Puerto Rico on Her Mind: How to Help a Stricken Island Called Home

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Mireya Navarro—a former New York Times reporter and an author who was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico—shares her observations and anguish about “a stricken island called home.” She includes information about the similar plight in the U.S. Virgin Islands: St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix. Here are excerpts (see full article in The New York Times travel section):

Compelled by the devastation, many visitors have been monitoring the news on social media, sending over money and packages with supplies like bottled water and even signing up to volunteer in clean up and rebuilding efforts. And adjusting to the new reality, the Puerto Rico Tourism Company said it is working with hotels and tour operators to offer package deals at discounted rates to allow guests to combine vacation days with a volunteer stint in the recovery effort, a mix of volunteering and tourism known as “voluntourism” that has become increasingly common in other parts of the world.

A similar effort is underway in the United States Virgin Islands, another American territory in the Caribbean whose three islands — St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix — suffered modest to crippling losses from the one-two punch of Hurricanes Maria and Irma within a two-week span.

Hurricanes, some tour operators say, tend to scare away leisure travelers or steer them to other destinations unscathed by the weather as they make plans for winter travel. For every Puerto Rico, St. John, St. Martin, Dominica and other islands ravaged by hurricanes this year, operators said, there’s an Aruba, St. Lucia, Jamaica and other Caribbean spots ready and open for business. But many loyal visitors, especially those with relatives, friends and property in the affected areas, say they are still planning to travel to their getaways, eager to somehow help out, if only by injecting tourist dollars into battered economies.

That would be me.

I have lived in several states for more than 40 years but was born and raised in San Juan and visit every New Year’s Eve with my husband, Jim. In the agonizing first weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, I learned about the fate of my sister and extended family, including a cousin with Alzheimer’s living in a home for the elderly, at an excruciatingly slow pace and only through sporadic emails, texts, Facebook postings and snippets of phone conversations before the calls dropped. It was hard to sleep at night. [. . .] My attention turned then to the touchstones and places that give Puerto Rico its beauty and culture and that I now realize I have taken for granted all my life.

What was left of “El Yunque,” known for its waterfalls and endangered parrots, I wondered? I later learned that the 28,000-acre treasure, El Yunque, the only tropical rain forest in the United States forest system and a major driver of the island’s tourism, was obliterated.

What about the restaurants and kiosks nearby along Luquillo Beach — Jibaro’s, Terruño, La Parrilla — always good for fritters like alcapurrias, home cooking and music after a day in the sun? Was Old San Juan still recognizable? Did the ice cream place with the long lines for the freshly made waffle cones, Mantecaditos Los Chicos, survive in Culebra, the Puerto Rican island municipality to the east? What was the damage to the delicate bioluminescent bay in Vieques, another island municipality?

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What did Hurricane Maria not annihilate? How long would it take for it all to come back?

[. . .] Restored power was a big “if,” though. By early November, more than a month after the hurricane hit, the power company was generating less than 40 percent of electricity, government figures showed. Close to 20 percent of the island was without running water and about a third without telecommunication services. The Army Corps of Engineers, charged by the White House to rebuild the power system, has warned that total power restoration could take nearly a year, partly because of the challenge of getting supplies like utility poles quickly to an island. Neighboring St. Thomas and St. John in the United States Virgin Islands had not fared much better.

[. . .] But while cruise ship traffic has been rebounding, top hotels in Puerto Rico like El San Juan Hotel and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, shut down because of damages and many of those that remained open with the help of generators were housing workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief agencies.

The Environmental Protection Agency and local government officials have warned against bathing in beaches, rivers and streams because of possible raw sewage discharges as a result of hurricane damage to treatment plants.

In St. Thomas and St. John, major hotels have closed for 6 to 18 months and officials expected a significant decline in overnight visitors. “We lost the last quarter of the year,” said Beverly Nicholson Doty, commissioner of tourism for the United States Virgin Islands.

It is true that tourism-dependent islands have been able to recover quickly after hurricanes, even if visitors have to look at topless palm trees. When I reported from St. Thomas, St. Martin (divided into French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten) and Antigua less than two months after Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, I found varying degrees of progress, but much of the tourist industry was ready for visitors and some tourists were trickling back.

But tourism officials in the American Caribbean acknowledged that Irma, which made landfall in the Virgin Islands on Sept. 6 as a Category 5 hurricane, and Maria, which hit Puerto Rico barely short of that magnitude as a Category 4, were like no other hurricanes in recent history because of their power and overwhelming reach. In Puerto Rico, hardly a corner of the island was spared its destruction, officials said. [. . .] Within days of the hurricanes, volunteers started showing up in St. Thomas in the United States Virgin Islands, where the organization All Hands Volunteers set up operations in the gym at the Kingdom Life International Christian Center in the capital city of Charlotte Amalie.

The disaster relief group, based in Massachusetts, had received more than 1,600 applications by the end of October but can accommodate only about 70 volunteers at any given time in spartan quarters. People can come for as long as they want to work in cleanup, mold remediation, building temporary classrooms and permanent reconstruction, among other efforts. Erik Dyson, All Hands executive director and chief executive, said the organization planned to extend its work to Puerto Rico by early 2018. “Anyone can help,” he said. “There’s a need for people to carry things. There’s a lot of not highly skilled jobs.”

[. . .] Regular visitors to the Virgin Islands like Joanne Barker, a resident of Washington who last went to St. John in January, have found ways to send care packages directly to those in need. Ms. Barker said she was shopping in October to fill up boxes with items like baby powder milk formula and diapers after being paired up with families through a site — Adopt a Family in USVI — that matches donors to specific people. [. . .]

Tourism officials say they have not totally given up on leisure travelers. Mr. Izquierdo noted that big attractions like Old San Juan suffered only “minimal” structural damage (although it lost many trees). And, he added: “At the core of every successful tourism destination is the quality of the people and hospitality, and that wasn’t washed away by the hurricane. That’s stronger than ever.”

But some in the tourism industry warned that a minimum level of services is required to lure travelers back. Jack Richards, president and chief executive of Pleasant Holidays in Los Angeles, which books trips for 23 countries in the Caribbean, said that [. . .] “Given the level of devastation in Puerto Rico,” Mr. Richards said, “it’ll take a long time for things to get restored.” [. . .]

[Photo credits: first, above, “Sunrise at Condado Beach in San Juan, PR,” Robert Rausch for The New York Times; second, “A red starfish in the crystalline waters of Vieques, PR,” Laura Magruder for The New York Times.]

For full article, see https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/travel/puerto-rico-virgin-islands-hurricane-maria-irma-volunteer-tourism.html

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