Verve Observation

Life Of A Nation

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Photo: Edgardo Santana

Several of the designers and models in our Eyes of A Nation piece, were in Puerto Rico when Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck or traveled back after the storm. We collected some of the images and recollections and observations about the long road to recovery.

 

On September, 16, 2017, a tropical wave became a tropical storm and Hurricane Maria made landfall on the southeast side of Puerto Rico, sweeping across the island toward the northwest edge of the island before leaving Puerto Rico days later.

 

Immediately in the wake of Hurricane Maria, the death toll was estimated in the 60s. But as a result of ineffective infrastructure,  poor medical aid and a devastated power grid unable to service hospitals and emergency areas across the island, an estimated 3000 people perished, studies revealed almost a year later.

 

While all natural disasters are tragic, the eyes of America and the world are on the United States executive and congressional response. The island of Puerto Rico has a unique relationship to the United States. It is a territory, neither independent as a country, nor a state, while Puerto Ricans are United States citizens.

From Google Maps
Photo: Phillip Wong
Marie Vilanova

 

Marie Vilanova’s family home is in Cayey, Puerto Rico. It’s a small town in the eastern center of the island of Puerto Rico. She heard from her mother the day before the storm struck, and then wasn’t able to hear from them for two weeks until they could get to San Juan for the little phone service available on the island.   

She returned in January of 2018 and reported that “when I went in winter gas stations were ruined, stores didn’t have their signs or anything and the highway, even now, is still under construction on one side and it’s barely being done. You never see anyone working there.”

 

A new mall had opened outside of San Juan with Saks and Nordstrom attracting big brand names to Puerto Rico for the first time. Saks left. Nordstrom has closed and Marie thinks they may not open, or open as a smaller store.  At present “looks like an empty mall with like only a few stores open.”

Edgardo Santana

 

I got back from Puerto Rico last night after a couple of weeks of plenty of sun and inspiration as well as a dose of reality.  It is hard to believe how bad things remain almost a year after Irma and Maria hit the Island, and it is impressive how determined and resilient people are.  

 

The recent memory of the massive destruction left behind by Maria which still fresh in everyone’s minds I think will last a lifetime.  Nature is slowly coming back; there are thousands of trees dead but still standing even though they pose a threat to people on the roads….  I saw communities with the blue canvas like roofs which FEMA provided as well as plenty of debris.

 

. . . .the roads are a mess and there are no traffic lights at many busy intersections which has been blamed for accidents. There is congestion even on highways.  There are areas without power which is inexcusable (he wrote this is in August 2018) and people are being billed for electricity, water services and tolls by government agencies even though they’ve had no service for many months, could not go anywhere during the crisis . . . .

 

A lot of the prime spots on the Island are up for sale and there is an influx of lots of people from around the World; India, Turkey, China, to name a few.  The present government wants to privatize some beaches and even sell some of the small Islands off the mainland.  Needless to say, people are concern and the debate about Statehood prevails even after the incident in which paper towels were thrown so disrespectfully to citizens seeking help.

 

Tourism is coming back but it will be a while before anyone can break even as people abroad believe that things remain pretty bad.  A stroll through my favorite place, Old San Juan, was pleasant but a lot of businesses have closed and some areas look very different because the trees were uprooted by the winds and then there were high waves that destroyed light posts, fountains, etc.

My sister took me to visit Los Banos de Coamo; a resort with thermal water pools where people go to relax and renew themselves and it was emotionally painful to see the destruction, which seems beyond repair.  The place was being remodeled when the disaster happened and it is now gone.  The part where pools were improved for the general public to use, were left intact so we were able to use them.  The road to get there was rough but there was quite a crowd, predominantly Puerto Ricans on vacation from the States.  

 

My dear town of Salinas is slowly recovering and it was sad to see the mangrove trees by the coast destroyed and restaurants still in shambles.   My parents backyard was destroyed and all the trees that were once the sunbathing spot of iguanas are no longer standing which now makes it easy to see further away where the river passes by and one of the out of town communities.

 

I visited the Island of Culebra and spent a day at Flamenco Beach which was once one of the top 10 beaches in the World and saw that it still is a gem however like many other beaches in the mainland and in Culebra itself, seaweed has come up to dirty the beautiful fine white sand and the foul odor it produces has proven to be a tough issue to deal with.  Fishermen have had many losses as fish population decreased and farmers have also struggled because they lost their crops.

 

The color is coming back more intense than ever and there is hope in the air for life to be good again.  I believe this is a new beginning which will be fruitful and the boricuas are finding their voices and expressing their feelings through all forms of art: The murals in Santurce, Old San Juan, Culebra and many other towns, the music that tells the story, sculptors, writers are documenting everything, dance has taken a new form to tell this particular story, etc.  I feel the need to continue to contribute by making larger, colorful pieces that clearly demonstrate how colorful, strong and determined the people of my beloved Island will always be.

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Photo: Phillip Wong

Charlene Ortiz

 

I live in the town of Salinas.

 

Preparing for the storm was extremely stressful. I was at university when my parents called and told me to come home early because a storm was approaching. The first thing I did was go to the gas station and fill my car with gasoline. Then I went home and prepared the windows, I removed everything from the floor and put them in plastic bags because we live near the beach and the hurricane could cause flooding in my area. My mom went to the supermarket to buy water, ice, canned products and food that doesn’t need to be refrigerated.

 

Two weeks before Maria, Hurricane Irma passed near Puerto Rico and caused lots of damage in some areas, but when news of Maria’s approach came, there wasn’t much response. But as the storm grew in strength and grew closer, people began to take it seriously.

 

The day before the hurricane was scheduled to hit, all my family including our pets went to my grandma’s house to spend the night and day of the hurricane there. (She is more inland and on higher ground). That night we didn’t sleep at all. The hurricane hit land on Puerto Rico at 2am. There was a lot of wind blowing. We could see the trees falling and flying all over. Windows looked like they were about to explode. Water started to enter the house. The electricity went down as soon as the winds of the hurricane struck the island. It was a horrible experience. Everything outside was flying. There was a lot of noise caused by the wind. It was very scary. Most of the damage happened during the night, so when the sun came out that morning and we saw what happened during the night it was really impressive.

 

The street looked like a river. All the big trees were down. Aluminum ceilings, pieces of wood, chairs and garage doors where flying all over. The winds kept blowing and blowing. Nobody went outside that day because the Hurricane lasted a few hours.

The next day I finally got to go outside. Everything was a disaster. We couldn’t drive because of all the trees that were on the street. I went with my family driving slowly to my house. It was very sad. All the wooden houses where gone,  basketball courts flew and got stuck in the streets. All the houses and cars had leaves and dirt all over. The signs of the streets and stores where also gone. We live near the beach so the piers were broken and the boats smashed against each other. One of them sank. The water of the sea and river overflowed and caused flooding near my house. It was sad to see all the people cleaning all the mud, throwing away furniture or crying because they lost everything.  We didn’t have signal, internet or electricity so we couldn’t communicate with anyone and make sure all family and friends were okay. Family in the US were worried because everything happened very sudden, but no one could reach us.

 

A week later, the phone signals started to work again, but only at night and in certain places (for example the highway). People would stop in the emergency lane to get signal and communicate. It was a very slow signal so we could only make quick calls. About two weeks later, people started to run out of food, ice and water. The markets where still closed. The only ones that were opened were almost out of food too. To get in the supermarket we had to wait hours outside on the sun. Also, to get gasoline people were sleeping in their cars waiting in the line for the truck to come to buy $10 limit on gas.

 

            Once a week, a truck passed my street to give us water and food from MRA. Weeks later, my phone signal was re-established so I had the opportunity to talk with some friends and they invited me to become part of a group that was helping people that lost everything during María.

 

As a group we visited other towns in Puerto Rico that were really affected by the hurricane but were slow to get aid. We brought them food, candy, clothes, toys and personal stuff. We also performed Batucadas and I dressed up as different characters to play and dance with the kids of refugees. It was really nice. I had the opportunity to meet and help people from different parts of the island that lost their homes. I heard their stories. They made me cry many times with their stories but I know that I made a difference in each of them and that makes me very happy. Maybe I lost material things and didn’t have electricity for months but I made a difference in hundreds of people and to me, that’s more important.