In Puerto Rico, Equal Parts Fear and Fellowship After Storm

 

Photo

Neighbors gathered to clean out their homes damaged by Hurricane Maria in Canovanas, P.R., on Saturday. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

TOA BAJA, P.R. — The little cluster of friends and neighbors had gathered in front of a concrete home in a flooded-out seaside neighborhood at sunset. They were relieved to be alive after Hurricane Maria, proud of the way they had helped each other, and anxious about whether the relative peace in battered Puerto Rico would hold.

Wilmer Rivera Negron, 34, showed the generator that he was sharing with an older couple, 75 feet away. The couple’s daughter, Luz Collazo Pagan, 55, pointed to a huge pile of felled branches the neighbors had cut with machetes and moved off the street.

Ms. Collazo, a lawyer, also showed the binders full of documents she was referring to as she tried to help her friends without firearms figure out how to buy them legally.

“Basically, we’re drinking wine and talking about how we can best arm ourselves and protect our families,” said Jose Camacho Santiago, 36, a paramedic.

Even before Hurricane Maria, Puerto Ricans had been confronting a kind of disaster narrative as its government, some $74 billion in debt, declared a form of bankruptcy in May.

But the response to the storm has reminded them of the strength of their culture, and its grace notes of solidarity, neighborliness and pride. The stories of residents cleaning up their streets, and sharing electricity, medicine and food, are legion. While there has been some looting, particularly after the storm, officials insist that burglary statistics have not increased.

“I am very proud of the citizens of this island,” said Hector Pesquera, Puerto Rico’s secretary of public safety. “There’s always that minor segment of society that has that criminal inclination, hurricane or no hurricane, that’s always there. During a time of crisis, like happened in 9/11 in New York and other places, we’re all coming together, and that’s something.”

At the same time, many here are wondering just how much stress the island can take, given the social problems it was saddled with before the storm, including a 45 percent poverty rate, 10 percent unemployment and the second worst murder rate in the nation in 2016, behind Washington, D.C.

Diana Lopez Sotomayor, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campus, is among those who fear that the social fabric may begin to fray if residents are forced to deal with months without reliable employment, food and energy.

“There is a new feeling in Puerto Rico, a new ‘nosotros’,” she said, referring to a new sense of we. “More people in the street are saying, ‘Buenos Dias, Como estas?’ You’re in a queue for hours, and of course you become friends. In the same lines are rich and poor. It’s breaking the barriers of class.”

However, she added, “When people are starving they will get violent. If things don’t get better the new ‘nosotros’ is going to break down.”

Statistics released by the Puerto Rico Police Department this week showed that 18 homicides occurred in Puerto Rico the first 10 days after the storm, which hit Sept. 20, the same number in the period a year ago.

There have been rumors of looting, sometimes supported by fact. Mr. Pesquera said that about eight people were arrested in the first days after the hurricane for violating curfew in ways that were obviously intended for criminal activity.

Photo

People waited in line to withdraw cash and visit a grocery store in Carolina, P.R., on Saturday. Credit Victor J. Blue for The New York Times

In the badly damaged northern coastal city of Arecibo, workers at the Pueblo supermarket said that people made off with liquor and cigarettes.

In the southern city of Ponce, Mary Lugo, 37, said that a neighbor in her neighborhood of Punta Diamante, had her refrigerator taken after she had cleaned it and put it on the balcony to dry.

On Monday, Kasalta — an iconic San Juan bakery known for delicacies like medianoches and quesitos — opened for the first time since Maria ravaged the island. The owner, Jesús Herbón, said neighbors told him that a group of about eight people entered the business through one of the broken front windows as the hurricane raged, stealing televisions and most of the bakery’s food, liquor and wine.

Mr. Herbón’s office was upended, his computers and files destroyed, and more than $265,000 worth of rotten food had to be thrown out because the robbers left the refrigerators open.

“Whatever they didn’t break, they took,” he said. “I feel heartbroken, a sense of impotency.”

In a news conference Monday, Gov. Ricardo A. Rosselló said that just 30 percent of the Puerto Rico Police Department reported for work just after the storm “because they were victims of the devastation as well,” dealing with ruined homes and impassable roads.

Sergeant William Colon, a state police officer whose station is now in a shelter because the original precinct flooded, said his colleagues had to flee for their lives, using a rope to rescue officers who could not swim as the waters rose.

“We took all the guns,” he said. “We knew that could not be left behind.”

But Mr. Rosselló said the number of officers returning had been increasing. The force is also earning an assist from the New York City Police Department and military police from various National Guard units.

Brig. Gen. Giselle Wilz of the Army said Sunday that more than 100 military police officers were on the island, with “a couple of hundred on the way from supporting states.” These officers have been deployed around fuel convoys and gas stations.

“Yes, our people are seeing some frustration at gas lines,” she said. “It’s hot outside. But they’re not seeing any of the violent activity they’re talking about” on social media. “Not to say that’s not happening, but our folks aren’t experiencing that.”

The level of professionalism among Puerto Rican police is closer to that found on the mainland than it is in other regions of Latin America, like Mexico, where public confidence in police is disastrously low. But like some other American police forces, the Puerto Rico police have struggled with a history of discrimination, violence and corruption.

In 2013, the Puerto Rico Police Department formalized a sweeping consent decree with the Justice Department’s Civil Rights division that remains in effect, and requires revised policies on the use of force, interactions with transgender people, training and other matters.

For many Puerto Ricans, the concern spikes with nightfall, when neighborhoods are bathed in darkness. Ponce resident Miguel Rosario, 52, remains in a house with a roof that was largely blown away. “I can’t leave here because the vandals are around here trying to rob the little that one has left,” he said. “We have united three or four neighbors to stand guard because it’s really dark.”

So it goes on an island that can seem as though it is experiencing equal parts fear and fellowship. Mr. Pesquera said he saw someone give up some of their insulin supply to a fellow diabetic who had just one day’s supply left.

“It was almost life saving,” he said. “Well, actually, it was.”

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Hurricane Maria and after effects and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s