UTUADO, Puerto Rico—As he briefed reporters on the approach of Hurricane Florence towards the Carolinas on Tuesday, President Donald Trump claimed the federal government’s response to Hurricane Maria had been “tremendous” and called it “an incredible, unsung success.”
Tell that to Annie Salva Mercado.
“Electricity comes and goes but we never know when,” she told The Daily Beast behind the counter at the bakery she runs in Utuado, in the island’s lush central mountains. “We’ve had lots of bad weather events in the past, but nothing like Hurricane Maria. Things remain very fragile.”
Or tell that to the families of the 2,975 who died as a result of the storm and its aftermath, according to a study commissioned by Puerto Rico’s government and George Washington University.
Nearly a year after Maria roared onto shore, some life has returned to this community of 35,000, with coffee shops, small informal bars, and clothing stores doing a brisk business. But elsewhere, the town’s lanes are lined with shuttered businesses, a legacy not only of Maria but also of the island’s economic crisis, which has seen at least 500,000 people leave over the last decade, taking advantage of what local residents refer to as “the Jet Blue solution,” where only a driver’s license is needed to emigrate to the mainland United States. Those who stay behind are struggling mightily to salvage their community.
“We didn’t have electricity for two months, but we had a generator so I was able to start serving people a week after the storm,” says Victor Díaz, a pharmacist in Utuado who says he lost “at least” five patients to death in the wake of the hurricane. “I had to go to San Juan almost every day to get merchandise because no one was bringing it. It was chaos. You had to wait from one day to the other, or go to Arecibo or Manatí, looking for gas. And things have not gone back to normal, we are not even at 30 percent of what we were before the hurricane.”
The devastation of the island’s energy grid presented a significant challenge for the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), which was already in distress before the storm and is currently groaning under $9 billion of bond debt. When one drives through the central mountains, one still often encounters communications poles bent nearly double over the roadside. On some secondary roads, cables and tree branches remain across the path.
On a mountainside near the town of Jayuya, one PREPA contractor who would only give his name as Javier, checking on utility poles, gave the same assessment of the country’s energy infrastructure as Mercado had in Utuado: “fragile.”
“The lack of response was worse than the hurricane,” says Cynthia García Coll, a psychologist and visiting professor at the Universidad de Puerto Rico. “If there had been immediate response, it would have been a completely different story. What Maria did, no one was protected. People who had diabetes and renal patients and those who had cancer just died and died and died.”
Though FEMA has sought to blame the delays in its response on Puerto Rican officials and the George Washington University report characterizes many in the island’s government as woefully unprepared, an investigation by NPR and PBS Frontline earlier this year revealed that the agency’s response to the storm was one defined by poor planning, material and personnel shortfalls, and general chaos. In violation of federal rules, FEMA did not pre-position enough supplies on the island before the hurricane struck, and cycled through a series of inexperienced companies to provide residents with tarps, many of which never arrived.
A FEMA spokesperson disputed this characterization, pointing to air drops of food and water in the wake of the storm, and told The Daily Beast it has promised to pay communities for relief, including $3.8 million to Utuado. Some in Utuado see it differently.
“We thought FEMA was going to be more proactive with the people of Puerto Rico,” says Victor Díaz. “People have been going around begging for help and getting ‘no’ all the time.”
In Puerto Rico today, one has the sense that the small amount of autonomy the island had enjoyed in its commonwealth relationship with the United States—islanders are U.S. citizens with freedom of movement who elect their own local government but cannot vote in U.S. elections while resident here—has been all but extinguished.
The federally appointed, unelected Financial Oversight and Management Board, established by a law in 2016 to combat a debt crisis of about $70 billion, has the power to unilaterally impose austerity measures on the island’s citizens. FOMB has consistently pushed for secrecy and been reprimanded by federal judges for failing to comply with the island’s local disclosure requirements.
A 2017 agreement with the U.S. government requires the island to slash its Medicaid spending by $840.2 million by 2023, an astronomical sum for a territory where the federal government covers only 19 percent of the island’s Medicaid costs, as opposed to the 83 percent it would pay if Puerto Rico were a state. The $4.8 billion Congress approved last February to cover the shortfall is likely to run out with the next year. Almost 50 percent of the island’s residents qualify for Medicare or Medicaid.
The Puerto Rican government has also announced plans to close 283 schools this year, following the signing of a bill by Gov. Ricardo Rosselló that will begin a charter school pilot program and private school voucher initiative next year. Between 2010 and 2015, the island closed 150 schools.
Despite these enormous hurdles, though, a sense of resilient defiance remains present in Utuado, from the vibrant street art one sees depicting the colors of the Puerto Rican flag on buildings and the iconic jíbaro (peasant) in local murals to the fierce pride in its history.
For decades, Utuado had been a wealthy city built on the production of coffee (or oro negro, black gold, as it was called). Then, in October 1950, it served as the flashpoint for an abortive October 1950 uprising by partisans of the Puerto Rican independence leader Pedro Albizu Campos, who sought to wrest control of the island from commonwealth and U.S. authorities.
The putsch failed, with four rebels summarily executed in the city jail [five others survived]. Albizu Campos subsequently spent much of the rest of his life in prison, dying in poor health after less than a year of freedom in 1965. But his image can still be frequently seen around town.
In one local bodega, selling beer and foodstuffs and candies that children come to purchase after school, a mural of Albizu Campos, the leader’s face depicted just above a painted machete, gazes somberly down at patrons.
Referencing a popular tune by the singer Roy Brown, it reads Aunque naciera en la luna, sigo siendo puertorriqueño.
Even though I was born on the moon, I'm still Puerto Rican.