An American Abroad

Tarping in Chupacabra Country

We met at 9:30 Saturday morning at a Thai restaurant in Santurce. The eight of us loaded up three SUVs with water filter kits, tarps, tools, a generator, gasoline, diapers, OTC meds, and water.

I lashed a ladder to the roof rack of the 4Runner and we were off, caravanning east on Puerto Rico 66.

In half an hour we reached Canóvanas, a town of about 50,000 people. Its claim to fame is that the chupacabra, a ferocious mythical animal, supposedly exsanguinated and killed 150 farm animals and pets there in 1995. City officials promoted chupacabra tourism to the cryptozoological community after that, but it never really caught on. I guess if you advertise that sort of thing, you eventually have to produce a real live chupacabra or people lose interest. Anyway, I spent the whole day there and was disappointed that I didn’t glimpse a single blood-sucking monster (unless you count city officials and other politicians).

We parked in a very poor neighborhood, split up into teams, and began walking door to door, taking a disaster census and trying to get some sense of who needed what. We enlisted two neighborhood boys, Alejandro (age 11) and Javier (age 10) as our guides.

As usual with kids that age, they knew the neighborhood, its people, and their secrets remarkably well. After a while, I turned over my camera to them. Many of the pictures below were taken by them, not me.

Canóvanas got hammered by Hurricane Maria. El Caño, the neighborhood we were in, was particularly vulnerable to her destructive power. At one edge of it lies an expanse of wetlands, separated from El Caño by a polluted stream. Opposite that are steep hillsides dotted with houses. When the storm hit, the wetlands and the stream overflowed dramatically. Houses were flooded up to their ceilings by water rising from below and pelted from above by winds, water, and mud rushing down the hillsides.

Personally, I’d rather take my chances with a chupacabra.

We found a number of houses that had been destroyed and abandoned.

We also found people who had the ubiquitous blue tarps over what remained of their roof, but who were still living in horrible conditions. Rotten floors. Black mold over everything. Missing walls. Sodden furniture.

We saw many houses with fresh-washed laundry hanging out to dry. I thought maybe Saturday was a traditional laundry day until one resident explained to us that they had just gotten their city water service restored a few days ago. For the two and a half months before then, washing clothes had been nearly impossible. And of course electricity there is still a distant memory.

There was a strong sentiment among the relief workers and the residents that political arrogance and infighting was to blame for the condition of the neighborhood. Many of the people who live there are undocumented immigrants from the Dominican Republic. “The mayor sees no reason to help us, since we can’t vote for her,” one man told me.

Relief workers complained that the mayor of Canóvanas has tried to turn their efforts into political events and has even blocked people from receiving help.

As if to underscore the prevalence of disaster politics, while we were working in the poorest part of Canóvanas, a big helicopter flew overhead and deposited New York Governor Cuomo and Puerto Rican Governor Rossello at a big whoop-de-doo hosted by the mayor in the center of town (far from where we were working). “There were maybe 15 local people there,” one disgusted aid worker told me later. “It’s all politics, a backdrop. They all congratulated each other on what great work they’re doing, but they’re not doing shit for these people.”

After we’d done our initial assessment, we all met up again to decide what to do.

One team assembled and passed out water filters. Even though city water is back on, most people don’t believe it’s safe to drink. Another team continued exploring the neighborhood and tried to get a sense of where the most acute needs were.

The team I was with went to the home of a lovely 72 year old Dominican woman named Camelara. The corrugated roof of her house had been damaged in the hurricane and water was leaking into her bedroom every time it rained (which, on a tropical island, is pretty often).

It took the four of us the better part of the afternoon to secure her roof. We had to remove a large, heavy floodlight that was mounted up there. It was far too heavy to walk down a ladder with, so I hacked off a dangling length of coax from a nearby utility pole, tied it around the floodlight, and gently lowered it to the ground. One of our team used a sawzall to trim back some trees that were overhanging and brushing against the roof. Duct tape was applied to the edges of the corrugated metal so that they wouldn’t rip into the tarps as they dangled. Then we laid 1x3s on the tarps directly over the rafters (which we couldn’t see, but deduced the position of from the layout of the fasteners that held the corrugated steel). Using power screwdrivers, we screwed down through the 1x3s, the tarps, and the corrugated steel into the rafters.

It was hot and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. My face got fried to a lovely pre-melanomic hue and my shirt was soaked through. And I was the one on our team doing the least amount of work. The guys who did the lion’s share must have felt like they were being simultaneously baked and fried.

Finally we finished, brought our tools and supplies down, and sucked down ice water and beer our group leader brought for us. Carmelara dragged some chairs out of her ramshackle house and we sat down to talk, rest, and take stock of a job well done.

Camelara was witty, talkative, and warm. She thanked us repeatedly and insisted that we should come back next weekend and she would make hamburgers for us. The generosity runs both ways here.

The eight of us reassembled and caravanned into town for a meal, beer, and shots at a local restaurant. We drove back to San Juan, offloaded the ladder, tools, and remaining supplies at the Thai restaurant. I got back to my apartment about 7:45 and was taking a cold shower within minutes. Even though I’d eaten at the restaurant, I fixed myself a large second dinner and was asleep before 10:00.

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