a.m., I can go out to look for food, but I can’t expose my mother to that,” Mr. Cubero says, adding that some of his coworkers also left. A number of his students’ homes in San Juan were destroyed.

Many schools in Puerto Rico have yet to reopen, Mr. Cubero says, and some parents have moved to the U.S. mainland to ensure their children’s education continues. Power and water were restored quickly at Mr. Cubero’s school, however. “We live close to the governor’s house,” he says with a laugh.

“The new generation has confronted the fragility of this island for the first time.”

The shrinking population will make recovery even more difficult, according to Jorge Iván Vélez-Arocho, president of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico. The majority of those who have been leaving the island over the years are young. As a result the median age has been steadily increasing, to 36 in 2015 from 18.5 in 1950. There is some fear that the exodus will leave towns abandoned, Mr. Vélez-Arocho says.

“The new generation has confronted the fragility of this island for the first time,” he says from the university campus in Ponce. “The devastation is physical, emotional and social. Puerto Rico has fallen decades behind. More than half of Puerto Rico still does not have electricity. Today, you could think of our history as before and after Maria.”

Yet Mr. Vélez-Arocho also notes that many young people, especially students at the university, have responded to the hurricane with a humanitarian heart. In Guaynabo, a San Juan suburb, Jorge Javier Díaz Sánchez says he has gotten involved with a local group of Puerto Ricans in their 20s who are helping those in need. He has both power and water at his home.

“You have to take to the street and do all you can to help in the rebuilding,” says Mr. Díaz, who drives for Uber. Many are desperate for basic necessities, he says. Mr. Díaz answers a call on speaker as he drives. It is his mother. She does not have power at her home yet, and she wants him to bring her ice.

Widespread Poverty

While there are some wealthy and middle class Puerto Ricans, nearly half live below the poverty level. The median salary is under $20,000. Father Enrique Camacho, executive director of Caritas Puerto Rico, says many in the middle class were losing their jobs even before the hurricanes.

“We were working very hard because there are many communities that don’t have enough to feed their families. That was before Maria,” Father Camacho says. “The problem with the poverty in Puerto Rico is sometimes you cannot see it directly.”

Visitors to Puerto Rico may be impressed by the highways or high-rise buildings and beaches. But Father Camacho says that going to the mountains or even the poorer neighborhoods in San Juan will reveal a different story.

“People sometimes said, ‘No, Puerto Rico is part of the United States, they are not poor.’ But now, the people are looking at the images [and] seeing that we’re not really rich,” he says. “We are in need and Maria has helped people see that.”

In Punta Santiago, a beach town where Maria first hit the island, winds topped 200 miles per hour. The town was flooded from all directions, from the ocean, rain and nearby rivers, according to Father José Colón, pastor of Nuestra Señora del Carmen.

“They lost everything. They didn’t have anything to eat—some even lost their dentures,” the bearded, spectacled young priest says. “We were battered by the waves from the sea. The church was left standing, so on the second day after the hurricane, we began the process of trying to rebuild Punta Santiago.”

Father Colón says residents were left to sleep on the floor with only the clothes on their back. So on the third day after the hurricane, the church started offering meals.

The Next Puerto Rico

Despite obstacles, Father Colón believes Puerto Ricans are strong enough for the recovery ahead.

Father José Colón
Father José Colón

“We’ve so often heard, ‘Puerto Rico will pick itself up.’ But Puerto Rico will only pick itself up when we can do so on our own,” he says. “We’re not asking for handouts. We’re asking for the tools to be able to work. We’ve simply stumbled and fallen. Now we will pick ourselves up and keep walking. We just need a push.”

Mr. Vélez-Arocho of the Pontifical University of Puerto Rico says that Puerto Rico today is like the field hospital that Pope Francis speaks about: “There are wounded, there are dead, there are those who are leaving.”

The next Puerto Rico should be judged according to Catholic social teaching, he says: It should right past wrongs and be built on sustainability. That includes alternative energy sources that make use of the Caribbean island’s climate, like wind and solar power. The island needs to prepare for future natural disasters, like another hurricane or an earthquake.

“We must be a people that empowers individuals to move from misery to poverty to development,” Mr. Vélez-Arocho says. “There are actions we need to take as we look toward the future so that we do not suffer as we have in the past.”

Father Camacho of Caritas Puerto Rico believes the hurricanes have also revealed something deep inside the spirit of the people. In his relief efforts, he met a formerly homeless person whom Caritas had helped to find shelter.

After the hurricane hit, “he came with a lot of one dollar bills and nickels and other coins in his socks,” Father Camacho says. The man had brought all his money—$138—which he had raised recycling cans, even though he was still without electricity, water and food.

“I still have a home,” he told Father Camacho. “So, as I was homeless, I know what people are passing through. So, I want to give this to the people who are in most need.”

In this way, too, Hurricane Maria has revealed something about Puerto Ricans, the priest says. They are people who care for the vulnerable.

“We’ve been passing through difficult moments but very peacefully trying to help each other,” Father Camacho says. “It’s a sign that we are good-hearted people, and there is a lot of hope for the future that we are going to construct together.”

José Dueño contributed reporting to this story.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Andres Cordova
6 months 3 weeks ago

This piece is a very good example of voyeuristic “poverty tourism”. As as Puerto Rican, jesuit educated, living - in situ - through the afteraffects of María, I find the political overtones highly inappropiate. If the author wishes to add his two grains of salt in favor of independence for PR, please be more forthwright about it, and avoid the code language.
Andrés L. Córdova

Julio Vidaurrazaga
6 months 2 weeks ago

As somebody who lives in Puerto Rico but it NOT Puerto Rican , I appreciate the article. There are many points to be discussed and , in normal times PR is a nicer, more pleasant place. Also , if there is poverty
there is also a big middle class and all the resources of modern culture.
But ,of course, poverty IS a reality and we have to confront that. I think
that ,in Puerto Rico, the ( useless) discussion about "the Status" is a waste of energies BUT there is much to improve from the USA side and
the Puerto Rican side.
Julio Vidaurrazaga

Thomas Farrelly
6 months 2 weeks ago

Turning Puerto Rico into an island that can withstand future hurricanes, powered by wind and solar, as Mr. Vélez-Arocho wants, would be an immensely costly endeavor that is simply not going to be undertaken by any Congress. Puerto Rico's only natural advantages are climate and beaches, which can provide a healthy tourist economy, but not one that can support four million people. Educated people have fled the island, leaving behind the old, the unskilled, the impoverished. Father Colon says "we are not looking for handouts. We’re asking for the tools to be able to work." Actually, some politicians have asked for close to $100 billion.
The brain drain was in full sway prior to Maria, as the local government mismanaged its way into bankruptcy. Perhaps the best course is to assist those who are willing to move to the mainland to do so.

John Walton
6 months 2 weeks ago

Actually, they are asking for $70 - $100 billion, that's a couple orders of magnitude different.

Thomas Farrelly
6 months 2 weeks ago

You are right. I just corrected my post from million to billion.

John Walton
6 months 2 weeks ago

If we were to chronicle Puerto Rico's ills, it would be a litany of errors going on for hours. Free electricity for ice-skating rinks in a tropical environment?????

While anathema to the current regime in the Vatican, one might suggest the adoption of an economic regimen more similar to Singapore than Venezuela.

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