Puerto Rico two months later: Disaster ironies
The day did not begin well: my San Juan-Atlanta flight was cancelled. Delta flight 922 now runs between Minneapolis and Fargo, North Dakota. After hurricane Maria, planes out of San Juan were full, but returned so empty from the U.S that the airlines eliminated the flights. People have even paid $1,500 for seats on private planes. The Great Migration out of Puerto Rico is in full swing.
Not having checked flight status –big mistake — I found out about the cancellation when I arrived at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín Airport with my wife, to fly via Atlanta to North Carolina, where our grandchild was about to be born. No pressure! I had not gotten an email about checking in, which was unusual; but isn’t everything in Puerto Rico these days. As it turned out, the airline had not emailed our cancellation.
Things soon got cleared up thanks to excellent airline staff and we were put on stand-by, then confirmed, in an afternoon flight. By early afternoon, the airport’s “C” gates were packed with passengers flying to various U.S. destinations. Many were probably leaving Puerto Rico forever. Over 200,000, many of them in their twenties and thirties – young people we need for our recovery– will have left Puerto Rico by year’s end, mainly for Florida. I buried myself in my laptop, trying to write something that would make some sense out of the animated and depressing airport scene that enveloped us, but couldn’t.
My airport blues turned a brighter hue when I boarded the flight to Atlanta. Our last-minute seating had Nieves María and I separate. As it happened, I sat next to Roy (not his real name). Roy is a wiry, no-frills, down-home blue-collar worker from Michigan in his thirties who was working for a contractor doing disaster recovery in Puerto Rico. Here I was, trying to make some sense out of Maria, and Roy was, unwittingly, in its eye. Roy is among Puerto Rico’s current incomers –a small group huge in its economic and political dimensions — that was finding opportunity where others fled devastation. Whitefish, after all, just had two Montanans. Not quite the volunteers that we need.
Roy had been in Puerto Rico for a month and was travelling to the U.S. for a few days. He wore a t-shirt with the company name, had no luggage, and brought with him only a slice of pizza that he nibbled on a couple of times during the flight. Didn’t even have a drink of water.
Roy talked in bursts as he leaned over the armrest and into my shoulder. Here’s one americano with no problem either with chatting or with body contact, I thought; good for him. Roy loved hunting deer in his home state, and shot moose in Idaho. With no previous disaster experience, Roy had gone down to Florida after Irma with some buddies to work with his current employer. Apparently, the company did very well with FEMA contracts.
When Maria hit Puerto Rico, Roy’s crew flew to Puerto Rico, where they spent a month in a Dorado villa, with living expenses paid by the company; evidently an investment toward being up and ready for contracts. The company also brought fifty trucks, including big icemakers, trucks that pulled, cut, and chipped trees, and other heavy equipment. During that time, Roy’s crew had only gotten to work four days, just some small contracts with the island government cleaning up a park and some streets. And all fifty trucks, so direly needed in many parts of the island, sat idly on the San Juan docks.
The big contracts that Roy’s company anticipated with FEMA were delayed by paperwork, Roy said. Or worse: it was rumored that a larger company had delayed things so they could get their equipment down and grab a bundle of big FEMA contracts. So, Roy was taking a one-week vacation –deer hunting season is just beginning in Michigan– while the smoke cleared.
We spoke for most of the flight. Nieves María was on the other side of the aisle, talking with a 70-year old woman from Utuado, ground-zero for Maria’s devastation in the Puerto Rican highlands. The woman has eight children, five of whom live in Atlanta and who were asking her to move with them. But she refused to leave Utuado, mainly because she was taking care of her parents, who are in the nineties. Wish I had been in that conversation as well!
The long day at the airport was tiresome, but meeting Roy partly made up for that. He struck me as a decent guy, just trying to make a living, who felt good about the recovery work he was doing, and had no airs about being an americano in Puerto Rico. “You Puerto Ricans sure know how to have a good time,” he told me. As I listened to Roy, my mind wandered back to the airport, to the last goodbyes and broken dreams of our Great Migration; to wasted resources and piles of paperwork slowing Puerto Rico’s recovery; to the ways in which Puerto Rico’s disaster was someone else’s new venture; and for some carpetbaggers, indeed, an ill-gotten fortune.
So many stories, so much contrast, so many endings and new beginnings. Lots to think about and digest, for journalists to investigate, for academics to research and reflect on. Time to regroup and write. And, actually, not much time for the blues.