Returning to la isla del encanto

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By Mc Nelly Torres

In mid-September, 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated my native island of Puerto Rico. I finally managed to travel to the island in November, when I spent two weeks cooperating with local journalists on behalf of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists with the support of the Knight and Ford foundations.

In order to help tell their stories, we delivered satellite phones and wifi hubs to local journalists working under dire conditions while covering the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Communications had become a daily struggle and these journalists needed to communicate in order to perform their jobs.

As many Americans living outside the island, I watched on TV and online as Hurricane Maria ripped through the small southeast town of Yabucoa, just miles away from my hometowns of Patillas and Arroyo.

The nearly Category 5 hurricane enveloped the whole island like a giant blanket and spent 30 hours precipitating chaos and massive destruction.

Never before had the people of Puerto Rico experienced so much fury in one storm. The damage to property and communications was unprecedented and the blackout that came before, during and after has been a nightmare for all Puerto Ricans living in the island but also for the millions of Puerto Ricans in the U.S. mainland as well.

We didn’t know if our friends and relatives survived the catastrophe. We didn’t know if they had food and water. There was no electricity or communications whatsoever. The blackout hindered social media too.

I could no longer see posts from my friends in social media about ordinary things like daily thoughts or pictures and special moments like birthdays. All their Facebook profiles were frozen in time just before the storm – some of them managed to post that electricity was out before the storm arrived.

I had no news from my cousins and my mother. And this went on for days and weeks. I was afraid for the whole island.

Last summer, I had made a four-day visit to the island. After landing, my husband and I  drove straight from San Juan to the east and south coasts, where we stayed in Guardarraya. This vibrant part of the island, known for good surfing, is a beach community in Patillas, where most of my family is from.

When I returned in November, I found myself in a different place. Instead of an island, known for its beauty, wonderful people and tasty food, I found a desolate landscape devastated by Mother Nature as it had never been before.

All that remained of the little boutique hotel we had stayed in Guardarraya, Caribe Beach Playa Resort, was the bare concrete structure; most of its windows had been ripped out. The locals tell me Maria had brought a 20-foot storm surge that had swept everything in its fury, including most of the hotel.

People are still traumatized by their experience. And each day that passes without electricity is a reminder of what took place in September.

Life will never be the same.

This post is to share pictures and short videos I took to show how the people of Puerto Rico survived the worst hurricane on record to hit the island and how they have been  neglected by their government.

And how, under difficult circumstances, amid struggles and challenges, even as electrical power has been slowly restored throughout the island, they get up every day to clean up, find solutions and survive. They are not waiting for a savior, even though they are justified in feeling like second-class citizens.

As I traveled the island, spoke to people and documented what I saw, I felt as if I was visiting a foreign country. How can a place so beautiful look so different now? Nature can do that.

I saw hundreds of light poles knocked down by the storm and wires everywhere on the side of the road and on top of houses. Trees and property flattened.

I saw sadness.

I saw resilience in people who were and still are trying to make the best of a bad situation. I saw despair in the face of the unknown as thousands of people left the island looking for a remedy they can’t find at home.

I also saw strength in those left behind as they repeat the new mantra “Puerto Rico Se Levanta,” an assertion for themselves and for outsiders that there’s no choice but to look forward to a brighter future.

Those are my people. That’s Puerto Rico. Still and always my enchanted island.

Mi isla del encanto.

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