Five months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, the U.S. territory continues to struggle with rebuilding the island as the shadow of economic depression and other issues loom over the island.
“As predicted, it’s really bad,” said Dr. Noralis Rodriguez-Coss, a native Puerto Rican and AVP postdoc teaching fellow in the Women’s and Gender Studies department. “In terms of basic services for people around the island, some towns have basic services like water and electricity, but many don’t yet have power.”
Rodriguez said there has been some recovery in Puerto Rico since the hurricane in areas of employment and services, with the regular rhythm of life returning to the island. However, some places such as community colleges and hotels continue to remain closed and the island’s economy faces a downturn.
“Even though things are not as bad as they were after the storm, normal life as we knew it is not there anymore. Nor will it be until the economy of the island improves and people have more access to jobs and people don’t have to leave the island,” Rodriguez said.
She added that citizens have been repairing the utility poles without waiting for authorities to do it, describing it as an impressive form of resilience.
Rodriguez also said some tourism has returned to Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan from cruise ships, which could help the economy, and the southern region of the island has recovered well.
Despite the devastation brought by the hurricane, Rodriguez said there were festivities going on during the holidays.
“People continue to be working, it’s not that we stopped working and celebrate only,” she said.
These festivities include Three Kings Day, which is celebrated on Jan. 6.
“There was a sensation of normalcy, but as soon as you start talking to friends and family members you realize that they are still coming out of a big trauma,” she said.
This trauma was not solely caused by the hurricane, according to Rodriguez, but also because of the feeling of being forgotten by others.
“They’re feeling that they are being forgotten, that nobody cares,” she said.
Ivan Jimenez, a junior engineering management major and native Puerto Rican, said that it is easy to forget about Puerto Rico because it is not a state nor connected to the mainland.
“We are American citizens just like everyone else, and I’m literally as far away as possible in the U.S. as you could be without leaving the mainland from Puerto Rico,” Jimenez said. “We are Americans and we deserve the same respect and help as everyone else.”
With the recent plans to privatize Puerto Rico’s electricity by the island’s government, Rodriguez said it could lead to more issues for people on the island.
“What happens with privatization, and we have seen it before in other forms of services such as water and the highways of the island, [is that] they become more expensive and you receive the same or worse service because it allows spaces for corruption, and then the money goes specifically to a private institution that doesn’t necessarily has to respond to the government,” she said.
Rodriguez said her family, as well as those living in the countryside, still do not have power in their homes. She added that the lack of materials to make proper repairs has prevented power from returning to parts of the island.
“The power grid was incredibly unstable even before the hurricane,” Jimenez said. “For example, I go back there almost on a yearly basis for either summer vacation or winter break, and every once in a while the power just goes out.”
He added that the hot climate of the island makes people need the air conditioning in order to sleep at night.
“When the power goes out and I don’t have air conditioning, I wake in the middle of night because I can’t sleep,” Jimenez said.
According to Jimenez, his family members living in Puerto Rico went 100 days without power, leaving them to the island’s heat.
Abandoned places throughout the island have been occupied by organizations to create community centers to provide services and food for people, Rodriguez said.
“There is a sense of community that continues to happen after the events, and there are separate communities that continue to be very damaged still today,” Rodriguez said. “Especially in the east side where the storm arrived, those areas by the coast are still destroyed.”
Rodriguez said nature is coming back to Puerto Rico and the leaves are returning to the trees that were stripped by the hurricane, along with people going back to agriculture and new farmers going to work.
“It’s been fourth months already, and many people don’t have power yet and the hurricane season is around the corner for this year,” Rodriguez said. “The hope is that the storms are not going to hit the island this year and that way the power system can come back.”
Matthew Kincanon is a staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewKincanon