Omaya Sosa Pascual is the founding co-director of Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism.
As I start to write, I don’t know where to start.
So much has happened—and so much has not happened—in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria hit our island on Sept. 20.
The devastation was so massive it left no corner of the island untouched: No electricity, no water, no food, no fuel, no hospitals and no means of communication. It seemed unreal that this could happen in the 21st century. After all, we are an American territory that shares citizenship, currency and a military with the United States.
And if it seemed unreal then, today it’s just surreal, given the slow response of the federal government and an erratic response of the Puerto Rican government.
Seven weeks after the most devastating hurricane in Puerto Rican history—at many levels, in U.S. history—fewer than half of the island’s 3.4 million residents have reliable electricity service. Safe, routine drinking water remains a problem for about half a million people. Communication remains a daily challenge. More than 250,000 people lost the roofs of their homes, and most of those don’t even have a tarp to cover what is left of their properties. Tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans have lost jobs and have migrated to the United States.
And, while the official death toll has risen past 50, there are the bodies of hundreds more people who have died since Maria struck who have not been counted.
This is why I am sure Maria has caused permanent change in Puerto Rico. I am certain that this generation will be forever marked by this extreme event. It is not overly dramatic to say that in our lives on this island, there will always be a pre-Maria and a post-Maria.
I remember clearly the first question I received right after the winds stopped: “What’s the story?” a U.S.-based journalist texted to me on my cell phone’s last breath of service after Maria finished destroying the island.
“This is the biggest catastrophe I’ve seen in my 44 years of life” was all I could say.
The journalist, from a national newspaper, asked if I had interviewed anyone yet.
On the mainland, it seemed, they didn’t get it. In Maria’s wake it was impossible to go out and report. There was no electricity, telephone service, Internet or passable highways. All the trees on the island, it seemed, were dead or tattered. No stores or gas stations were open.
Step by slow step, some things are indeed coming back, but for the island’s journalists, the recovery has been a struggle.
As journalists, we are asking: How will Puerto Rico get out of this mess? But, with families and damaged homes and jobs, we are also asking how we can, as humans, recover our own lives.
On the day Maria arrived, I was doubly burdened. I felt I had a duty to protect my family and my immediate community. I also felt a responsibility to go out and report. I was filled with anxiety and desperation as I saw that I could do neither.
After the disaster, I honestly did not know where to start: Devastation caused by 155-mile-per-hour winds left all of Puerto Rico without electricity and communications. For the first several days after Maria, the only means of communication between the government and the people was one radio station.
This was the first Category 5 hurricane in almost a century to smother all of Puerto Rico. The very few Puerto Ricans with lucid memories of Hurricane San Felipe in 1928 now say that Maria was much worse.
Twenty-four hours before the worst winds began to blow, I met with Carla Minet, executive director and editor of the Puerto Rico Center for Investigative Journalism, which I had co-founded in 2007 with journalist Oscar Serrano. We were at a cafe and market in San Juan’s Miramar neighborhood, so before we talked about a post-hurricane plan for the staff of our small non-profit journalism center, we bought last-minute supplies for our families and homes.
Puerto Ricans are accustomed to hurricanes, so we knew that even a glancing blow from the storm would leave us with no water or electricity for a few days. A week before, Hurricane Irma had stolen a few days of our staff’s productivity, so we made a list of urgent interviews that we’d go and get as soon as we could after Maria.
Then she arrived, and I’ve since forgotten what was on that list. Like with most everything else on our island, the list is gone.
Maria’s impact made me remember an ominous Facebook Live broadcast in the days before the storm, by Puerto Rican meteorologist John Morales. He was very honest. He said there was no chance that the red monster on his radar screen would take another route. He told us to prepare emotionally for what would follow after the storm: There would be much destruction. He said all the thick, green vegetation that distinguished our island would be scoured brown by the wind. After more than 20 years as a journalist and having experienced several hurricanes, few things frighten me. But after that broadcast, I felt afraid. I fretted about basic things, firstly the safety of my family, especially my 3-year-old girl. I looked around for a lifejacket for her, anticipating the flooding to come.
And Morales was right: On my first trip outside of my home the day after the hurricane, I saw repeated images of that bore no resemblance to a tropical paradise. There was what looked like scorched earth: dried, fallen trees and roofs ripped away from houses. Whole neighborhoods were flooded, including houses around ours. It was as if a nuclear bomb had fallen.
Right after the storm, I heard of a particularly horrific episode endured by our special projects director, during and after Maria’s sweep. Annette Ruiz described floodwaters that must have been 18 feet deep in places, invading her neighborhood from a nearby river. She saw the remnants of homes of relatives, destroyed by muddy currents. She recalled feeling awestruck by a natural force that toppled trees that for decades had stood as sentries around her quiet community, a collection of small farms, “like a high fence you’d see around an upper-income, gated community.”
“When I stepped out to get my first view of the neighborhood, I felt naked. It was like it must feel when you step out of a shower and your towel falls off in front of a house full of visitors—everything was exposed,” Ruiz told me. “I suddenly felt vulnerable, as the lush vegetation and the trees were all gone and I imagined the neighborhood was now at the mercy of outsiders with bad intentions who could now peer in.”
In my own neighborhood, on the Friday after Maria, the journalist in me was documenting everything as photos or video, although I hadn’t a clue as to how I was going to use any of the material. Journalism had lost its priority. I spent the weekend with my family, clearing debris, looking for ways to preserve and ration food, making sure we would be safe against the complete darkness on the streets, and trying to reach our parents and siblings—family we hadn’t heard from since before the hurricane.
In the process, I ended up getting to know the neighbors better. We shared updates on the condition of friends and family. Their stories that would later help me report on the street-level reality of this tragedy.
A couple of days later, a Sunday, I could not take it any more. I was on a roadside near my home when luck struck: a minimal phone signal. I saw a message from a friend, Karen Larson, owner of the telecommunications company Óptico Fiber. She was inviting journalists to work from the company’s headquarters, which had its own generator and working Wi-Fi. (Larson also opened a free Wi-Fi hotspot to citizens on the sidewalk in front of the building, helping many make first contacts with loved ones.)
The offer was a relief, but I realized I had almost no gas in my car. Larson’s building was relatively close, so I stuffed the computer into a backpack and walked out under the hot sun. I announced to my husband that I was going to work. I could see he didn’t understand why, but he nonetheless took my daughter’s hand. He knew I had not heard from any of my team. I needed to go.
When I reached the curb outside my house, the WhatsApp messenger on my phone lit up, like magic. It was my first real contact with the outside world in four days. I was finally able to read news and emails. Most importantly, almost all members of our team, including Ruiz, were accounted for and eager to get to work. But no one had heard from Carla, who lives in Cidra, a small town in the center of the island. Our senior editor, Eliván Martínez, despite having just lost his home in the storm, got to work and set up a meeting on Monday at 8 a.m. He encouraged us to quickly reorganize and start reporting on the crisis around us. Ahead of that meeting, I accepted Larson’s offer and set up temporary offices in the building that once housed the old Telegraph of Puerto Rico.
Regardless of their personal situations, our reporters arrived on Monday with a list of stories they were already working on. No one had to assign any work.
We were energized by finally hearing from Carla. She had managed to hitchhike all the way to San Juan, but was still a few miles short of the building and needed one more lift. Carla lives in a rural stretch outside of the town of Cidra. She told us it had taken 20 men with smoking chainsaws an entire day—or until the fuel oil ran out—to open a nominal passage out of Cidra. The home of her 80-year-old grandparents was reduced to chaotic piles of cracked bricks and wood, so Carla moved out in order for them to have a place to live.
Despite all that, she managed to be only a half-hour late to what became our most important editorial meeting ever.
Each day since Maria, we’ve faced new personal odysseys just to get the basics for our families. Yet our team has worked countless hours. No one has asked if all the work time will be paid.
The results, so far: Two-dozen in-depth stories by our team of five journalists. Local and U.S. national outlets have republished our work. I believe we set the tone for how the media must now cover Puerto Rico’s painful recovery.
Our reporting has shown that authorities have stumbled in this recovery. Authorities still have not been able to accurately count deaths caused by the storm. And we have tens of thousands of people now homeless.
We’re told it will take at least $95 billion to rebuild Puerto Rico. For us that means there will be much to write about. Let’s get on with the work.