SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Signs of a slow-moving recovery are apparent in Puerto Rico six months after the territory was devastated by back-to-back hurricanes and two months before the next hurricane season begins.
Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, is filled with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and continental utility workers replacing the island’s electric grid; that grid was dilapidated before Hurricane Maria and nonexistent afterward.
The influx of workers is keeping struggling hotels in business, but also inflating prices. A weekend rate for a regular room in San Juan’s ritzy Condado neighborhood can easily top $700 after taxes and fees.
Every evening, dozens of dirty, tired utility workers stop by lobby bars as local patrons in polo shirts sip cocktails.
Still, San Juan took relatively less damage than other parts of the island, and as the largest city, its recovery has been quicker.
The island of Vieques, off the east coast of the main island, has not fared as well.
Its connection to the main power grid was severed, and volunteer workers say it’ll take two years for the undersea cables to be restored.
Hotels on the southern coast of Vieques only got electrical power last week after nearly six months and are dependent on a generating station that’s ill equipped to handle all of the island’s power needs.
Recovery has been slow, but the pace matches the degree of devastation.
Parts of the Vieques malecón, its concrete boardwalk, are little more than rubble overlooking the sailboats anchored in the main bay to the island’s south.
A hotel owner on Vieques said the days after the hurricane brought unexpected risks — trees were stripped of all greenery, exposing the tropical island to forest fires.
“It’s lucky the hurricane season is also the rainy season,” he said.
The hurricane stopped all economic activity for two weeks. Residents had no choice but to share their nonperishable food supplies and their labor.
Immediately after the hurricane, residents of Vieques began to clear streets of fallen debris and tree trunks. The hotel owner, originally from Florida, said his participation in the cleanup made locals accept him as one of their own.
One of the biggest challenges for recovery has been the lack of a territorywide emergency communications system.
In Cayey, a town of about 50,000 people 20 miles south of San Juan, the only way to communicate with the outside world immediately after the hurricane was an AM radio station that kept transmitting in the aftermath of Maria.
Elliot Pacheco, the owner of a drug store in Cayey, rode out the hurricane and subsequent flooding sleeping in his pharmacy’s office.
Pacheco lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in medicine and equipment to the water that seeped through his roof, but stayed in his business to prevent losing more to looters.
“People were in the streets armed with guns and rifles,” Pacheco said.
Pacheco hired two armed security guards and set up a large searchlight array on the roof of his pharmacy — the only functional permanent lighting in Cayey’s main square.
But those lights — and the multiple means of telecommunications Pacheco uses to run his business — are relatively recent improvements.
At night, the two most prevalent sounds around Cayey are the local coquí chirping frogs and the sound of gas- and diesel-driven generators.
Pacheco said Cayey had no way of communicating with the outside world for three months.
Before he restored internet service, he would physically take the pharmacy’s server to a nearby town with online access to upload the prescriptions he’d serviced.
“Today it would take me 15 minutes. The Monday after Maria it took me about two hours,” he said.
Although internet and cell service are now for the most part available in central Puerto Rico, service is spotty. Pacheco maintains three different internet connections, switching off between modems to keep his pharmacy’s online prescription service running.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai and Puerto Rico Resident Commissioner Rep. Jenniffer González-Colón (R) announced last week a $954 million investment in communications networks for Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
That money will be invested in three phases: $64 million for restoration efforts for damaged communications equipment, $631 million for long-term restoration and expansion efforts, and $259 million for 4G connectivity.
But Pai said all the investment in communications is dependent on a reliable power grid.
That’s why Puerto Rico’s retailers are lobbying for an emergency communications system that will still operate after the power goes out.
Puerto Ricans accept that, while Maria may have been a once-in-a-generation storm, the territory is in the path of Atlantic hurricanes and will have to weather them again.
“As the next hurricane season quickly approaches, appropriating funds to a rapid deployment, energy independent private sector disaster recovery and business continuity communications network should be a top priority,” Pacheco said.
But Pacheco added the island isn’t ready for another hurricane yet.
“The [issue with] communications will happen again,” he said. “This wasn’t fixed.”