FOR ONE REPORTER (Luis Ferré-Sadurní) PUERTO RICO’S TRAGEDY IS PERSONAL

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A report by James Warren for Vanity Fair.

The co-byline on the primary New York Times story on hurricane ravaged Puerto Rico rings a bell: Luis Ferré-Sadurní. It could be grist for one of The New York Times’ own “Times Insider” behind-the-news features. Yes, there’s the tale the paper chronicles of José A. Rivera, a farmer on the southeast coast of Puerto Rico” who looked out on his ravaged plantain farm Sunday and guessed how much Hurricane Maria had cost him alone. “How do you calculate everything?” Mr. Rivera said with painful simplicity. But there’s also that byline memorializing his anguish: a 22-year-old member of the most influential media family on the island.

Ferré-Sadurní just started in journalism. After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania in the spring, he got a summer  internship on the paper’s Metro desk. He was supposed to be done in August but was asked to stick around six more months. “When I saw that they didn’t have someone in Puerto Rico on the ground for Irma, I volunteered and they sent me here. Next thing I know, I’ve been here for 2+ weeks covering Irma aftermath in PR, US Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands + Maria now. It’s been quite a ride.”

So there he is, toiling hard and assisting in a solid report on what’s been going on. And since he had to toil all Sunday, and I had the less arduous task of getting to Green Bay, Wisconsin for a Packers game, we had this email exchange:

I assume the devastation brought by the hurricane is especially personal to you. when you first realized the enormity of the damage, what was your reaction?

“I was reporting from inside a newsroom during the hurricane. But after about 14 hours of gusts, the hurricane started winding down in the San Juan area and I ventured out to the neighborhood I grew up in Guaynabo. What I saw left me speechless, but I only had an hour to report and then file, so I didn’t process the damage. It wasn’t until later that evening that I came to the overwhelming and terrible realization that my island had been ravaged almost beyond recognition. It gave me a knot in my stomach. Every day I report from a more affected town and every day I get a similar feeling after I file.”

What’s your family’s history in the newspaper business on the island? Did you grow up there? Where did you go to school?

El Nuevo Día, a daily newspaper in Puerto Rico, has been my family’s business since my great-grandfather bought it in the 1940s. My grandfather presided over the paper later on and now my aunts, uncle, and father are involved in different capacities. I studied at the University of Pennsylvania and recently graduated in May.

So have you always had journalism in your blood? What was your first experience with the paper? Did you work summers there during school? Or, if not, what was your first journalism experience?

My dad is a journalist, so I practically grew up in the newsroom of El Nuevo Día. I worked at the paper every summer during high-school in a different department: the presses, the archives, marketing. I was 15 when I finally made it to the sports desk and that was my first writing gig. My first story was about a Puerto Rican teenager who had won sweepstake tickets to go watch the 2010 Fifa World Cup in South Africa. The story, as many others that summer, got rigorously edited. I improved my Spanish writing and learned the basics of journalism that summer.

What’s this hurricane reporting assignment like as a journalist? Is it possible to be dispassionate, cold-blooded journalist?

As much as I hate it, I’ve often felt dispassionate during my reporting. Repeatedly, when I’m visiting flooded neighborhoods or interviewing mourning families that have lost everything, I don’t find myself sympathizing with the terrible losses here. I’ve instinctively focused on getting the story right, absorbing the environment of the devastation and filing on time (which doesn’t happen as often because of spotty signal and obstructed roads). It isn’t until after the story has been published that I take a step back and really process what I saw on the island I grew up in. I hate that I’m instinctively dispassionate during the reporting phase, but I guess it’s something beyond my control.

What’s the situation, as best you can tell, with media on the island? TV, radio, papers? Can anybody really operate?

The main newspapers successfully reported through the storm, but getting the paper out can be troubling with obstructed roads. Plus, the majority of the island doesn’t have electricity or telecommunications, so residents have trouble accessing online content. Many people don’t have electricity to watch TV either. All radio stations, except one, went down after the hurricane hit. That station, and others that have begun broadcasting since, became the main source of information for many residents. It’s back to basics, here.

We’ve read in the past several years about the economic challenges facing the island, notably significant debt. Even if you’re not a municipal finance expert, how in the world might this tragedy further impact the basic economic challenges.

Any economic improvements the island might have seen in the near future will be delayed as the reconstruction process begins. Basic infrastructure was knocked out. One hundred percent of households are without electricity, except for the lucky few which can afford a generator. Portable water and telephone towers also need to be addressed. And, long-term, will there be enough federal funding to repair and improve infrastructure the Puerto Rican bankrupt government

How is your family doing?

Safe and sound, thank god.

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