An American Abroad

Three Days Back in Puerto Rico

The sun was setting when I returned to San Juan. Hard to tell, but I suspect the people aboard the 737 with me were native Puerto Ricans. This was no tourist flight; this was people going home. Loud and extended clapping and cheering broke out when rubber touched tarmac, more so than on my other arrivals here.

The airport looked as it had when I first arrived here in August. By the time I picked up my bag, it was near dark. A taxi whisked me away. As we left the airport grounds, I began to register the post-Maria environment.

Unlit apartment blocks were silhouetted grey and dead across the bay. Many street lights and traffic signals were still standing, but without electricity they were just aspects of a civilization that had, for the time being, vanished. The driver slowed to a crawl at each intersection and warily scanned for cars. Gloom intensified as we got to the central city. Some shops on the main drags had generator power, but the side streets lay in total darkness. I could see nothing down those roads past the first fifteen feet. No one was outside. Ruined palms and piles of debris were caught in our headlights.

As we approached Hato Rey, electric lights shone from occasional apartment towers. My building was one of the random lit-up minority.

There was water damage in the elevator. Windows and balcony doors had blown in on the upper floors, followed by torrents of wind-driven rain. In some cases, the water spread through living rooms, out the doors, into the landings, and down the elevator shafts. The lift cables squawked for want of lubrication as I ascended.

I unlocked my front door and flicked on the lights. Apart from a faint musty smell, everything was as I’d left it. Actually, everything was neater. I had piled up all the living room furniture in the dining room and the hallway to protect against a balcony door breach. Folks who’d used the apartment while I was off-island had moved the furniture back and arranged my scattered stuff with military precision.

After taking stock of my living quarters, I walked two blocks to the supermarket. At sidewalk level, the city smelled like wet cardboard with notes of diesel and sewage. I stepped over power lines lying sinister on the sidewalk and ducked under coax cables drooping from utility poles.

The supermarket was calmer than it had been 51 days earlier when I was there while Maria was bearing down on the island and people were panic-buying. But there was no water to be had. Many of the frozen food shelves were empty. There was a prominent makeshift display of overpriced D batteries. Though the cash registers and the card readers were functioning, the cashier wrote down my purchase total and the transaction number in a dog-eared notebook.

After a fitful night, I woke up Wednesday morning and enjoyed a hot shower. As the water cascaded over my body, I realized that this ordinary personal hygiene ritual is now a distant memory to most of my neighbors. I felt something akin to guilt as the soapy water swirled down the drain.

My truck started right up. “I’m an old Toyota,” it said, a slight note of indignation creeping into its exhaust. “What’d you expect?”

The commute to work took longer than usual. Everyone seemed to be driving dazed, ten miles an hour slower than before the storm. The intersections were jammed. Is it my turn? Is it my turn? Cars inched through. Despite the care people were taking, I saw the aftermath of two accidents. It’s easy to get distracted driving here. Power poles loomed over the highway, canted at 45-degree angles and dangling wires. Light poles that had snapped but not completely broken looked like bad sculpture. Guardrails had been crushed by falling trees whose branches or trunks protruded horizontally into the roadway.

Trees. Images of tortured, mangled, ruined trees stay with me. This is a tropical island with lush vegetation and thick forests. But hundreds of thousands of trees have been denuded, stripped of leaves, amputated of limbs, uprooted from the soil.

There were piles of debris everywhere. Tree parts, aluminum siding, sodden mattresses, garbage, wire, sheetrock, rugs, glass, toys, furniture, rotting food, window frames, masonry, all piled high and waiting for someone to come scoop it up. It’s likely those piles will be untouched months hence.

The office seemed normal except for the thrum of generators that kept the power up. Coworkers swapped refugee tales, gossiped about absent friends, and shared tips on how to identify the symptoms of leptospirosis. “You’ve got two days to get treatment,” a Puerto Rican native said, “or you’re dead.” Water was running at a trickle, so it was flush with a friend in the bathrooms.

The next morning was wash, rinse, repeat. I went into work. I went out for lunch and waited in line ten minutes to use an ATM, fifteen for gas. When I returned, we started hearing that San Juan was again without power. I drove home, plugged the fridge into my one generator-powered outlet, and cooked spaghetti on a hotplate. It wasn’t as hot as it had been when Hurricane Irma had knocked power out for six days. I padded carefully around my still-unfamiliar apartment, using muscle memory and LED flashlights to avoid collisions with the inanimate.

By Friday I left for work already thinking with Maria brain: keep the truck gassed up, have at least $100 in my wallet, steer clear of water dripping from rooftops. There was a dead horse on a berm in Vega Alta, laying on its side with a death grin and unblinking reflective eyes. Hit by a car? Dead of one of the diseases spreading here? Or just broken-hearted? I tried not to see it as a portent.

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