After our trip to San Sebastian I came back with a clearer idea of the extent of the damage the hurricane had caused in Puerto Rico. I knew the center of the island would be devastated, especially the mountain tops and surrounding communities. But I was rather curious as to the situation of coastal areas where the hurricane made landfall; knowing fully those communities would be hardest hit by the winds and ocean swell. I knew gasoline would be scarce further away from the city and I couldn’t risk being stranded without fuel. The opportunity to visit these areas soon came up from as a friend agreed to trade manual labor for taking me to visit.
She lived closer to the East side and agreed to take me to the afflicted areas to document the stories yet we could never be prepared for what lied ahead. After spending a few hours helping out in her mom’s house, we diverted to Humacao through the city center. The town greeted us the chaos of traffic lights on the floor, long lines at the side of the highway for cell signal and piles of debris everywhere. It was a bad omen to what laid ahead. Further into town we saw the long lines for water, fuel and other supplies; hours spent in line for basic necessities. Countless store fronts where blown out and roofs allowed the hot sun to enter, lively-hoods destroyed. The local car dealer, a two-story building was completely destroyed with windows blown, cars destroyed and even a industrial A/C unit fell on the back of a pick-up. Moving further into town destruction kept intensifying, streets flooded and houses gone. The local pier, newly reconstructed, was completely ripped apart; only the concrete footing survived the ocean-waves.
When arriving to Punta Santiago, we saw the brunt of the ocean force. The local flags monument inagurated that same summer, was turned into a pile or rubble. As I stood there contemplating and old life, I realized that rubble marked the changing of an era. I felt as Berliners must have felt while standing on top of the rubble of the Berlin Wall. It marked the changing of a strongly held reality, the deconstruction of our old life, making space for a new one (for good or bad). Standing atop of the rubble I felt compelled to take a souvenir, rescuing a piece of my old reality.
Entering the Punta Santiago we saw the vast destruction. The ocean had entered several feet, throwing cars around like legos and destroying several concrete houses. We stopped when seeing the only residents in the community cleaning their house. Being permitted to photograph I took two pictures, one in my opinion grabbed the essence of this new reality. It was the wife cleaning the dirt in front of the house, with the rubble of their belongings on the street, while the husband throws out their living room carpet. It was a harsh moment where the weight of reality took a new dimension: crude, tangible and depressing. I entered the house asking to see the water-level marking and saw a house destroyed by water. The bottom of the doors where destroyed and paint had chipped where water touched, children’s toys littered the house; pieces of a former life. Inside of the house I took a second photograph: a teddy bear lying on top of the marital room.
Asking the family as to their story they related how their house was before the hurricane and how the hurricane destroyed their porch, windows and doors. Then water entered and flooded the whole house 3-4 ft, destroying their whole lives. After the hurricane left, looters came in and stole whatever was left including surviving kitchenware, computers and TV. It summarized hundreds of stories I heard while traveling and volunteering the island. I was destroyed by their story but created empathy, the only tool to surpass the tragedy.
After a while, a reporter from Time magazine showed up and interview the couple. I lingered around photographing the area and letting it all sink in. After a while the reporter left and I continued talking to the couple. The wife expressed how she had lost all her Cutco cutlery, its funny how we all treasure the simplest thing after a catastrophe. While walking around I found most of her surviving kitchen-set in the debris around the house. She was ecstatic and thanked me repeatedly for giving her part of her old life. It was a memorable moment, being able to give back to someone a tangible sense of their former lives before a catastrophe.
That trip back home following the sunset west was quiet and filled with emotions. I had a clearer view of the new reality that had gripped Puerto Rico yet was able to give someone back a piece of their lives. In times of catastrophe, empathy and momentos, tangible objects that remind us of our past are the methods of coping and the only way we as evolved primates can show and share our pain. They where the first set of powerful lessons from what would become life-changing experiences that would guide me later in life.