I went to Puerto Rico back in March, just five or six months after Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. Leading up to the trip, I wasn’t sure if I should go. Would there be water, food, electricity? Would we be getting in the way of the recovery efforts? Would it be safe?
Only after my friend, Jen, was there for a couple of weeks did I decide to go. Questions aside, Puerto Rico is without a doubt the most beautiful place I have traveled to without needing my passport. I was struck by the brilliance of the stars at night, by the waves crashing in the moonlight, by the mountains and their winding trails, and by the sunsets.
I snorkeled around a mangrove island, kayaked through a bioluminescent bay, lounged on a hammock supported by palm trees, drank fresh smoothies and pina coladas, and enjoyed delicious wood fired pizzas and $2 tacos served up by roadside food trucks.
Everyday the sun was shining, and, of course, it didn’t hurt that I had just escaped a Nor’easter back in Philly. But still the signs of the recent tragedy were all around us. Sometimes it was obvious — like a truck completely submerged in the water. Other times, it was more subtle — like a conversation overheard between vendors at the Farmer’s Market, or a limited menu due to a lack of ingredients at our favorite açaí bowl spot.
Admittedly, we were staying in a tourist town made up of a mixture of locals, expatriates, and visitors, so this meant we weren’t truly seeing the reality of post hurricane Puerto Rico. Tourist-based communities seemed to receive a lot more immediate attention after the hurricane than communities that are a bit more off the radar. Here in Rincon, the damage had been mostly repaired already. So other than the spotty wifi, needing to purchase bottled water, and the occasional traffic jam due to work on the power lines or roads, we saw no major signs of the impact. But if we took a day trip, we’d come across neighborhoods that still didn’t have any water, homes with tarps as roofs, and even some homes or garages that had collapsed into the water.
I came home from Puerto Rico convinced one of the best things we can do to help in the recovery is to visit Puerto Rico. By pouring money back into the tourism-based communities, we can help people rebuild, especially if we are intentional with choosing where to spend our money. For example, by choosing to stay in a small independently owned hotel or renting a room in a home, as opposed to staying at a large corporate resort, you will allow more of your money to stay within that local community and get to the people most in need. Other options are choosing to eat and drink at dive bars, small local restaurants and food trucks, as well as shopping for snacks and souvenirs at farmers markets and craft fairs. But other than encouraging people to travel to Puerto Rico, I wasn’t sure what my place was in the national discussion taking place around Puerto Rico. I was only there for 5 days and that limited time did not qualify me to speak for the people of Puerto Rico, but then not saying anything, not using my voice when I had seen just the little bit that I did, also felt wrong. I’d met people and seen things, experienced a small sliver of the story that I wanted to help people back at home understand.
And so I have sat on these thoughts for months — unpacking them a little at a time — talking about it with friends and family, making notes to myself, observing conversations that take place in a neighborhood Facebook group for Rincon, and trying to keep up with the news. But then the anniversary hit and news broke of the report that close to 3,000 individuals lost their lives as a result of Hurricane Maria, and President Trump denied it. And I as sat there reflecting on how insane this all felt to me, questions poured through my mind, “Who were these people? What were their names? How old were they? Who were their loved ones? Were they children, mothers, grandfathers, siblings?”
After a tragedy, like a shooting, we usually see photos of the victims; we learn their names and their ages, and maybe even learn something about who they were. But I haven’t been able to find anything like that for the victims of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico. It feels as though they’ve been erased or forgotten. That’s a feeling I am struggling with, so I reached out to some residents of Puerto Rico in a Facebook group I am in and asked them to share with me the stories they feel aren’t being told.
I wasn’t sure if, as an outsider, my question would be welcomed, but the responses immediately started pouring in — stories of loved ones, friends, and neighbors losing their lives because conditions, like no electricity and a gas shortage for generators, made it impossible to use necessary medical equipment like nebulizers and dialysis machines or properly refrigerate insulin. And stories of individuals who survived by drinking rain water, while others died from drinking contaminated water from streams and rivers. Stories of people who are still living with tarps in place of roofs, stories of individuals who are sleeping on friends’ floors or surviving off of crackers because they don’t have the money for groceries…Story after story and it didn’t make me feel any better. It just reminded me how little I know, how useless I felt when I returned from my trip, and how deeply I feel that we, the United States of America, are failing the people of Puerto Rico and have failed its victims.
Truth be told, I am still not sure what I can actually do to make a difference or what my place is in the larger, national discussion, but I know these three things: First, I can continue to encourage people to travel to Puerto Rico. Second, I can exercise my right to vote in the midterm elections next week, a right that Puerto Ricans do not get. And third, I can continue asking the question, “Who were they?” and seeking out the answer.
I don’t know that I will ever learn the names and stories of all the victims, but I was recently reminded this shouldn’t stop me from trying. As I seek out and hopefully find some answers, I plan to share the information I find here. It’s my hope that since I have been unable to find a place memorializing the victims, their names, ages, photos, and stories, that maybe I will be able to help start that place here.
If, as a result of the hurricanes in Puerto Rico, you lost a loved one or know someone who did, please help me to honor them by sharing their names and stories here.