By Sharon Green
As my plane began its descent into San Juan, I noticed spots of blue. I thought about the many swimming pools that surprise tourists flying into Buffalo. For a moment, I wondered if blue roofs were common in Puerto Rico. But as the plane descended further, I realized they were tarps.
Six months after last year’s devastating hurricanes, many homes in Puerto Rico are still without roofs. Imagine living without a proper roof when it rains. Imagine living without electricity for over six months. This is life for many American citizens.
I had never been to the Caribbean so I decided to start with Puerto Rico. My daughter had suggested I travel there, predicting that I would love it. She was right. And what better time to help with a few tourist dollars?
The blue Atlantic is dazzling; the culture, which I was familiar from Buffalo’s Puerto Rican community, is vibrant; the food is delicious; the extensive beaches are inviting; and the history is rich. The vast fortifications on the northern rim of the island, built in the 16th century to deter invaders, are fascinating. Old San Juan is a delight of vividly painted buildings on narrow European-like streets of blueish cobblestone. And of course, bright sunshine and summer temperatures in March provided a welcome late-winter break.
Because my trip was short and because I was reluctant to drive through rural areas without electricity or street lights, I stayed in the San Juan area. But I saw and heard enough to get a glimpse of life without the basics that we too easily take for granted.
The young-adult son of my Airbnb host, a recent college graduate in finance, cannot find a job in his field. Sadly, this problem afflicts many in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, as we know from those who moved to the mainland in recent months. Instead, this young man rises at 5 a.m. to drive to the countryside to help rebuild houses. He shrugged, “At least I’m learning about construction.”
The driver of an excursion to the east-coast town of Fajardo described her life in the weeks following the hurricanes. Gasoline was rationed so drivers had to inch along in lines for hours, packing coolers of food just to buy gas. She pointed out buildings half-gone, roofs torn off, trees knocked over, and clusters of tree stumps. We passed a gas station where the large metal shelter above the pumps had been blown off.
I asked each of my Uber drivers how their families were affected. All shared stories of loved ones still without electricity, struggling to rebuild. I tried to assure them that we mainland Americans were deeply sympathetic.
The longest I’ve lived without electricity was eight days – in 2006, after our “October surprise” storm. I lost frozen food, missed a day of work, spent evenings in generator-powered Wegmans Cafés grading papers, and used flashlights to navigate my house.
But that was a mere inconvenience compared to Puerto Rico today. Imagine living in 85-degree humidity for half a year without a fan or air conditioner. Imagine caring for small children without lights. Imagine needing a medical device that requires power. Lions Club members in San Juan told me that generators are still urgently needed.
If you’ve ever considered visiting Puerto Rico, now is the time to go. Except for the occasional broken window, San Juan’s tourist areas are open for business. The lights are on and people are eager to welcome you. Now more than ever, Puerto Rico can use our tourist dollars – and our support.
Sharon Green of Buffalo is a college educator who enjoys traveling.