Thursday, January 04, 2018

Green World: Notes From a Visit to Puerto Rico (December 2017)

We recently spent a few days in Puerto Rico -- just a short trip with kids to get out of the cold and snow, largely possible due to my wife's amazing skill managing frequent flier miles and credit card points. Here are a few limited observations from a tourist with very minimal Spanish.

The good news is, the island is still there and still eminently visitable. It's still the warm, green, inviting place I remembered from several earlier trips, though the energy seemed subdued and the numbers of both locals and tourists seemed down. My daughter was seeing it all for the first time: "It's so green! It's a whole green world!"

San Juan has power, though many traffic lights are currently not turned on, which makes driving interesting. (At one point we were trying to locate some quarters for a parking meter, when someone told us that because of Maria, there is currently no parking meter enforcement in the entire city! Nice... for us at least.)

A few big beach hotels on the Condado were damaged by the storm, including the super-deluxe Condado Hilton (still not open). Most are open, though it seemed to me they weren't as crowded as one would expect.

Outside of San Juan, power is much more spotty. We drove around the east coast of the island and down to Ponce, and it seemed like most of the way there was no power. Even in a relatively sizable city like Caguas, in the middle of the island, the traffic lights were all off; at one intersection I saw a hopeful banner someone had made: "Como el morivivi, Caguas Renace!" (Like the Morivivi [the island's indigenous "shy" flower], Caguas reborn!")

We stayed at the Fajardo Inn, a place that is normally overlooked by tourists in the east in favor of more expensive all-inclusive resorts that are right by the water (like the "Wyndham El Conquistador"). But those resorts were all damaged by the storm and are still not open, whereas the Fajardo Inn, which sits on a hill away from the beach, has been open pretty much since the storm occurred.

At the Fajardo Inn I met an African-American FEMA inspector about my dad's age. He had been working on the island for a month, and had done a fair amount of driving up through the hills and inspecting damaged properties. Overall, he was pretty grim, though he clearly felt proud that he had been able to help people get their houses back into livable form. But he also said he had to turn down many requests from people whose houses had sustained damage to their foundations; for those people, he said, "FEMA tells them, you just have to move." He was also pretty pessimistic about how long it would take to get PR's small hillside towns back into shape. I asked him what he thought about the federal government's overall response. "Why don't people seem to care about this disaster as much as for events like Hurricane Harvey?" He pointed at his arm (indicating his complexion) and looked at me, meaningfully: "you know why..." Indeed, I do.

Most houses, even in coastal areas, are pretty much intact -- you don't see the 'disaster porn' flattened house image very much (though we did see a few). By far the thing one notices around the island are the broken electrical poles and tangled electrical wires everywhere. We also saw utility trucks working on those, but far too few to fix the problem anytime soon. One person we talked to out in the countryside said that he had been told not to expect power to be restored until the coming summer.

A couple of thoughts on the environment. To start with, many of the island's trees have a battered, crazy, twisted look, and the forests have sustained considerable damage. The El Yunque rainforest is mostly closed due to landslides that have made the main roads through the park impassable, though one small hiking trail is open (we tried it, it was fine). The canopy one expects in a rainforest is largely gone; we met a drone photographer who told us he had never been able to fly drones in the rainforest earlier -- but he could now. That said, foliage is slowly returning -- everything is very green -- and in many places if you don't look too hard you could miss the fact that the trees don't look right.

We did the same bio-bay kayak tour we had done on an earlier trip (this time we could bring our kids), not expecting to see much: after every hurricane, the bioluminescent lagoons are less bright for a few months. And we went snorkeling -- the reef where we went on Vieques seemed fine, with lots of fish, sting rays, sea turtles... Admittedly, we didn't get to the inhabited part of the island of Vieques, which we heard, is currently in very bad shape.

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