In the past six months I have made two trips to Puerto Rico to distribute Solar Lights, first in December just prior to Christmas when Puerto Rico for the first time celebrated “parrandas” (music and caroling) with solar lights, and the second time, the first week of March.
My first visit was to a San Juan hospital where my cousin was scheduled to undergo cancer surgery in a hospital filled to the brim with patients who had been forced to delay their surgery due to lack of electricity, torn roofs and flooding. As I drove into the parking lot, I passed massive trees, cut, shredded and burned almost to the ground. Patients expressed joy at no longer seeing a completely brown and burnt environment but visitors, like myself, were shocked by the sight of trees skinned to their core as though an industrial peeler had peeled the entire landscape.
As my cousin slept through her recovery, I ventured over to Old San Juan. The Cruise Lines that are the heart of this ancient city had for weeks been taking residents to Florida for refuge, so it was an emotional site for everyone as we watched the first real cruise ship to arrive in three months. Canadian and American tourists graciously spoke of spending all their money in hopes of helping the island’s economy but in spite of all those tourists, the streets of Old San Juan were mostly deserted.
Beautiful old buildings are missing roofs, balconies and entire floors. Some structures suffered so much damage they may likely be condemned, a sad predicament for an ancient district filled with landmark buildings.One lone craftswoman had set up her little work table filled with jewelry for sale. Grateful for the few hours of electricity that allowed her to use her tools again, she felt happy to be sitting near an empty Cristobal Colon Plaza even if it meant there would be no customers to buy her crafts.
One of my favorite massive trees in Old San Juan was ripped from its roots and lay on its side after crashing on top of an adjacent building. Many deserted streets looked like empty movie sets freshly painted and waiting for new business. My cousin’s return home to the southwestern town of Cabo Rojo provided an opportunity to see how local beaches had survived the storm. Beaches were filled with boats sitting upright or lying on their side as local residents swam and sunbathed alongside sailboats that were beginning to look like sculptures.
Ginny Pin?ero, a local lawyer who worked with Chef Jose Andres preparing over 2 million meals for Hurricane Maria survivors was now working with two volunteer chefs who prepared food in a different town each day as she awaited clearance from FEMA to open a large kitchen near Old San Juan that could provide 50,000 meals a day. 6-7 days a week this small crew met each morning by 7:30am at a San Juan pier where they accessed supplies from a freezer container donated by a New Orleans not-profit. After loading their rental van, the trio drove through heavy rains into the ‘karst’ mountains filled with downed trees and electrical cables. As the chefs cooked and fed people in the middle of the town’s plaza, volunteer nurses, barbers and other professionals provided services to grateful residents who calmly formed lines for food, Internet and an opportunity to donate blood at a mobile blood bank.
It was heartwarming to see people helping others in spite of their own difficulties, as most of the volunteers I met were without electricity themselves. I had brought with me a few hundred solar lights that seemed useless at times as the daily rains are heavier than normal since the hurricane and with so many thousands of people struggling with no electricity, I targeted the disabled and very elderly for the few hundred lights I did have.
Most streets and roadways were cleared of debris by residents but driving without traffic lights, though a new skill for residents, is not an easy endeavor. Traffic gridlock is now a 24/7 affair yet many feel blessed when compared to the thousands of residents whose roads in the mountains were and continue to be washed away by landslides.
On my second trip, I noticed how the mood in people had changed from shock to depression, anger or guilt. People whose homes were untouched sat next to homes that were completely devastated, a home or apartment building might have electricity while it’s surrounding neighbors remain in the dark and the initial drive to buy generators was no longer a solution as it’s weekly gas cost, noise and air pollution has become an added burden.
People everywhere are eager to tell their stories but most first apologize for their tears of sadness and anger at Puerto Rico and US government officials. And volunteers who sleep poorly and witness so many poor, helpless people are not spared the post-traumatic stress disorder. One’s greatest joy on the road is seeing an electrical crew doing line repairs, which can make one burst into spontaneous applause and cheers.
On the way to the town of Comerio where many residents were pleading for lights, my friend Sylvia noticed a little sculpture sitting on a hill and immediately parked her car. A fellow photographer, she had spotted this wonderful tribute that overlooks a lovely lake in the middle of the mountains, a Puerto Rican man and his flag.
Another quick stop was the Indigenous Ceremonial Park of Utuado where we saw a grand Ceiba tree completely stripped of all leaves and became concerned that after six months following the storm this particular tree may never renew itself. This ancient massive tree is indigenous to the Caribbean, Latin America and Africa. One of the hardiest trees throughout the region, its roots are often taller than a person. Several of the large stones made by the Taino natives were cracked and in need of careful cleaning but most of the trees that survived were beginning to flourish. A German tourist couple that walked by us would never notice that the majority of trees had disappeared.
In Comerio we had the pleasant surprise of finding a lovely small hotel built by the municipality that was getting ready too reopen soon. This 16-room hotel will likely be our base when I return to distribute more solar lights as I discovered that some San Juan hotels had doubled the price of their rooms, an upsetting discovery as FEMA could house twice as many workers if the rates were the normal price. I haven’t seen many news reports about US corporations ripping off FEMA but with so much chaos, the government is ripe for picking while the people do without.
Knowing the history of these islands makes the US government’s response to recovery efforts particularly painful as this archipelago and its people were responsible for the rise of the US military into the most powerful military in the world. For almost 60 years, the people of Culebra and Vieques, Puerto Rico withstood daily bombing practices, torpedoes, and all forms of military training that perfected chemical warfare and allowed our soldiers to fight, build and destroy bridges, cities and entire armies in dozens of foreign countries. Every inch of the three islands that make up Puerto Rico is intimately known by the military and the FBI who for decades persecuted the independence movement. Why then have they not placed simple rope-bridges across communities whose residents continue to live without water, electricity and basic supplies? Residents and student brigades spent months assisting these communities but proper handling of bridges, dams and waterfalls are skills that our soldiers learned and perfected over half a century while stationed in Puerto Rico and its 20 U.S. military bases.
As we debate whether the 45th President paid off a porn star and how will the island’s governor find a complete town for the cryptocurrency millionaires to set up their tax-free enterprises, I can only pray that the kind America,ns, Puerto Ricans and other kind individuals I found helping throughout the island continue their great service to this beautiful island.
This lovely pooch followed me around and posed for me when I asked him to sit. I prayed that he is not one of the thousands of pets in need of rescue. After returning home from distributing solar lights, routine blackouts occurred throughout San Juan. Thank goodness for bright cell phones and the one solar-light I kept for my friend Sylvia.
Here are a few of the people we gave your lights to. Out of respect for people who are ill or bed-ridden, we did not take pictures of many others. A social worker sent me pictures of deaf children, who had been terrified of the night, playing with their games using our solar lights.
I am planning another trip in about two months with the goal of making it to Jayuya, the highest and most remote town in the mountains. During my last visit the rainstorms made the trip too dangerous so I will do my best to target a dry day for my next trip.
Among the communities still struggling to find water and electricity are: Utuado, Barranquitas, Adjuntas, Arecibo, Aibonito and numerous others.
Please continue distributing my link, https://luminaid.com/ pages/perladeleon . Better yet, why not welcome the spring with a good party where the entry fee is a donation of two solar lights? Every donation of 50 lights allows you to choose the town you want to donate them to