Seven months to the day of Hurricane Maria, the forgotten community of Utuado inaugurated their brand new bridge! After months of being incommunicated, having to walk 4-hours into the nearest city center and still without electricity, they cheerfully branded their new bridge, celebrated with the construction and engineering teams in a generator-lit house. They brought music, beer and enough food to feed a small army, happily sharing the one thing Maria failed to take away from us: our happiness.
Coming back at nightfall from the Utuado community, driving back to our homes, minds racing about the impact of the people we had met, knowing something had to be done. I asked Agnes if she would help me with this idea I had: help the people in these communities we had visited all throughout the center of the island (We had been traveling for days across Puerto Rico visiting communities, landmarks while passing miles of devastation). She agreed and I started working, getting supplies and organizing myself. At the moment, the idea was just a pipe dream; never realizing the profound change it would invoke on me.
Waking up one morning with no electricity or running water, I thought it would be great opportunity to begin working with impacted communities around the island. I had the skills of years of off-roading, rescue and living from your car (overlanding) and recognized this moment marked a turning point in history and one I wanted to feel part of. I woke up to a New York Times (link) article of the destruction in Puerto Rico with references to the washed-out bridge that connected the Utuado community with the outside world. It was the first time I had seen the images or known about the disaster and took it as a mission to go, document and figure out how I could help. As you can imagine, having no electricity or running water around the whole island made planning for it more like an expedition rather than a roadtrip as you needed to carry food/water and fuel for if you get stuck someplace due to floods, landslides or taking other routes due to destroyed roads.
Returning with the memories of my first contact with disaster in Humacao, I felt a sense of calling: patriotism. Our island was in deep need to be saved. With the local government incapable and the US federal government dragging their feet in the sand, we needed an organic movement to rise up again. To all those who saw first hand the disaster, we knew instantly that the island could only be saved by boricuas working hand-hand to save ourselves. The disaster of the century could not wait for the government to figure out how to do something.
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. Continue reading “Memories from an Old Life”