Photo by Erik Larson.
United States / Puerto Rico

My San Juan Seven Months Later

This personal essay is set in a context of privilege. I am lucky enough to have maintained contact with my family for the entirety of the storm, and reside in one of the most densely populated neighborhoods of Puerto Rico’s capital. I did not visit any other cities on the island, and thus am unable to speak to their situation. Although the anticipation leading up to the Category 5 storm was horrible, my family never faced a life-threatening situation. I would also like to acknowledge that there are many who did not have the resources to “adapt” to the change I will speak of in the following essay, resulting in significant loss. This narrative is singular and does not account for the suffering of millions of people, but I hope it sheds light on the innumerable layers of possible experiences surrounding such a devastating event–each difficult in its own way. I am fortunate in that my new reality is not life-threatening, but it is certainly is different.

February 1 marked the first day I returned to Puerto Rico since I left my island mostly intact this past August. It is hard to conceptualize how life can change in a matter of hours, without ever having experienced it–I still do not know if I fully understand the far-reaching consequences this storm will have on my life.

Hurricane María does not have a single narrative. It was a disaster experienced by millions of people, each in a unique way. The daily reality is still deeply tainted by the storm’s aftermath, but it is important to recognize the resilience of the population. This painful and destructive event also shed light on the power of the Puerto Rican people, and their perseverance in face of devastation. Whatsapp groups, still updated daily, were created to rally helpers across the island; Puerto Rican students from colleges around the United States worked tirelessly to fundraise thousands of dollars and donate huge shipments of supplies; neighbors helped neighbors–sharing power when they had it, and offering up spare rooms. Witnessing the warmth of the population in face of this storm makes me so proud to call this island home.

Returning to Puerto Rico was strange, but also strangely not that strange. I flew into the same terminal in the same airport and was picked up in the same car I had growing up. I drove down the same highway, albeit a bit darker this time, and parked in the same garage. I was greeted by the sight of the same home I had left seven months before. My friend and I went to the beach our first morning there. It was the same as before. The trees were green and swayed in the breeze – everything was bright and tropical and colorful and there were people. We watched a beach volleyball game unfold and shook our heads ‘no’ at the man selling coconut ice cream along the shore.

Then we decided to walk to the Old City. It was a pleasant walk, shorter than I remembered, and the sun’s heat was a welcome break from Maine’s bitter January. This was the first moment I noticed anything specifically unusual. As we walked along a park, my father’s description of a “Dr. Seuss-esque scene” made sense. Some trees were fully alive, others were dead at the bottom yet blooming on top. Branches stuck out at odd angles and there were peculiarly shaped knobs where branches ought to have been. There were half trunks and tall palms with no leaves and tree stumps with moss. Several huge street lamps were strewn across the grass, parallel to the path along which we were walking. Vegetation grows so quickly in the tropics that it had all but consumed these giant metallic pillars. But they were there, with their tangled wires in the air, a relic of the disaster you could only see if you paid close attention. Then, I noticed that none of the traffic lights were working. Blinking yellow on a good day, but mostly off all together. I wondered aloud about who oversees the maintenance of these lights, and why, almost five months later, they were still broken.

I shook my head and continued walking towards Viejo San Juan. And again, it felt the same. The pastel homes and the cobblestone streets and the coffee. My favorite homemade popsicle shop was still open. Two Mango-Piña-Parchas to go, please. Before we arrived home, I received a call from my dad. “If the building’s elevator doesn’t work, just get out, go to the hallway and reset the breaker in the closet. Then get back in and it should be fine.” Another strange addition to this new reality. Luckily,  the elevator was working upon our arrival, and the evening played out normally. Dinner at 6, and at 9, a boom. The windows shook and my small dog ran under the bathroom sink to hide. There was a bright light. Another transformer had blown up, and San Juan plunged into darkness. But only for a few seconds. Then it was back. I could hear the whirring of the generators pumping diesel to supply the buildings with power. This noise would not have been disturbing, except it drowned out the song of the coqui frogs and the hush of the waves hitting the sand – the sounds of home.

This is when it hit me. I had been nervous to return home since news of the hurricane broke. I remember refreshing CNN to a barrage of blunt red letters that read: “Puerto Rico in Crisis, Island Pummeled by Hurricane Maria” or, months later, “Still No Electricity.” I had no idea what to expect – what would be the same, what would be different? Would it be too different to still be home? What my parents described as their reality and what was portrayed on the news were in stark contradiction. This made it difficult for me to even attempt to understand what was happening back home and how to help. Who needed the most help? What did they need? Would it even get to them? These thoughts were followed by disillusionment, a general feeling of uncertainty and finally, guilt. Until I could see it for myself, I was too confused to know where to begin to make a difference. I donated to some causes and posted on Instagram about my “heavy heart,” but mostly I felt helpless. My mind could not synthesize the images online, the stories in the papers, and my family’s own narrative–highlighting the deeply entrenched inequality that permeates Puerto Rican society.

My forty-eight-hour trip back to San Juan taught me more than I expected. An event as all-encompassing as a major natural disaster cannot be summed up in a single narrative. For everyone–those living on the island, those with family members back home, or those with no personal connection at all besides what they see on the news- the hurricane meant something different. My personal takeaway from this experience is how quickly humankind can adapt to massive change. We are remarkable at finding normalcy in chaos. I now also understand that change does not always mean loss. Home is not gone, just different. I no longer feel like two realities are existing in tension, but rather that they are one. My family’s reality is new. It is one that involves boiling water before drinking it, driving without the aid of traffic lights, and seeing massive pieces of metal strewn in the street. But it is our reality. Plain and simple. It has become the new routine, and this is how we will move forward.