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Bringing Solar Power to Puerto Rico

As Puerto Rico’s power problems continue, some local nonprofits are stepping up efforts to install solar panels to provide electricity off the national grid.


 

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The Great Puerto Rico Doglift

It was 4 a.m., and the sound of cacophonous barking filled the parking lot at San Juan’s Jet Aviation terminal as 111 dogs were prepped for their flight from Puerto Rico to New York City. As each dog’s kennel was placed on the conveyor belt and made its way toward the chartered cargo plane, volunteers shed happy tears, saying goodbye and sharing their favorite stories of dogs rescued from the streets and now hopefully headed for a healthier future abroad.

Puerto Rico has had a stray dog problem for so long that the animals have become part of the island’s cultural landscape. But while many of the dogs in the airlift were mixed-breed satos — rescued from the street, the beach, parking lots, or major roads — others had recently lost their homes when their owners fled the island after Hurricane Maria and were forced to leave their pets behind.

“It’s a public health crisis,” says Chrissy Beckles, founder of the Sato Project, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing abused and abandoned dogs in Puerto Rico. “If nothing is done about it, it will continue to escalate.”

Beckles began her initiative after visiting the island with her husband in 2007 and witnessing firsthand the poor condition of so many street dogs. “It was very overwhelming. I spent a week feeding the dogs and really not knowing what to do,” she says. It was this feeling of helplessness, amid local attitudes that a street dog was “just a sato,” a disposable life, that prompted Beckles to volunteer with two organizations that focused their rescue work on Dead Dog Beach in the municipality of Yabucoa. This beach has been an animal dumping ground for more than thirty years now, which is how it earned its tragic moniker.

Chrissy Beckles from the Sato Project comforts a dog about to get airlifted to the U.S. in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018.

Beckles founded the Sato Project in 2011 with the goal of rescuing one dog per week from Dead Dog Beach. Each animal was examined by veterinarians and flown to New York for adoption, where the nonprofit’s offices are based and where Beckles knew there was a huge demand for adoptable dogs and puppies. The Sato Project shattered that goal, rescuing 365 dogs during its first year. Yet even the 1,400 dogs rescued from the beach and from municipal shelters in the program’s first seven years were a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated stray dog population on the entire island, which stood at between 200,000 and 300,000.

That was before the hurricane. Now it is estimated there may be half a million stray dogs on the island. The storm made landfall with sustained winds of more than 155 miles per hour right on Dead Dog Beach, changing the entire rescue mission of the Sato Project.

“The work that I’ve been doing for the past seven years is gone. We have lost so many years of work due to the hurricane,” says Beckles. All rescue, spay and neuter, and vaccination work had to stop for more than two months, at a time when the stray dog population was growing to unprecedented levels. The beach, which had been largely cleared of satos living there, saw its population increase once again.

“One of the biggest things that we are seeing at this time, and it has been going on since December, it’s puppies,” Beckles says. “There are so many unwanted litters being born at levels that I had never seen before, and when you start to walk back in a timeline, you understand why.”

After the hurricane, the streets were flooded with previously owned dogs, who mixed with the existing street dogs; in both cases, most were not spayed or neutered. At the same time, many veterinary offices were shut down because of the lack of power and supplies after the storm. The suspension of the Sato Project’s spay and neuter program until November led to unchecked breeding, which in December led to an unprecedented number of puppies.

Stray dogs in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

At the same time, Puerto Ricans were fleeing the island in droves, taking any of the few available flights out. All cargo space on commercial flights was sequestered by FEMA and the military for aid delivery: Any dogs over twenty pounds that couldn’t fit in a carrier under the plane seat had to be left behind. Their owners surrendered them to veterinary offices, left them with other families, or had to abandon them on the street. It wasn’t until January that airlines once again allowed the transportation of bigger dogs in their planes’ cargo holds.

“I can’t imagine how difficult is the decision to leave a family member behind, and so many had to do so,” says Beckles. She recalls a recent rescue story of an older couple who had lost their home and were sleeping in their car. “They would not leave the island because they had two dogs. Their daughter was in Long Island, where she could pick them up if we sent them there. And for them to give me their dogs, trust me with them, and for me to be able to say, ‘You guys can now leave,’ it was so heartwarming. They left the next day.”

After the hurricane, the Sato Project established a new program, No Dog Left Behind, to reunite Puerto Rican families with their pets. “It’s not something I envisioned, but it is a necessary part of our work after the hurricane,” says Beckles. “It has done as much good for our team as it has done for those people that are being reunited with their animals.”

Since September 20, the Sato Project has rescued and transported more than 1,000 dogs — more than triple its yearly average — in just six months. Of those, 187 have been reunited with their original families on the mainland. The rest have been adopted or gone to a foster network in New York, where the Sato Project team works endlessly to find each dog a home.

In addition, since the hurricane the organization has donated veterinary care and more than 50,000 pounds of dog food to Puerto Ricans who are struggling to take care of their pets. “If they keep that dog with that family in their home, then it’s a win-win situation for the dog, the family, and for us,” says Beckles.

Chrissy Beckles from the Sato Project and Dr. Marielis Feliciano check a dog at a vet clinic in La Piedras, Puerto Rico, Thursday, Feb. 22, 2018.

The Sato Project is not the only one leading this massive project. Other local nonprofits like Save a Sato and All Sato Rescue have also worked hard to feed, rehabilitate, and fly out thousands of dogs since the storm — all thanks to private individual donations.

The local government is also starting to address the sato overpopulation on the island before it turns into an even bigger public health crisis. It is bringing teams of experts from the University of Florida to help provide better hygiene, vaccine practices, and vetting protocols, in hopes of improving animal welfare on the island.

The Office of the First Lady of Puerto Rico, the Board of Veterinarians, and the Humane Society of the United States have established a program to provide free sterilization for more than 30,000 dogs across the island. “We are witnessing and are part of a new, sensible generation that knows that to reach some goals, the best recipe is to collaborate,” said First Lady Beatriz Rosselló during the campaign announcement earlier this month. “In a historical joint effort [we] will work to reduce the population of animals suffering in the streets, through sterilization and other initiatives like education and adoption.”

As for the dogs that flew to New York on that 4 a.m. flight: Beckles says they were all adopted in less than two weeks.

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To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

The New York Roots of the Puerto Rican Fiscal Crisis

“All budgets tell stories about the future,” NYU historian Kimberly Phillips-Fein writes early on in her book Fear City: The New York Fiscal Crisis and the Age of Austerity, a recounting of the budgetary fiasco that brought New York City to the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1970s. Although she hardly intended it as such at the time, that line can be read as a prophecy to the people of Puerto Rico, and not a very optimistic one. Like that of New Yorkers of forty years ago, Puerto Ricans’ civic life is now being determined by an undemocratic process that they didn’t approve, with dire consequences on their livelihoods and their ability to survive.

Both New York in the Seventies and Puerto Rico today must have their budgets approved by financial control boards, which are unelected bodies usually composed of businessmen, lawyers, and economists, put in charge of managing bankrupt governments. Puerto Rico is the first United States territory to have been put under a financial control board, following not just New York but such cities as Washington, D.C. (1995) and Detroit (2014). Like other boards of the past, it is an unelected body usually composed of businessmen, lawyers, and economists, who have been appointed to manage an insolvent government. Puerto Rico’s Financial Oversight and Management Board (FOMB) was officially created in August 2016 under President Obama and the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management, and Economic Stability (Promesa) Act, to restructure and manage the commonwealth’s $72 billion in debt.

It was an unsurprisingly controversial move, considering that Puerto Rico does not vote in presidential elections and has no congressional seats, and so residents had zero input into the elected bodies that appointed the seven people who will now determine the commonwealth’s budget. (The former president of the Puerto Rico senate, Eduardo Bhatia, said any fiscal oversight board appointed by the federal government “was from the eighteenth century” and would evoke “the worst colonial subjugations.”) It doesn’t help matters that, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting, the oversight board has more power over its territory than any of the other 120-plus fiscal control boards that have been appointed in the United States since the first one was established in New York City in 1975.

Like most control boards, Puerto Rico’s does not come up with a budget itself, but reviews, makes recommendations on, and then ultimately approves budgets created by the Puerto Rican government. This is similar to how New York’s EFCB worked, although four of its board members — the governor, lieutenant governor, mayor, and comptroller — were elected officials (the other three were business leaders).

But some researchers, including Phillips-Fein, have questioned whether fiscal control boards are an appropriate measure, considering how government entities end up in such dire fiscal situations in the first place.

In the EFCB’s case, she says, the EFCB didn’t directly intervene in the city’s budgeting process, but instead “provided steady pressure for the mayor to push through cuts that were deeply unpopular and which otherwise might have faced more political resistance.” Thanks in part to this dynamic, the city’s workforce shrank by more than 20 percent in the late 1970s, including deep cuts to core civic services like police, firefighters, schools, and hospitals. Many of these cuts, Phillips-Fein found, were made by the city without the EFCB’s official recommendations; the board’s mere existence was enough for city officials to force draconian cuts down a resistant citizenry’s collective gullets.

To fiscal conservatives in New York and around the country — including President Gerald Ford — this was a necessary reality check that reined in New York’s hippie liberal fever dream. “The city was seen as embodying a certain liberal vision,” Phillips-Fein tells the Voice, “and its failure was proof that this was foolish and naive.”

New York’s fiscal crisis was framed as a reckoning of harsh realities that confirmed the fiscal conservative’s worldview. It was easy, then, for budding Reaganites to support cuts to services they didn’t think the government should be providing in the first place, such as free college education through the CUNY system — which, although a relatively small portion of the city’s budget shortfall, became a symbolic flashpoint for the city’s fiscal crisis as a whole.

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While the rhetoric surrounding Puerto Rico’s fiscal crisis brings up images of old Latin American stereotypes about government irresponsibility and lack of transparency, Phillips-Fein says fiscal control boards are fundamentally about, well, control. “Like the control board in NYC, [Puerto Rico’s board’s] existence presumes that the central reason for the fiscal crisis in the commonwealth is a lack of ‘control’ over spending — as opposed to deeper economic problems,” she says. “And that the answer to the problem is regaining that ‘control,’ even if it means sharp cuts to public services.”

Indeed, as with most situations where fiscal control boards are utilized, there are complicated factors contributing to the local economy that are well outside of Puerto Rico’s control. The island has been in a recession since 2006, and not just because of runaway government spending. One of the biggest causes of the recession, according to Hunter College’s Center for Puerto Rican studies, was the decline in manufacturing jobs after the federal government phased out a tax credit over a ten-year period — beginning in 1996 and ending in 2006 — for mainland companies on income earned in Puerto Rico. The Center also cites “congressional and presidential neglect to enact effective policies toward the island” — as just two examples, Congress has shortchanged federal healthcare benefits despite the fact that Puerto Ricans pay into the system like all other Americans, and continued to restrict shipments from the mainland to U.S.-built, U.S.-crewed ships, at the expense of prices for everyday goods in Puerto Rico.

MIT’s Deborah Kobes, who wrote her thesis on fiscal control boards, told the Center for Investigative Reporting that, as with New York’s control board, Puerto Rico’s starts from the premise that the local government made a bunch of irresponsible decisions.

“And that’s true in some cases,” says Kobes. “But I think it’s usually more of a mix, that they just do not have the funds because they have a poor economy.” In Puerto Rico’s case, the island was never able to recover from the closing of the tax loophole that saw so much manufacturing business leave the island for the next haven. In cases like these, she says, “changing administration is not going to fix that.”

This again parallels New York in the Seventies, where the fiscal crisis was just as much about larger economic trends as the city’s expenditures. As Phillips-Fein details in Fear City, manufacturers were leaving the city, the country was in a recession, and people were fleeing for the suburbs, thanks in part to federal policies that favored homeownership and the construction of highways over investment in urban areas.

But now that the control board exists, it is tasked with ensuring that Puerto Rico has a balanced budget by 2022, regardless of the costs to Puerto Ricans. Inevitably, a drastic reduction in government expenditures will hurt the poor and middle class most, since they’re the ones most reliant on public schools, hospitals, public transit, and other key government services — as is the case with any fiscal control board, says Phillips-Fein, since “the people who cannot afford to retreat into enclaves of wealth and privilege must rely on the community of which they are a part in a daily way.”

Puerto Ricans saw how this works in practice last month, when its oversight board rejected Puerto Rico governor Ricardo Rosselló’s fiscal plan because it didn’t specify precisely where budget cuts would come from, outline which government agencies would be merged, or include enough policies to make the island more business-friendly. FOMB’s recommended amendments read like a Republican’s wet dream: island-wide at-will employment, making severance pay and Christmas bonuses optional, reducing vacation and sick days, and introducing a work requirement for able-bodied adults that are recipients of the Nutrition Assistance Program (NAP). On March 13, the oversight board approved an amended plan that cut pensions even more than initially proposed and will likely result in more mandatory furloughs that will affect tens of thousands of government employees. Privatization of the island’s power company, ravaged by Hurricane Maria, looks likely to follow.

Maria’s devastation will only further exacerbate the dual pressures facing Puerto Rico’s oversight board: providing enough of a government to keep the island functioning, but not so much of a government that creditors remain unsatisfied. But as is often the case with fiscal control boards, one side of that equation has a lot more give than the other.

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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Puerto Rico’s National Forest Faces Long Road to Recovery

After having lost all its foliage and between 30 and 40 percent of its trees as a result of Hurricane Maria, the El Yunque National Forest in northeastern Puerto Rico is finally green again. Six months ago, the forest was mostly brown — the color of trees stripped to their roots and of grassy areas turned muddy. But now, trees and plants that looked as if they had been razed by a large-scale fire have grown new leaves, and flowers have even blossomed.

“When people ask when will it heal, when will it be back to what it was before, I tell them that this is a natural process, a routine cleaning that gives some species a chance to grow,” says Sharon Wallace, El Yunque’s forest supervisor since 2015. “This is a good thing. Nature is doing its job.”

National Forest Service Sharon Wallace stands at the main entrance of El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

But while the forest is vibrant again, and visitors are welcomed in some areas, it may take decades for the forest to fully recover. Wallace says that young trees that survived will need between 50 and 60 years to reach the maturity of the ones pummeled by the winds and rain brought on by Maria.

El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States national forest system, normally receives between 700,000 and 900,000 annual visitors, according to forest officials. But this year it’s likely to be much less.

“One of our busiest seasons, December to January, was still affected by widespread power outages, closed resorts and hotels, limited cruise ship schedules and time in port, and the presence of response and recovery personnel,” says Michael Crump, one of the forest’s supervisors. “We are moving into another traditionally busy season, the ‘spring break’ period. There has been a pickup in attendance and visitation by the public, especially tourists from off-island. The power situation is more stable now, and a few hotels and resorts have begun to start managing a more normal client schedule.”

Unlike other forests that have experienced a natural disaster, Crump says, El Yunque’s situation is unique because of the island’s small land base (approximately 30,000 acres), widespread damage to the island’s infrastructure, including loss of power in most areas, and limited access to the area, which delayed sending needed supplies.

“Other national forests that experience disasters usually do not have so many of these compounding circumstances to address at one time,” Crump says.

The Yokahu observation tower is seen surrounded by damaged trees in El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

Although it is one of the smallest forests in the United States, El Yunque is one of the most diverse in terms of flora and fauna, and even boasts a number of endemic species. El Yunque is home to more than 800 plant and 240 native tree species and 88 species of flora that are unique to the forest.

Eight of the 88 species of endemic flora are also endangered. A recent evaluation of the forest after the hurricane by ecologists determined all flora species survived the cyclone. At the moment, the specialists are establishing methods to restore and manage the flora.

El Yunque’s wild Puerto Rican parrot population was not so fortunate. Only 3 of the 56 native specimens survived, according to officials. Biologists had spent years rebuilding the population of the endangered Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), specific to the region, which had only had 13 specimens at its lowest count in the 1970s.

“It is a hard blow for the Puerto Rican Parrot Recovery Program after so many years of effort,” laments Jafet Vélez, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS.)

Vélez adds, “As biologists, we understand that hurricanes are a part of the Caribbean’s ecosystem and are able to explain them very well from a theoretical point of view. However, the emotional part is something else. The fruit of the labor of so many years is lost.”

The good news for this species, and for the program, is that the wild population of parrots living in Utuado, a town in the island’s mountainous area, mostly survived — 104 of the 150 parrots are still alive.

In captivity, 232 parrots live in El Yunque and 200 in Utuado. All were protected and survived, according to forest officials.

Still, the 2018 release of captive parrots into the wild has been suspended.

“We had to temporarily halt the releases while we assess the effects of the hurricane,” Vélez explains. “Also, we have to see how the forest behaves, how the vegetation recovers, and how much food is available.”

Luquillo beach is seen from El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

As for the forest itself, the biggest changes — imperceptible to a common observer — are reflected in El Yunque’s canopy.

“The canopy is not closed, and it will not close in a homogeneous manner,” explains ecologist Ricardo Santiago, who works in the forest. “A closed canopy indicates a mature forest. The status of the canopy greatly influences the regeneration of species and the amount of light reaching the forest floor.”

He adds: “This definitely opens up the possibility for trees that did not receive light before to have a chance to grow.”

The open canopy allows specialists to monitor invasive species and prevent them from spreading, and can allow specialists to establish controls if necessary.

“We monitor any species capable of expanding and displacing the habitat of native species,” says Santiago.

Forest maintenance worker Joel Flores uses a pulley system to transport materials during the restoration of El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

Wallace believes the signs of recovery in the forest ecosystem are so positive that El Yunque would be open to the public by now if that was the only factor.

However, the U.S. Forest Service is working hard to rebuild the forest’s infrastructure, particularly roads affected by mudslides and sinkholes, as well as repairing piping that provides drinking water.

“The ecosystem was stronger than human-made systems,” Wallace says. “Repairing the human economy and our social systems will take longer.”

Twenty percent of the country’s potable water comes from El Yunque, which according to forest officials supports nine dams. Río Grande and parts of Naguabo and Canóvanas, all municipalities covered by the forest, use water from El Yunque.

Within a 24-hour period during the storm, El Yunque received 44 inches of rain, according to forest officials. Normally, the forest gets more than 120 inches a year. Between 40 and 50 landslides were reported on its main roads, according to forest officials.

Forest maintenance workers work in the restoration of El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

The repair work is being done jointly by the Federal Highway Administration and the Puerto Rico Department of Transportation and Public Works (known by its Spanish acronym DTOP). Congress has allocated $60 million to repair and rehabilitate the forest, according to Wallace.

“Fixing the roads will take a long time. We are not going to wait for all of it to be ready to open,” says Wallace. For now, visitors can travel all the way up to the forest’s La Coca Falls.

Wallace adds that the rehabilitation efforts are considered part of the island’s economic reconstruction.

“We are going to focus on putting all the money we can here in Puerto Rico, here with the people of Puerto Rico,” she says.

In fact, more than 200 local workers have been hired so far to carry out a variety of tasks.

By February, $11 million and more than 1,000 hours had been spent on cleaning up debris and clearing roads, trails, and recreation sites, according to Wallace. The wreckage left behind by the hurricane — most of it vegetation — is left for the forest to reabsorb. The forest’s administration expects to find a buyer to purchase discarded exotic wood — such as mahogany — that fell to the floor.

A car drives through the main road of El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

The forest’s El Portal visitor center was badly damaged and will be completely renovated. The administration will use this opportunity to perform upgrades that had been planned before the hurricane.

“When it [the visitor center] reopens, it will have new exhibits and will be more oriented toward the community,” says Wallace. “We may be able to have a local fruit market and booths for artisans. We want visitors to leave with a good impression of what Puerto Rican culture is.”

Wallace estimates that the recovery work will take between one and two years.

In the meantime, forest officials will establish three small visitor centers called “portalitos” — “little portals” — that will be located in Barrio Palmer in Río Grande, on Road 186 to El Verde, and in the neighboring town of Naguabo. The idea is to keep people informed of what’s happening in El Yunque, and to allow vendors who sell forest-themed merchandise to reopen their businesses.

Cassie and Pamela Kavanaugh-Clark takes a selfie in front of La Coca falls in El Yunque National Forest in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2018.

“I would like people to understand that they are helping the recovery if they come here,” said tourist Pamela Kavanaugh-Clark, who was honeymooning in the forest with her partner, Cassie.

The couple was staying at a guest house that had no power and required the use of a generator. Yet they happily strolled around La Coca Falls.

Said Cassie, “It is still beautiful.”

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

CORRECTION: Because of translation and editing errors, this article initially referred to El Yunque as part of the U.S. national park system, rather than the national forest system. The Voice regrets the mistake.

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Living in the Dark: A Graphic Novela

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To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Six Months Later, Tourists Haven’t Returned to Puerto Rico

Recently, inside Restaurante Raíces in Old San Juan, chef Joshua Gutiérrez paced back and forth near the kitchen, while speaking on his cellphone. He had just gotten the bad news from one of his suppliers that no plátanos — plantains — would be available for purchase.

This news put Gutiérrez, 35, in a complicated situation: The restaurant’s star entrée is mofongo, a traditional Puerto Rican dish with a fried mashed plátano base accompanied by fish or meat, usually pork. Shortly after finishing the call, Gutiérrez took inventory of the rest of his supplies. He was missing some ingredients, and the ones he did have were mostly imported. It all hardly seemed real: a traditional Puerto Rican restaurant serving traditional Puerto Rico dishes with ingredients from Costa Rica or Colombia.

Meanwhile, the restaurant, decorated to resemble a small wooden house in the countryside, was only half full shortly after lunchtime. Of these people, about half were locals and half were tourists.

In the area in front of the restaurant, a few curious tourists watched the traditionally dressed waitstaff animatedly talking to patrons. The female servers wore long skirts with puffy-sleeved blouses, their heads wrapped in white handkerchiefs; the men wore black suspenders over their white shirts, and straw hats resembling those worn by Puerto Rican farmers in the nineteenth century.

For tourists visiting Puerto Rico during high season 2018, ‘Raíces’ Restaurant is a popular destination for their renown criollo cuisine.

Nearly six months have passed since Hurricane Maria, and most of the tourists still haven’t returned. Figures provided by the Puerto Rico Tourism Company indicate that there are 12,458 rooms available in 80 percent of official hotels — which excludes such options as Airbnb — that have reopened. The Tourism Company, a government entity, also reported that registrations in endorsed hotels for January dropped from 131,639 in 2017 to 65,321 in 2018. For the fiscal 2017–2018 year (July–January), registration was down to 599,029 compared to 882,234 for the same period in 2016–2017.

Puerto Rico Tourism and Hotels Association (PRTHA) executive director Clarisa Jiménez admits that the recovery process might be long and complicated. But perhaps, she adds, many people who had not planned to travel to Puerto Rico will now want to visit to help the island recover. 

Many hotels, such as the Wyndham Grand Río Mar, aren’t accepting tourist reservations since most of their rooms are occupied by federal and disaster response employees. Due to the nature of their work, these guests hardly have time for lavish dinners. So many local restaurants don’t benefit.

It’s nearly impossible to get accurate or reliable numbers on just how many local businesses have shuttered as a result of the hurricane, although El Nuevo Dia recently reported that more than 150 businesses have filed for bankruptcy since Maria. The total impact Hurricane Maria had on tourism will likely take months, if not years, to calculate. Mostly, we are left with anecdotal stories of empty streets, abandoned shops and restaurants, and taxi drivers with no one to transport.

The Ritz Carlton Hotel in Isla Verde missed out entirely on the 2018 season as post hurricane Maria repairs continue.

“We go out in the street and sometimes make $30 or $40 a day,” Valentín Genaro, 64, a taxi driver born in the Dominican Republic who has lived in Puerto Rico for nine years, says in Spanish. “This is supposed to be the time of the year when you make the most money, so we are looking at a lot of loss. The good months are January, February, March, and until mid April. After that, tourism drops a lot. We hang on the rest of the year with the money we make during these months, but the way it looks right now, the numbers are not going to add up.”

In any other year, during this same stretch of time in late February, on this same sidewalk on Calle Recinto Sur, most of the restaurants on the block — including Raíces — would be full. But now, most of the visitors who pass through here are unlikely to stop; they are merely passing time before they return to their cruise ships. By June, island officials expect to have more than a million cruise ship passengers from the start of the year, the one bit of good news regarding Puerto Rican tourism. And yet, that isn’t likely to help many local businesses.

“We are still struggling,” Gutiérrez says in Spanish. “We’ve seen the situation improve with the cruise ships, but we just haven’t seen that translate to business being like it was before.”

After the hurricane, this branch of Raíces — there are three; the original opened in May 2002 — remained closed for nearly two months while waiting for power to return to Old San Juan. Gutiérrez, who has been a chef for eighteen years, was hired during this period to oversee the eventual reopening. He says the restaurant suffered water damage that needed to get repaired shortly after the power returned. It took a lot of work, Gutiérrez says, but it got done.

Now the main task is to keep prices low enough to attract tourists when they eventually, hopefully, return. The hurricane was such a catastrophic event, personally and professionally, Gutiérrez says, that it’s been difficult to remain positive during a time when nothing seems normal.

Left: The post-Hurricane María peak 2018 tourist season has been less than stellar. Old San Juan stores are seeing few to no shoppers, and the usually packed Condado beaches noticeably lack tourists taking in the sun.

“The hurricane affected all of us,” Gutiérrez says. “To feel that everything is at such a standstill for so long.… We have to admit that we weren’t, and we still aren’t, prepared for such a catastrophe and it was worse than everyone had predicted. You have to fight to remain positive when nothing around you gives you reason to be optimistic.”

Staffing the restaurant has been one of Gutiérrez’s biggest challenges. At the end of last year, many of Raíces’s employees moved to the United States to find jobs. Gradually, Gutiérrez has been able to replace management and waitstaff, but the worker base in Puerto Rico has not yet reached pre-hurricane levels. Some estimates say that approximately 200,000 people have left the island.

Gustavo Vélez, president of the economic consulting firm Inteligencia Económica, says that a study commissioned by the PRTHA in January demonstrated that tourism is the industry with the highest capacity for growth in terms of job creation and return on investment. Its advantage is that it does not depend on federal funds to survive, as do the pharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, other important financial pillars of the island.

Taxi stand in Old San Juan with drivers standing in the shade to stay cool.

Jimenéz says that the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, with support from the PRTHA, plans to resume international promotional efforts in April, and adds that the Destination Marketing Organization, a nonprofit organization that merged a couple of government sponsored tourism agencies, will be in charge of creating long-term campaigns — scheduled to start in the summer — that will significantly boost the sector’s recovery.

“There are great opportunities. 2018 is a year of change. We must keep working to achieve everything we have set out to do, and by the end of the year we should be able to see that things are changing for the better,” says Jiménez.

But for now, Gutiérrez continues to wait for customers. A few years ago, he had his own restaurant in a residential neighborhood. He recalls agonizing over the day he had to shut it down, but now he feels he might have been lucky that it didn’t work out. Hurricane Maria tore apart the building where his restaurant had been. He says he cannot even imagine the difficulty of trying to restart a small business.

Shortly after the hurricane, Gutiérrez says he spent a few weeks as a consultant for a restaurant in Bayamón. But those efforts were unsuccessful because the power did not return there quickly.

Eventually, he was tasked with rebuilding and reopening Raíces. It’s been a challenge, from finding workers to finding Puerto Rican plátanos. But both are important, he argues. The supplier on the phone told Gutiérrez that tourists won’t be able to tell the difference between a Colombian plátano and a Puerto Rican one.

That’s not the point, Gutiérrez told him. “If this is one of our main dishes,” he says, “then we should be prioritizing our ingredients to help the country’s recovery go more quickly.”

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

A Cartoon History of Colonialism in Puerto Rico

Written by Ed Morales, Illustrated by Omar Banuchi

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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6 MONTHS LATER ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

From One Crisis to Another

On March 5, nearly three months after landing at John F. Kennedy Airport on a flight from Puerto Rico, 29-year-old Daiza Aponte finally moved into a hotel room with a kitchenette.

Soon after Aponte and her two young daughters arrived in New York last December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed them, along with dozens of other Puerto Rican families fleeing the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, in a Holiday Inn Express overlooking the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx. Hotel management refused to let the families bring food to their rooms, recalls Aponte, and her toddler daughter didn’t have a crib. She fell out of bed three times.

Now, FEMA has transferred Aponte to the quiet Pointe Plaza Hotel just north of Flushing Avenue in Hasidic Williamsburg. “It’s like a studio,” Aponte told the Voice in Spanish on a recent afternoon at a Brooklyn pizza shop. One-year-old Alannys slept in her stroller, tucked into a pink snowsuit, while three-year-old Enrielys climbed under the table. “If you need pots, spoons, they’ll give it to you. I can ask for a sheet and they’ll give me one.”

2 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, NY- March 9, 2018: Daiza Aponte and her daughters Enrielys (age 3) & Alannys (age1) Martoral at the Pointe Plaza Hotel in Brooklyn as she warmed up pizza and spaghetti for dinner.
Photo Credit: David ‘Dee’ Delgado

Aponte is determined to stay in New York City, where her children, who both have asthma, receive better healthcare than they did in Puerto Rico. But she knows that her current living situation is temporary. FEMA was housing 225 Puerto Rican families in hotels in New York State as of March 13, according to the agency. Its Transitional Shelter Assistance Program has been extended until May 14 at the request of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, but only for families who qualify based on FEMA’s inspections of their homes back on the island. FEMA also offers rental assistance on a case-by-case basis, but the amount is based on rents in the area where the disaster took place.

2 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, NY- March 9, 2018: Alannys Martoral (age 1) at the Pointe Plaza Hotel in Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: David ‘Dee’ Delgado

Aponte says she’s been offered $550 per month for six months. So far, apartment hunting in New York at that price has been futile. “Everything I’ve found is $1,200 and up, for just one room,” she says. “We lost our homes there, and then came here to end up in the street.”   

***

After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was explicit that there isn’t enough affordable housing in New York City to accommodate families who couldn’t stay on the island. More than 63,000 New Yorkers already sleep in shelters each night as of January, and the rental vacancy rate is a sobering 3.6 percent. “I don’t want to encourage people to come here if they don’t have some family to turn to,” de Blasio told CBS’s Marcia Kramer in October. “I think we have to be really clear about that.”

To address other needs, the city launched an emergency service center at the Julia De Burgos Performance and Arts Center in East Harlem that welcomed more than 2,500 households from Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and the Virgin Islands seeking free, bilingual legal counsel and mental health services; winter clothing; and applications for food assistance and Medicaid.

But the emergency center quietly shut down on February 9. Now, nonprofit emergency response organizations and advocates for the Puerto Rican community say City Hall should form a task force to correct issues that have cropped up over and over in recent months, such as a lack of sympathetic translators at Human Resources Administration offices, and insufficient job training and legal assistance for families seeking to challenge FEMA denials. In fact, the city should have circled the wagons months ago, they say, so families would be more prepared to look for their own housing come spring.

450 Grand Concourse, Bronx, NY- March 11, 2018: Daisa Aponte sharing her story with a panel agencies dedicated to helping victims at the Bronx Coalition Supporting Hurricane Maria Evacuees.

Jonathan Soto worked at City Hall until late January as director of de Blasio’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships. He was tasked with helping set up the city’s emergency center, but left for a job at Union Theological Seminary after realizing he could “do more on the outside.” Soto believes a task force could have helped the city coordinate with councilmembers in districts with large Puerto Rican populations, like the Lower East Side and Sunset Park. With multiple service centers, he says, families wouldn’t have had to make the daunting commute to East Harlem.

“The problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Soto. “When FEMA assistance runs out, where are those folks going to go? The existing shelter system.”

Many people who fled Puerto Rico after the storm are running through their savings, he notes, and the island is still a long way from a full recovery. “People are going to make the wager to stay here, putting a bigger strain on nonprofits and welfare,” he says. “I don’t think the city has a contingency plan.”

***

Health and Human Services Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio said at a recent press conference that City Hall closed the emergency services center after “the influx of people evacuating … slowed.” She urges Puerto Ricans to instead seek help at any of the 24 Homebase offices across the city, which provide New Yorkers at risk of homelessness with emergency rental assistance and financial counseling.

“Folks should certainly know that they can walk into any Homebase and get a full array of services,” Palacio told reporters at a recent press conference. HRA also granted the nonprofit Catholic Charities $180,000 to assist Puerto Rican families already in the shelter system with Medicaid, SNAP, and FEMA applications at four Homebase offices in the Bronx.

But advocates worry the issue is a lack of advertising, not a lack of need. “At the beginning the Julia De Burgos Center was promoted very well. They allowed all of the newspapers and cameras to come in,” says Lilah Mejia, a coordinator with New York Disaster Interfaith Services. Her nonprofit had a table there, and distributed winter clothing and MetroCards. “As time went on it kind of died down and people forgot,” she says.

2 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, NY- March 9, 2018: Daiza Aponte on the phone scheduling an appointment as her one year old daughter Alannys Martoral plays with an old cellphone at the Pointe Plaza Hotel in Brooklyn.
Photo Credit: David ‘Dee’ Delgado

Aponte never made it to the service center. Instead, she says, she made two futile attempts to acquire cash assistance, complicated by the language barrier and her lack of sufficient documentation. HRA requires proof of the number of people living in an applicant’s household, and Aponte’s TSA paperwork doesn’t list her children. During one visit to HRA’s 300 Canal Place center in the South Bronx, she says, Alannys started coughing and a staff member accused her of spreading the flu. “She hung up on the translator, and I had to communicate there as best as I could,” Aponte recalls. “That was really hard. I left there crying. I felt nervous.”

HRA declined to comment on Aponte’s case, citing privacy rules. A spokesperson tells the Voice, “We are doing everything we can to help evacuees from areas impacted by major storms last year, working diligently and as fast as possible to help them get back on their feet.”

As of February 8, according to HRA, 49 percent of storm victims’ cash aid requests and 54 percent of SNAP requests were approved and active. HRA said that some cases were closed because applicants left New York or got jobs that made them ineligible, but did not break down the data further.

“You hear the HRA nightmares,” says Mejia. Since the emergency center closed, she has a skeleton crew operating on Tuesdays and Thursdays out of the Church of the Holy Agony on Third Avenue in East Harlem. “People treat you unjust,” she says. “So families return [to us] because they knew they could come to a warm friendly face. Where we would embrace and assist them.”

***

Advocates have also accused the city of failing to disseminate information about New York’s housing crisis to Puerto Rican families. Maisha Morales is a program coordinator at Good Old Lower East Side, a nonprofit that fights displacement in that neighborhood. For several weeks following Hurricane Maria, she says, Puerto Rican families would show up at her office seeking housing assistance, on the recommendation of volunteers at the Julia De Burgos Center. She had no choice but to send most of them back uptown.

“Of course it’s heartbreaking,” says Morales. “We tried our best as far as informing them what’s out there — understanding what a housing lottery is, and that you would need a certain income bracket to qualify. Most of them didn’t have jobs, so they didn’t qualify for it.”

Without reliable housing, says 28-year-old Raul Grajales, everything else falls apart. His $200-per-month studio apartment in Canóvanas, with a rooftop view of El Yunque National Forest to the east and the beach at Isla Verde to the west, was completely destroyed in Hurricane Maria. He left Puerto Rico and moved in with a friend in Queens in October, but quickly realized that “there was basically no space between us.”

Grajales eventually responded to a Craigslist ad for a bedroom in Washington Heights and agreed to pay $550 for two weeks. The roommates disappeared after a week and the heat and electricity were cut off, a cruel reminder of the situation he’d left behind. “I was like, I should have stayed in PR. What the fuck am I doing?” he recalls.

Grajales ended moving in with some sympathetic neighbors for $650 per month. He established a routine, helping a roommate sell flowers out of a shopping cart. (He says his seven years of experience in food service meant nothing in New York, where restaurants asked for at least a year of local experience.) He was glad to be in a diverse city, he says: “I may not have enough money to travel the world, but New York brings the world to you. I met Jamaicans, I met a lot of Mexicans, I met Dominicans, Taiwanese, people from everywhere. That’s pretty nice.”

“I also chose New York because I wouldn’t need a car,” he says. “People complain a lot about the MTA, but hey, at least it’s something.”

Even so, on March 4 Grajales flew home to his parents’ house in Bayamón with the last of his two years’ savings. “I knew it was going to be difficult,” he says. “But I was unforgivably naive.”

***

On March 13, First Lady Chirlane McCray hosted a press conference at the headquarters of the Hispanic Federation in lower Manhattan to announce a $100,000 grant for mental health services in Puerto Rico. Later that afternoon, she flew to the island for a day of touring. During a Q&A session following the announcement, Deputy Mayor Palacio told the Voice that City Hall has “no plans for a task force explicitly” to address gaps in aid for Puerto Rican evacuees in New York City.  

“On the island they’re doing great work,” Mejia of NYDIS said afterwards. “But what about our families here in the city?”

Now that the service center is closed, volunteers are stepping up to assist Puerto Ricans for free. Victor Martinez, a Puerto Rico native from the Bronx, created the website Diaspora X Puerto Rico in October with his wife, Surey Miranda. It links out to subway maps, details about emergency Medicaid and shelter, and job boards. “We use Facebook,” he explains. “We are only four volunteers, and we have been able to contact around 200 people since two weeks after the hurricane.”

Martinez adds, “Apart from talking to people about what they need, we try to have a conversation with them. To know a little bit more about their stories, what they went through.”

2 Franklin Ave, Brooklyn, NY- March 9, 2018: Axel Reyes and his wife Michelle Torres and children Jonathan, Ashley & Jailene Reyes at the Pointe Plaza Hotel in Brooklyn where they have been staying after relocating from a Holiday Inn in the Bronx.
Photo Credit: David ‘Dee’ Delgado

Evacuees are also helping each other. Aponte’s friend Axel Reyes, a 42-year-old father of three, came to New York with his family after the hurricane destroyed his restaurant in Coamo. His children’s school shut down and his home lost potable water. He has lived in New York City before and speaks fluent English, so he’s helped other FEMA families, sharing his knowledge about the subway and public assistance.

“We try to help everyone,” he says. “One for all, and all for one.”

Reyes, who’s staying in the same hotel as Aponte, tells the Voice that he doesn’t qualify for a FEMA extension through mid-May because inspectors haven’t been able to assess damages. (He doesn’t have family or friends in Puerto Rico to let the inspectors inside.) He says he’s received notice to move out of the hotel on Tuesday, six months to the day after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. A FEMA spokesperson says extensions are available for some families, but stressed that allowances are made on a case-by-case basis. Reyes has been working five days a week, commuting to a steelworking job in the Bronx nearly three hours each way, but doesn’t have enough saved to rent an apartment.  “My kids aren’t taking it too good,” he says.

Yet he’s determined to stay in New York. Reyes proudly shows the Voice pictures of two certificates his fifteen-year-old daughter has received at her new school in the Bronx: perfect attendance and honor roll.

Back in Coamo, he says, there’s “no food, no water, no school, no light, no nothing. So I made the choice.”

“And my choice turned out to be right,” he adds. “I’m working. I’m feeding my kids. I don’t have a stable home for them, no, I do not, but they’re eating every day.”  

Additional reporting by Felipe De La Hoz

To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.

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