Labor of love

Puerto Rico’s fragile recovery is built on thousands of people just doing their jobs. These are five workers, in their own words, on life after Hurricane Maria.
Story by
Photos by Adriana Parrilla
Video by Adriana Usero and Juan C. Dávila

On the surface, life appears to be regaining some sense of normalcy in Puerto Rico. Tourists swarm the streets of Old San Juan on a sultry Saturday evening a week before the anniversary of Hurricane Maria’s landfall. They spill in and out of restaurants and bars operating on full power. Eager Uber drivers sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic to pick up and drop off fares.

Getting to this point took an astonishing amount of work, work that began even as the storm was pulling away from the island a year ago. Some of that work was essential and obvious: People needed food, medical care, gas. But they also needed to get married, to get rides around town, to eat fresh bread. Someone needed to do the work of restoring ordinary routines.

Even with all that labor, the fragile reality facing Puerto Ricans hits you in the face. Some traffic lights on main thoroughfares and electronic toll plazas on major highways remain inoperable. In San Juan’s Ocean Park neighborhood, rows of homes along the waterfront battered relentlessly by Maria’s storm surge sit vacant and abandoned. In nearby Condado, for every commercial building that is open for business, two or three more are shuttered with plywood. Outside San Juan, locals on all four corners of the island anxiously monitor the National Weather Service for threats churning in the Atlantic Ocean.

We asked five Puerto Ricans to explain what life has been like for them as they returned to work and tried to rebuild after the storm. These are their stories, in their own words.

The baker

Pablo Hernandez, the 50-year-old owner of Progreso Bakery in Aguadilla, a city in northwest Puerto Rico that is home to a Hewlett Packard Enterprise manufacturing plant employing more than 1,500 people.

In the streets, people in cars honked their horns and played their radios loud. The ones walking the sidewalks danced and cheered. We were celebrating the restoration of power 23 days after Maria hit the island. It was a huge relief, because I was worried the industrial electrical generator powering my bakery was going to explode soon. I had been running it constantly, 24 hours a day. No matter how many times you change the oil, eventually, the generator is going to give out.

I’ve owned Progreso Bakery since 1994, when I took the business over from my granduncle. Most of my customers are people from the surrounding neighborhood, including municipal cops in the Aguadilla police station, which is just down the block.

In 1995, we had faced a threat from a hurricane, so I bought an industrial gasoline generator. I spent $12,000 for it. People mocked me. “You installed the generator, and the hurricane didn’t hit,” they said. In 1996, Hurricane Hortense did hit us. I was the only one with a generator, and I took all the business from the other bakeries. By the time of Hurricane Georges in 1998, everybody had generators.

At 5 in the morning the day after Hurricane Maria, I flipped on the ovens and the lights and got to work. I called my relatives to also get ready to come in and help. With the supermarkets closed and no place to get food, the first thing people look for is bread and pizza. But we had to figure out how to manage the diesel fuel while running the generator for many hours. I thought I was ready. I had 4,500 gallons of water in a reserve tank and 1,000 gallons of diesel. (I also had 195 boxes of bottled water for my bread production.) That was enough to last for two weeks. That’s what you are supposed to prepare for!

Within the first week, we ran out of flour in the bakery. The plant where I get my 50-pound sacks of flour would sell me only 15 bags. I normally buy 200. How could I feed a community with that? Thankfully, a company called Pan American Grain in Arecibo was operating, and we were able to get more. Without it, we wouldn’t even have had enough flour to make one pizza pie. I also bought extra sacks that I sold to other bakeries and pizzerias for the same price I’d paid. The goal was to make sure everyone could go somewhere and eat.

We restricted each customer to a maximum of two pounds of baked goods, but the lines were still a block deep. Sometimes, parents would also send their children to each get their own two pounds of food. I heard of bakeries in other neighborhoods that had to hire security guards to watch out for people cutting in line and control flare-ups. But I didn’t have any problems.

By the second week, not even the police had gasoline for their patrol cars. Eventually, all the diesel was sent to the hospitals and emergency centers. Luckily, I was always able to find some here and there. In addition to the 1,000 gallons of diesel I had before Maria, I probably bought another 800 to 1,000 gallons — at up to $5 a gallon, a 150 percent markup.

We were lucky to live in an area where there are a lot of manufacturing plants, including Hewlett Packard. I heard the company spent $100,000 to erect new electric poles close to the plant, because they were spending around the same amount daily on diesel fuel for their generators. The plant had full power by December. Hewlett Packard did a lot for its employees, too. The company brought in a lot of water for them and made sure they had food to eat.

Employees for the power company were also very proactive in Aguadilla. They went out on their own, picking up cables and fallen poles. I have a brother-in-law who works for the electric company. He took one of my trucks to clear cables from the street. They worked from 6 in the morning until the wee hours, replanting poles and restitching cables. Residents took charge as well, clearing the streets of fallen trees and other debris.

Whenever I see another hurricane forming, my heart begins racing. I think about the elderly people waiting in the long lines under the hot sun to buy some bread. My sister tells me I should be running a human assistance center instead of a bakery.

Carlos Diaz drives two passengers to their house in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The Uber driver

Carlos Diaz, a 33-year-old Uber driver from Bayamon, who traded in his paramedic career to become his own boss chauffeuring locals and tourists around Puerto Rico.

Being an Uber driver was complicated in the first few weeks after the storm. Maria knocked out all the cell towers, so none of the applications on anybody’s phone worked. Still, people would hail me down on the street because they saw the Uber sticker on my windshield. I wasn’t quoting anyone prices. I would tell them to just give me what they believed was appropriate. They often gave more than I expected, simply because I helped them get somewhere after the storm.

A couple of passengers paid me $100 each for a trip that only lasted 10 minutes. One guy paid me $300 to go search for his parents in Bayamon, a town 22 minutes from San Juan. I told him he didn’t have to give so much, but he insisted. His parents’ neighborhood had been flooded completely, but it wasn’t super-dangerous. We drove down to Bayamon and picked them up.

For 16 years, I had been a paramedic, earning about $300 per week working for three different ambulance companies. I’d leave one shift to go work another shift. Sometimes my days started at 6 a.m. and didn’t end until midnight. But a few months before Hurricane Maria hit, I’d begun driving for Uber on the weekends, and even though I didn’t plan it, that became my full-time job four months ago.

Ferrying people around comes naturally for me, because my ambulance work taught me how to get to many places on the island. After Maria, a lot of drivers left. It was like Christmas for those of us who stayed behind. In one week, I made $2,000 in cash. I had an easier time getting gasoline than others. First responders were allowed to top off their tanks, while regular people could only get $20 worth of gas at one time while waiting for hours to get fuel. I would wait in line for 30 minutes, fill up and go. That really helped me a lot. Now, I make between $1,000 to $1,300 weekly; the median household income in Puerto Rico is $20,000 a year.

Once the phone companies put the cell towers back up, the Uber app began working again, and demand for rides was high. I could finally take advantage of the company’s dynamic pricing, which allows for higher fares in areas where demand is highest. For instance, I could earn $400 in six hours on a Friday night driving people to tourist spots downtown, when it normally takes about 12 hours to make that amount during the afternoon on a weekday. Uber also included an option just in Puerto Rico that allows riders to pay with cash.

At first, all the drivers loved the cash option — until a few of them got robbed. In one incident in August, a man stole a driver’s watch, his cellphone and $350 at gunpoint. Thank God, they didn’t kill him. Now I only accept cash rides when I am near tourist areas. While I have never been robbed, I’ve had guns pointed at me when I go into neighborhoods where I am not a local.

I primarily stay around the touristy spots in San Juan. From Monday through Sunday, the people in San Juan are having a good time. I had a young lady and her friends in the car one night, and she took off her top sitting in the back seat. I looked in the rearview mirror and just saw breasts. I had to ask her politely to put her shirt on, because if the police stopped us, I would get a traffic violation.

I have to work long nights, but through Uber, I have built up my own separate clientele who need chauffeur services. They can call me at any hour, and I will pick them up. I take two days off during the week that I use to spend time with my 10-year-old daughter. I also have the freedom to drop her off and pick her up from school. And I started a group on WhatsApp for paramedics who are moonlighting as drivers. On the days I am not working or I can’t do a pickup, I refer clients to them.

And there have been times when I’ve had to act as a paramedic again. I had a passenger who was showing early signs of having a heart attack. I turned off the app and drove him straight to the hospital. He survived, and he still calls me for rides.

The pediatrician

Mayra Santiago, a 49-year-old pediatrician who runs a family practice with her husband, also a doctor, in Aguada, a midsize city in a coastal valley on the west side of Puerto Rico.

One day about three weeks after Maria, I was treating patients in a free clinic when a young mother came in with her 6-year-old son for a check-up. She looked miserable. Her son wasn’t showing any symptoms that should have concerned her, but as she was about to leave, she turned to me: “Doctor, I have a baby at home, and the milk I have is going to last me only for today. Do you have any formula you can give me?”

I didn’t. My heart broke. But I put the word out. One person told another. Three days later, the mother came back to see me. Her demeanor had completely changed. She was so happy: “Doctor, I wanted to thank you. Because of the calls you made, my baby got formula and can eat now.”

This is one example of why my husband, Héctor Aviles, and I decided to stay in Puerto Rico and help our people. I have been a pediatrician for 18 years. With so many people migrating to the mainland, we’ve experienced a drop in patients and physicians. But our practice is slowly recovering. (I also work two days a week for the Department of Health in an office in Arecibo, where I see children with special needs.)

Every year, we face threats from hurricanes. The real danger came after Maria had passed. I had to go to San Carlos Borromeo Hospital in Moca, a city about seven miles east of Aguada, where I live and have my family practice. I was on a team of physicians who volunteered to relieve the doctors who stayed in the hospital during the hurricane. I was very scared to go by myself, because I didn’t know how bad the conditions would be on the main roads. So I asked Hector to drop me off. The drive, which normally takes 15 to 20 minutes, took us 2 1/2 hours. Part of the highway had been flooded by a rising river. It swept away two police officers and killed them. We had to drive through the brush, and destroyed homes — washed away by landslides — blocked our path.

Still, we saw a positive side. People, whether they were young adults or senior citizens, were clearing debris. They chopped fallen trees with machetes and chainsaws. They shoveled rubble out of the way. Contractors who had backhoes and other equipment came to help as well. It was the people, not the government, that made it possible for us to get through that day. When I arrived, I found a flooded hospital and a supervisor in tears from the stress. Patients and staff had been there for almost two days without any way to reach their family members to let them know they were all right.

A few days after I completed my 48-hour volunteer shift at the hospital, Hector and I joined several colleagues who had set up a free medical clinic in our town, because the local hospitals were either full or completely destroyed. Puerto Rico’s health-care system collapsed. Every doctor had a bottle of alcohol each, a bottle of hand sanitizer, a stethoscope and an otoscope — that’s it. There were hardly any medicines or supplies to treat the patients. When the pharmacies in our area reopened a month or two after Maria, we were able to get medications on a limited basis. It took months for us to receive donated medicine and supplies.

Meanwhile, our family practice had no power, and many of our patients left for the mainland. Our electricity wasn’t restored until sometime in June. Hector and I scraped by, but it took nearly depleting our life savings to pay our bills and daily expenses for almost a year.

I treated patients who had lesions, ulcers, rashes, bug bites and Leptospirosis, a virus that is passed through rat urine. Then, as the weeks went by, I started getting patients with diseases who couldn’t get their regular medications. For example, diabetics had no insulin, because they had no way to refrigerate it without power. Two people my husband treated died. One had a heart attack. The other died of kidney failure.

Sometime in November, our group of physician volunteers decided to travel around the island and set up free medical clinics. About a dozen of us saw roughly 100 patients per day for six days a week. Many arrived completely depressed. As the months went by, power would get restored on different parts of the island. Hospitals were getting back to full operation mode, and physicians around Puerto Rico were able to reopen their offices. Hector began reducing our work for the free clinics and eventually returned to our family practice in Aguada.

At the height of our volunteer service, I would go home at 7 p.m. in the evenings wondering how I could find the strength to return to work the next day. When I finally had cellphone service, I would speak to my sister in Miami, who wanted Hector, my mother and me to come live with her. I sent my mother, but my husband and I remained. I had a moral and ethical obligation to help Puerto Rico.

Sari and John Skalnik in Rio Grande, Puerto Rico.

The wedding planner

Sari Skalnik, the 52-year-old owner of Tropical Weddings, a company based in Rio Grande, a scenic town on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico.

After Hurricane Irma, my phone was still ringing off the hook. Then Maria hit us, and that just totally wiped out everything. Before the storm, my company would do 80 to 100 weddings per year. On average, I pull anywhere from 2,000 to 3,000 leads a year. Right now, I am at 285 leads for the past 12 months. Wedding ceremonies for my company are down 70 percent.

My dad was born and raised here and was always in the tourism business. A running joke in the family is that I came out of the womb promoting Puerto Rico. When I graduated from high school in New York City, my plan had been to study art therapy in college. I decided to take a break to make sure that’s what I really wanted to do. So I went down to Puerto Rico to spend time with my father and my stepmother, who ran a wedding planning business. While I was there, she got a call from a local hotel asking if she could plan a wedding for a couple who wanted to get married. I was her assistant. When she retired, I took over the business and launched Tropical Weddings with my husband, John, in 1999.

We met the old-fashioned way, in a bar. I’d stopped by to see a mutual friend. John asked me to say for a drink, but I had to go. When I left, he asked our friend who I was. He said, “That is my future wife who just walked out.” Then he ordered a round for the bar. Six months later, we went on our first date. A year later, we got married. We are celebrating 19 years in February.

When my stepmother started doing this in 1992, the whole destination-wedding market in the Caribbean was very new. Most couples were coming off cruise ships — two people eloping. We’ve never forgotten those roots. A lot of planners look for the bigger weddings. For us, it can be two or 200.

The storm’s destruction led to a lot of challenges. I had to steer clients to the hotels that had generator power. After a while, the sound is like nails on a chalkboard; it’s not exactly ideal for a wedding ceremony. Many couples ended up canceling because of the lack of power. I also had a catering manager position with a local restaurant, but after the storm, all the restaurants closed. There were moments when I thought, How am I even going to pay my Internet bill?

At the same time, Puerto Rico is a resilient island, and John and I will not give up what we’ve done for two decades. This is our passion. I’ll never forget our first wedding after Maria. I had started planning a wedding for a gentleman from Florida before Irma. He wanted to surprise his girlfriend. Even with Maria approaching, he told me, “You are still going to do this for me.” He proposed to her on Christmas morning, and they got married in Puerto Rico in January. It was just the bride and groom. No guests. We had the ceremony in a secret spot in San Juan. He stuck with us.

Even though my numbers are down, my business is slowly showing signs of a recovery. I am getting calls from families who left Puerto Rico whose children want to get married on the island. Couples who always wanted to get married in Puerto Rico are calling me. And there are some couples who are coming down for vacation and are looking to renew their vows as their way to help our economy.

Some of the couples who canceled their weddings last year have rescheduled because Puerto Rico is where they want to have their dream weddings. I had a client who had scheduled her wedding in Puerto Rico in November 2017. She still wanted to come down that month. It wasn’t the vibe I wanted for her ceremony. I convinced her to postpone getting married until this November.

Maria Murelo hugs her husband, Raimundo Ilarraza, in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

The hospital administrator

Maria Murelo, a 47-year-old administrator in the housing division of Humacao’s Ryder Memorial Hospital, a small facility that sustained significant damage.

Even though I was part of a team at my hospital that was supposed to report to work immediately after the hurricane passed, blocked roads meant I couldn’t get in until three days later. When I arrived, it looked like a bomb went off. The hospital is located in an area with a lot of vegetation. It had all been peeled off, leaving behind just the brown dirt. Maria’s winds tore off the roof of the hospital and all the air conditioning units on it. And the fifth floor collapsed and allowed water into every corner of the building.

As of today, we are able to provide services only in the emergency room. Reconstruction of the second floor is almost finished, but the third, fourth and fifth floors are still heavily damaged from the storm.

We were lucky to have a sister hospital in New Hampshire; the administration there donated medical supplies. But we didn’t start receiving that aid until late January 2018. The level of service at the hospital was severely impacted. The lack of electricity made it impossible to provide proper medical care, for example, to patients who needed respiratory machines and dialysis treatments. If they didn’t die, they were certainly close to dying. Luckily, we were able to transport the most critical patients to Miami. I don’t know of anyone under my hospital’s care who died. But the official death toll went from 64 in the days after the storm to 2,975 in recent months.

On top of that, so many physicians and workers in the medical field left Puerto Rico. Specialists like cardiologists are hard to find, and the ones who stayed have long waiting lists. If you call for an appointment, it’s going to be six or eight months.

Because gasoline and other basic necessities were scarce immediately after the storm, the hospital placed nonessential staff on an alternating schedule. I would work one day on and one day off. On my days off, I waited in lines. If it wasn’t for gas, it was to take money out of the bank.

I remember feeling bad for two teenage boys who were looking for gasoline to keep their power on. They were taking care of their mother, who was bedridden. They needed much more in order to run the generator. Doctors and lawyers had to wait in line with everybody else. If you were disabled or pregnant, you didn’t get special treatment, either. At the time, the only ones who could fill up their tanks were police officers and other first responders. It started to get better about 40 days later. The wait times dwindled to an hour or less.

A year later, we are still trying to get back on our feet. We have seen other cities in the U.S. hit by hurricanes get the assistance they need. Here, FEMA had the tools to act quickly to help Puerto Rico, but it didn’t. We are not treated the same way. It’s not right.

I am living day by day, working at a hospital that the hurricane destroyed. But after what we experienced with Maria, if another event like this happens in Puerto Rico, I would like to get on a plane and leave.

Credits: Story by Francisco Alvarado. Photos by Adriana Parrilla. Video by Adriana Usero and Juan C. Dávila. Produced by Jenny Rogers. Photo Editing by Chloe Coleman.