After María: How Puerto Ricans Are Rebuilding By Relying On Each Other

After María. Photo by Remezcla.

Approximately a month after Hurricane María devastated the island of Puerto Rico, a group of about 15 people stand lined up for hand sanitizer outside el Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in Río Piedras. It’s just after 7:30 a.m., and in a few minutes the doors to the community kitchen will open to the public. Hungry locals will be pass through for a meal of non-perishables, many of them volunteers who will be heading out on cleanup and construction brigades.

This project, dubbed la Olla Común, is one of countless grassroots relief initiatives that have sprung up in post-María Puerto Rico. In the wake of one of the worst humanitarian crises the island has ever seen – and an astoundingly incompetent government response – ordinary Puerto Ricans have mobilized in droves to help one another. It’s clear that rebuilding will be a pueblo-driven process.

It’s clear that rebuilding will be a pueblo-driven process.

There’s la Brigada de Los Mellaos, a group that banded together immediately after the storm and ahead of the arrival of any government entities. With machetes and hatchets, they labored daily to clear neighborhood roads of massive trees and the overwhelming debris left by the storm’s 150 mph winds.

There’s the Centro de Apoyo Mutuo in the mountainous town of Caguas, about 16 miles south of San Juan, which, thanks to the organizing efforts of local culture outlet Urbe Apie and Comedores Sociales de Puerto Rico, was able to feed 500 to 700 people daily.

There’s la Brigada Ráfaga Solidaria, headed up by Helen Ceballos, Kairiana Núñez Santaliz, and a team of volunteers, which centered its efforts on senior communities all over the island: They’ve been delivering food, water, and supplies, cleaning living spaces, and facilitating communication between residents and their families.

In Santurce, El Local, a neighborhood dive and DIY music venue, is also running a community kitchen — la Cocina Huracanada. Nearby bookstore Librería Libros AC Barra and Bistro celebrated its fifth anniversary in October by caring for the coastal communities of Loíza, including the shelter at Medianía Alta. Their crew served 175 meals and brought along a plena group, too. Fundación el Plato Caliente, a collective of chefs and restaurant industry professionals, has served more than 2,000 hot meals to people in Carolina, Hato Rey, Cataño, Río Piedras, Bayamón, Canóvanas, and other parts of the island.

The list of community relief initiatives is long; those described here are just a scratch on the surface. Resistance groups organized after PROMESA passed, nonprofits already catering to underserved communities, small businesses, and individual folks who’ve stepped up — people on the island have been rallying to help each other all this time. And that’s what proves Trump’s statements about Puerto Ricans wanting “everything to be done for them” so bafflingly off, so incredibly inaccurate. Community relief efforts, from cleanup to meals to emotional care, have been in motion since the start.

More than two months after the storm, the Puerto Rican government and FEMA are still fumbling.

Today, more than two months after the storm, the Puerto Rican government and FEMA are still fumbling. About 7 percent of Puerto Rican homes remain without running water. A potential health emergency has emerged in leptospirosis, a bacterial disease caused by drinking water contaminated with rodent urine. Of a total of 76 suspected cases, two deaths resulting from the disease have been confirmed.

Electricity likely won’t be fully restored until March of 2018, and currently, about 30 percent of the island still doesn’t have power. Continued bouts of rain have held back progress, causing new flooding, further damaging homes and businesses. Hospitals are struggling to bounce back, after weeks running on generators that abruptly break down, causing scrambles to evacuate patients. Even newer, more reliable generators are at risk because diesel fuel is in high demand but scarce supply.

Meanwhile, city officials in five municipalities are being investigated by the FBI for misuse of donations. A disaster relief package addressing U.S. floods, hurricanes, and wildfires was approved; it includes a loan of $4.9 billion for Puerto Rico—a loan that would have to be paid back, leaving the debt-ridden island even further in the red.

The icing on this cake, which is starting to taste a lot like genocide: Trump implied on Twitter that Puerto Rico has gotten enough help already, that the U.S. cannot keep FEMA, the military and first responders in place “forever.” And when the 10-day Jones Act waiver—which allowed foreign ships to deliver aid to Puerto Rico—expired, the Trump administration declined to extend that window any longer.

Meanwhile, the death toll, although officially at 58, looks to be significantly higher: The Puerto Rican government told Buzzfeed in late October that 911 people have died since the storm and all of them were cremated without an autopsy or physical examination of any kind.

Things are absolutely not OK, no matter what politicians like Scott Perry report. When San Juan Mayor Yulín Cruz said that people are dying, she didn’t offer an end date or an everything’s-fine-now finish line. That’s because the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico is far from over.

The people of Puerto Rico have been doing more than their fair share of heavy lifting in the island’s recovery process. Communities will continue to help each other, to share, to support those who need it, and to rebuild—together. Imagine the progress that could be accomplished if all the official, resource-heavy institutions and the governments in power who control them adopted the same ethos.