January 18, 2019

In Puerto Rico, Waiting for Power, for Tourists, for the Flowers

In Puerto Rico, Waiting for Power, for Tourists, for the Flowers


“I can see the waves,” Ednita said, blowing kisses in their direction.

It was only fitting that we held Alma’s memorial gathering in this upbeat apartment near the water, and not just because everybody else’s homes were in mid-repair. In her poetry, Alma had written prolifically about Puerto Rico’s natural beauty. For two hours, more than a dozen close friends and family transported ourselves to her idealized world, reading verses, reminiscing and telling funny stories.

“Hallelujah to the land where I was born,” one of her poems, titled “Song to my Land,” reads.

“Holy land, motherland.

Each morning, on the wings of a thousand birds,

You kiss the day.”

Before I left New York City, I had wondered if my cousin was among the more than 1,000 estimated hurricane-related deaths. But the home where she lived had a generator and had only asked for bottled water and an extra $80 a month for hurricane-related expenses.

The immediate cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrhythmia” on her death certificate, with other contributing conditions. Josie, the friend who saw her the morning after she died, reassured us at the memorial: “She looked at peace, like an angel.”

My cousin’s advanced Alzheimer’s spared her from the collective suffering after the hurricane, which afflicted many of her loved ones. Geka, a lifelong friend, reported she still had no power or running water in the mountainous town of Orocovis, in the middle of the island. She said she had adapted with a generator, a newly built cistern and bottled water.

Maritza, a cousin from the town of Juncos, still lived under a blue tarp from FEMA that increasingly leaked.

“You can’t find the panels to fix the roof,” she said.

The conversation at the memorial inevitably turned to the hardships of coping, still too present for anyone to relax. A three- to four-month wait for hurricane shutters. The high price of generators. A rise in crime. Deadly traffic. The lack of power for thousands of households and the intermittent power outages for millions more. (Fun fact: you can create a washing machine by making holes in a plunger and plunging away.)

I was about to cook lunch one day when San Juan and surrounding areas were hit by a blackout. Two power stations shut down when a transmission line failed, underscoring the continued instability of the power distribution system. I later went to San Patricio Plaza Mall, where some stores remained open with generators but many operated in semidarkness or had closed for the day.



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