In Puerto Rico, Waiting for Power, for Tourists, for the Flowers


This one truly breaks my heart. Mireya Navarro (The New York Times) writes, “Months after Hurricane Maria, the island is struggling to regain its balance. The flora tell a melancholy story.”

Last November, with Puerto Rico thrown into chaos after Hurricane Maria, I was frantically trying to reach a funeral home in San Juan. My dear cousin Alma Otero-Pérez, a free-spirited poet who was my mentor and model growing up on the island, had died overnight at her home for patients with Alzheimer’s. I loved her and the loss pained me, but as her guardian, I needed to focus on medical and legal paperwork and making the necessary funeral arrangements from New York.

I had a relationship with the reliable funeral home that had guided my family through another emotional passage when my mother died several years ago. I called, but the telephones were still out months after Maria had struck. I tried emailing from their website not expecting much. But within minutes they responded by cellphone and in no time my cousin’s ashes were prepared and waiting for my arrival and a proper memorial.

That gathering didn’t happen until months later, in early March, as I waited for a semblance of normalcy to return to the island. Some of Alma’s friends and relatives had lost electricity and even running water. Others had joined the exodus, leaving the island to wait out the rough aftermath of the disaster. But even by the time I made it to the island more than five months since Maria, I found that the place where I was born and raised, and that I visit every year with my husband, Jim, was laboring to reestablish its balance. (Last week it erupted in a massive march against new austerity measures that was marred by violence.)

With the fresh eyes of newcomers, Jim and I marveled at what everybody else already took for granted — the damaged traffic lights, dangling and dark; the giant street signs lying mangled on the side of the road; the nonworking streetlights that left whole neighborhoods pitch black after dusk. “I can’t believe the hurricane was in September and Puerto Rico still looks like this,” my husband said as he maneuvered our rented car through a busy honor-system intersection under a traffic light hanging useless from its crossbar.

But nothing held my attention more than the vegetation. The ebullient tropical flora that forever feeds the nostalgia of those of us who leave for good — a paradise of flower beds in backyards and brilliant green forests on mountainsides, the skyline of towering fruit and palm trees — was in a state of distress, almost a kind of paralyzed melancholy, not unlike some of the people. Just like a pair of cousins who seemed to have revved up their drinking, or my sister Mari, who refused to be out at night, a Cinderella by 6 p.m., the familiar foliage showed new stress-induced idiosyncrasies even amid signs of resilience.

“Oh my God — what happened to the mango tree?” I asked Mari the morning after I arrived at our family home, when, in the light of day, I noticed a massive stump across the street where there had been a wildly productive 25-foot-tall mango factory. [. . .] The mango tree had been a landmark of sorts on Lorenzo Noa Street in El Comandante, the suburb of San Juan where I grew up. Its branches seemed to grow more gigantic over the decades, threatening to smother the houses around it. Its abundant fruit attracted mice. [. . .] All that was left of the tree now was a Michelangelo-like sculpture with missing limbs.

[. . .] The hurricane uprooted so many trees that visitors to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s famous rain forest, were now treated to newly opened vistas of the ocean. We visited on a Sunday morning and found most of the national park closed, still ailing from landslides and wobbly trees that park workers told us were still falling and shutting down trails and roads.

Other trees were dry rather than lush, stripped bare and just starting to revive, or misshapen, with missing branches and a phantasmagoric look. In this haunted forest, what was still available became more precious. Major tourist draws like La Mina waterfall and the Yocahu Tower, with panoramic views of the rain forest and coast, were out of reach. But a small group of tourists gathered by the side of a road took selfies at La Coca Falls, where the waters tumble 85 feet onto a rock formation. Souvenir shops along the way were open. [. . .]

Puerto Rico is in comeback mode on many fronts, including cruise ship tourism, but “the recovery has been too slow,” the cafe owner, Héctor Andújar, said. “The government wasn’t prepared for something so big.” So, people wait — for more tourists, for hurricane shutters, for consistent power, for building materials, for a better normal.

My sister is still waiting for her insurance company to start fixing up the backyard. We then plan to have another gathering to plant a tree with Alma’s ashes next to my mom’s. When one day that tree shows off its plumage, it will honor her love of country — la tierra — and help make her beloved Puerto Rico as splendorous as she once remembered it.

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One thought on “In Puerto Rico, Waiting for Power, for Tourists, for the Flowers

  1. Reblogged this on It Is What It Is and commented:
    Very interesting read … “Months after Hurricane Maria, the island is struggling to regain its balance. The flora tell a melancholy story.”
    My heart and soul ache for my country!!


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