Where Does Puerto Rico Go from Here?

September 27, 2017
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PHOTO: On the water’s edge in Puerto Rico. (photo by Katherine Vallera)

On Saturday, I received a message from my friend Alex Burgos, who works as an engineer. He wrote that communication was limited and asked me to book a flight for himself, his wife and his three-year-old son out of Puerto Rico. I asked him where he wanted to go.

“We’re kind of desperate,” was the message he sent.

His limited communication was an understatement. We didn’t get in contact again until almost 24 hours later, and even then, it was only for a minute.

In the meantime, I did a query for flights to no avail. I even picked up the phone and called an air consolidator, followed by a series of calls to various airlines. Every ticketing agent I reached searched far and wide, yet, no one seemed to know why there weren’t any flights going anywhere out of Puerto Rico.

It would seem that even the airline employees were not properly advised that all commercial flights to the island had been suspended.

I spoke with Suzanne Rodriguez, Midwest Region Business Development Manager for the Puerto Rico Tourism Board. She explained that all flights have been canceled due to the disruption of control towers and communications caused by Hurricane Maria. She added that a timeline for the restoration of service has yet to be determined but they hope to restore limited commercial flights by October 10th, progress pending.

Ms. Rodriguez explained that it’s the same damages to transmission towers and satellite communications that are responsible for the island-wide telephone and internet outages, which came with a total blackout of the electric grid.

In essence, Puerto Rico has been cut off from the world for an entire week since Hurricane Maria wrought her fury.

Due to the lack of communication, the rest of us had no way of knowing the gravity of the situation. While the estimated 3 million US citizens of Puerto Rico lost their power, in a manner of speaking, the entirety of America found itself in the dark.

 “It [is like] adapting to a new way of living,” said Alex, who I finally spoke with long enough to have a halfway decent conversation, “Tensions are growing since the government keeps telling everyone that help is coming. Yet, very few concrete facts about help have been reported.”

While his connection cut in and out, Alex said that Puerto Rico had no running water and described long lines for gas stations and supermarkets. He told me that resources are in short supply in Guaynabo, (part of the San Juan metropolitan region), and speculated that it’s worse for the rest of the island.

Ms. Rodriguez confirmed that transportation has been hindered by widespread flooding, obstructed roads and downed bridges, preventing access to many rural communities.

“Some people are forced to camp out at different locations in the pitch [black] darkness just to get the stuff they need,” Alex observed, “We’re seeing some bits of help efforts from FEMA, Coast Guard and other federal entities.”

At present, the US military has exclusive access to all of the airports in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. Alex then informed me that his wife and young son are now being evacuated to Florida because she happens to be a government employee. This is good and bad news: It means his loved ones will be safe on the mainland, but it also means that their family will be separated.

Since their marriage isn’t legally recognized, his wife’s employers have decided to leave Alex behind.

I asked Ms. Rodriguez if there were any plans to evacuate civilians so that the infrastructure and living conditions can be restored. She stated that there are no plans to evacuate the public at this time. Ms. Rodriguez added that the primary focus right now is delivering diesel for generators and clearing the streets.

In an attempt to make my friend laugh, I asked Alex if the scene in Puerto Rico is like Lord of the Flies.

“Things are not at a chaos level like you imagine,” he replied, “For the most part, I perceive that people are being civil and not letting panic overcome the population. I’ve heard of communities that are offering free hot meals and water for those who haven’t received any help. Despite what they’re going through, people, for the most part, tend to unite in these kinds of situations. We have a lot of hope that we’ll rise up stronger.

“Of course,” Alex continued, “There are always a few bad apples.”

READ MORE: USVI Can’t Afford to be Forgotten Post-Irma

He went on to describe how a 7pm-5am curfew has been instated to curtail looting and other criminal activity. I asked Alex if there was message he would like to send to people outside Puerto Rico, especially those who have yet to hear from family and friends on the island.

“For those who have not been able to contact loves ones – don’t lose hope,” he replied, “There are people on the one side of the island that have not spoken to relatives on the other side of the island. I’m sure sooner or later they will be able to learn that their loved ones are okay, a bit damaged, but fine.”

However, Alex wanted to make absolutely clear that what’s happening in Puerto Rico is a crisis: “People are dying in overcrowded hospitals. Fuel supply to critical facilities is slow to arrive.”

So far, there have been fourteen confirmed deaths as a result of the hurricane. As it stands, Puerto Rico is at a critical stage. So long as there is no running water1, medical supplies or electricity to power hospital facilities, the entire population as at high risk for Cholera. This deadly disease, spread by contaminated water, has been known to devastate post-disaster zones lacking in adequate emergency responses.

Alex expressed disappointment for news that he’d read about Puerto Rico being stonewalled from international aid. Despite the island’s dire state of emergency, Congress has refused to waive the Jones Act, a nearly century-old, post-WWI legislation passed as a means for keeping German U-Boats at bay.

“Right now, help is help,” he remarked, “And whoever is dishing it, we’ll gratefully take it.”

READ MORE: Caribbean Assesses Latest Hurricane Damage

Ms. Rodriguez had no comment on political implications. Meanwhile, no one wants to see Puerto Rico up and running again more than the tourism board. That’s why she maintained that work is being done to restore transportation and communication networks. Ms. Rodriguez added that progress is slow-going due to the severity of destruction left in Maria’s wake.

“We have to be patient,” she told me over the phone, “This is something that’s going to take a lot of time.”

“I believe we have already overcome the biggest challenge,” said Alex, referring to the hurricane herself, “Focusing on the path ahead, [we have] certainty that things will be back to a reasonable level of normality; that the government is actually doing what they say they’re doing and that in the end, everything will be alright.”

Meanwhile, the island of Puerto Rico remains without power or running water, with no real answer for when these basic amenities will be restored. There’s no solid word on when civilian flights will resume, either.

This means millions of Americans—many of whom lost their homes in the storm—have nowhere to run. They’re trapped on an island, left to survive on fragments of a crumbled infrastructure, while essential resources like clean water and medical supplies are dwindling. So long as the Jones Act remains in effect, the residents of Puerto Rico are at the mercy of the US military for relief.

Perhaps this would be a good time to remind everyone that the US military happens to be the strongest and—with an annual budget of $581 billion dollars—most powerful 2 military in the world. Their tactical prowess is advanced beyond comprehension. Let’s not underestimate the triumphs and feats they indubitably have the potential to accomplish.

1: Schmidt, Samantha, and Joel Achenbach. “Hot, Isolated, and Running out of Supplies, Parts of Puerto Rico near Desperation.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 24 Sept. 2017.

2: Szoldra, Skye Gould and Paul. “The 25 Most Powerful Militaries in the World.” Business Insider, Business Insider, 15 Mar. 2017.



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