As my flight approached San Juan, I saw highrises that looked untouched by September’s hurricanes, but I also spotted one- and two-story houses with tarps where their roofs should be. So how is Puerto Rico doing 4-plus months after Hurricane Maria? Tourism officials addressed that question at the Caribbean Hotel & Tourism Association’s Marketplace in San Juan, but I also wanted to get out and see things for myself. A few impressions:
I saw blue tarps in working-class Santurce, the mountainous interior, the south coast, even Old San Juan, but not without effort. Simply put, roofs are higher than bipeds, so in general, visitors only see them if they’re looking down from high ground or taller buildings. What I saw at street level looked deceptively good, if only because most buildings’ cinderblock and concrete exteriors withstood the storms far better than their roofs.
If I was surprised by the good WiFi signals in the convention center and San Juan, I was even more amazed by the cellphone signal, even in the interior. However, waiters, Uber drivers, tour guides, and people at the convention all told me that their homes had only recently recovered power. For example, a marketing executive at Marketplace was unable to attend the evening events because her home is still without power, and she can’t leave her mother, who lives with her, alone in the dark. Andrea Bogbakan, a craftsman who owns the Seafoam gallery in Old San Juan, said the hurricane had done little damage to his inventory. However, the building where his shop is located only recovered power a month ago, so cash flow is a big problem.
Some of the power lines looked hastily jerry-rigged. A waiter at the Sheraton Puerto Rico Hotel & Casino declared that these lines will—and must—be replaced, and then he discretely pointed to the other tables in the restaurant. “Many of the people eating here are employees of Florida Power & Light (FPL),” he whispered. “They are very fast and very good.” Over the next few days, other Puerto Ricans also praised FPL, and I saw convoys hauling new telephone poles to villages. However, Feb. 11, after I’d returned home, a fire at an electrical power substation blacked out parts of the capital. Puerto Rico’s power company scrambled to restore it because San Juan’s economy is so critical to the island.
The bottom line on the damage is that visitors are unlikely to see much of it. Despite the widespread destruction of roofs—and, therefore, of interior walls, furnishings, electronics, books, clothing, and people’s lives—intact exteriors have made many neighborhoods look deceptively good. One way for a visitor to get a better sense of the destruction is to enlist in voluntourism projects. Many attendees at the CHTA Marketplace did just that.
The Welcome Party
I saw cruise ship passengers in Old San Juan, but my flights to and from San Juan had rows of empty seats, and hoteliers admitted they were worried about occupancy levels. The upside for visitors, of course, is that this could trigger lower prices. Hyatt House, where I stayed, did look busy, but remember: This Hyatt was hosting participants in the (huge) CHTA meeting.
At restaurants, shops, bars and museums; in Uber cars; on buses and on a chartered boat—the welcome was enthusiastic. Sarah and Raul at the front desk of Hyatt House always hailed me by name; the first mate on the chartered boat offered to take me snorkeling even though no one else wanted to go.
The Clean-Up Party
The Caribbean Tourism Organization’s mantra these days is, “The best way to help the Caribbean is to visit the Caribbean.” Hard-hit islands will need more than that, yet I heard this mantra a lot in San Juan. No doubt this view of visitors as agents in the recovery was another reason, aside from my irresistible charm, for the warm welcome this “norteamericano” (North American) enjoyed.
One day a few of us met a group of thirty-something residents who were enjoying a late lunch on a beach. They explained that they’d just finished cleaning up the sand, a job for which they volunteer so the beach will be free of the broken tree branches and flotsam that Maria had dropped there. One of the locals presented us with a plateful of grilled chorizo. A lovely gesture, and yes, it was delicious.
For the Puerto Rico tourism officials’ assessment of how tourism is doing now, see Part 1 of this story.