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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Cell phone contracts, debt collectors and the dead

The Ugly Truth About Contracts After A Love Ones Dies

We canceled my father’s cell phone service the same day he died in July.

His death was sudden and we were shocked by the news.

Days after I returned from my father’s funeral, cell phone bills began to invade my mail box. Debt collectors began to call my home number asking for my father by name. I explained the situation over and over again.

Nobody listened. The calls didn’t stop.

The issue was simple: My father died on July 8 so any contract he had with the cell phone provider died with him. So it would be impossible for him to pay the $221 bill in fees and fines the cell phone provider was attempting to collect for terminating the contract.

My father paid all his bills and he had no debts when he died.  This bill was ridiculous.

I knew that I needed to provide proof so I faxed his death certificate when they asked. I called two days later, but they claimed the fax never arrived. I mailed the death certificate and waited for a couple of days before I called again.

In my attempts to document everything and have proof at hand, I requested a letter indicating the company received the document (Yes, they finally admitted to have received two copies of my father’s death certificate).

“We don’t do that,” a woman on the phone said.

“Why?” I asked.

“Sorry we just don’t do that,” the woman replied.

Two weeks later, I received another call from a debt collector. Another bill arrived that afternoon.

Don’t they talk to each other? Are these people incompetent?

I had about enough at this point. I was not going to allow these bullies to intimidate me.

I find this to be a coincidence but I had just written about debt collectors early this year. I interviewed consumers who vividly described the abuses they suffered at the hands of scrupulous debt collectors.

I’m well aware of state and federal regulations and common abuses. I kept meticulous notes about each call with dates, information and what it was said.  And I was on the verge to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission and Florida Attorney General’s office.

But I decided to wait.

Not surprisingly, other consumers have gone through this wrenching experience. I’m sure people make up all kinds of lies to escape a contract, but people die as well. It is a fact of life. Companies should be a little sensitive, and at the very least, efficient to resolve these issues fast.

And it was clear to me that these guys (debt collectors) didn’t care.

So I didn’t waste my time with them, but I was very clear: My father’s contract with the cell phone provider ended when he died. I didn’t care if the cell company wanted to slap him with a $221 early disconnection penalty. The contract was between two parties and one party had expired.

The contract was not legally binding. That was my legal position and I was going to stick to that.

It was that simple.

After my brief conversation with the debt collector, I called the cell phone provider and was transferred to the consumer relations department. I explained the situation to a woman who was nice and helpful during the call.

She advised me to write a letter directed to customer relations and explain the situation. I should enclose a copy of my father’s death certificate, she said.

I wrote the letter that same day (Sept. 22) providing all the information. I did request some sort of acknowledgement from them, an attempt to obtain a record for future reference.

Was that too much to ask?

Two weeks later, another debt collector called. I threatened to file a complaint.

He said: “There’s no need to threaten me. Why don’t you call the cell phone provider?”

Déjà vu all over again. I was livid.

I dialed the number one more time. The man on the phone was nice and apologetic after I explained my predicament.

“This should go through the next billing cycle,” he said. “It should be fixed by Oct. 14 after the next billing cycle closes. You will receive a letter showing a balance of $0.”

By Oct. 22, another bill arrived on the mail showing a balance of $221.

I ignored it. I don’t even know why.

Then last week (Oct. 27), a letter from the cell phone provider arrived.

The envelope didn’t look like a bill.  I waited for a while before I opened the letter dated Oct. 20. It offered condolences for my father’s death and noted that my father’s account had been canceled. The remaining balance had been removed, the letter said.

I can’t explain how I felt, but I got the document I needed.

The real irony here is that my father hated that cell phone.

I didn’t.

The cell phone kept me connected to him. That’s how we communicated. And even though he criticized the technology, he would answer my calls.

And there were days that he seemed to be waiting for my call. He lived alone and I knew he was lonely.

I could be driving to work in the morning and I would dial his number. Or after a bad day at work, I would call him as I drove home. We talked about everything, politics, money, work, history, the family and the economy.

It was unreal. We never had these types of conversations before.

The cell phone he hated so much gave me a level of comfort that I can’t explain. It gave me memories about those last years of his life.

I’m happy to report that I have not received any calls from debt collectors. Yet, I couldn’t help to wonder: Will they call again?