February 26, 2018 at 5:00 am EDT | by Michael K. Lavers
Puerto Rico must not be forgotten

A nearly empty beach in Luquillo, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 3, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

LUQUILLO, Puerto Rico — It was shortly after noon on Feb. 3 when I walked onto the beach in Luquillo, a municipality on Puerto Rico’s northeastern coast that is about 45 minutes east of the U.S. commonwealth’s capital of San Juan. The water was warm and clear and the trade winds were refreshing. The sky was a deep blue with no clouds. Palm trees along the beach without their crowns were stark testimony of the power of Hurricane Maria that ravaged Puerto Rico less than five months earlier.

The fact there were only a handful of people on the beach on this beautiful February afternoon was another indication that the situation in Puerto Rico remains far from normal after Maria. The humanitarian catastrophe I saw while on assignment from Jan. 29-Feb. 3 provided definitive proof that things are not well in the U.S. commonwealth.

Paula, a 98-year-old woman who lives on the island of Vieques, had no electricity in her home on Jan. 31 when Wilfred Labiosa and Grissel Bonilla, co-founders of Waves Ahead, an organization that has provided assistance to LGBT Puerto Ricans and other vulnerable groups, and three volunteers from Intersections International, an LGBT-affirming ministry that is based in New York, brought her food and water and personal hygiene products. Ricky Santiago, a gay hairdresser, is among the caretakers for his bedridden father who was in a stifling bedroom in his family’s hurricane-damaged house in the city of Humacao’s Candelera Arriba neighborhood when Labiosa and Bonilla and a group of volunteers visited on Feb. 1. Mangled trees, damaged utility poles and nearly impassible roads continue to make access to Puerto Rico’s rural communities difficult. Blue tarps — “techos azules” in Puerto Rican Spanish — that have been placed over buildings are a common sight across the island.

Some Puerto Ricans have reportedly taken their own lives after the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied their applications for assistance.

Bill’s Kitchen, a San Juan-based organization that prepares meals for Puerto Ricans with HIV/AIDS, did not have electricity from when Hurricane Irma brushed the island from Sept. 7 until Jan. 31. The majority of the traffic lights in San Juan are still not working. Many of the road signs that had been along Puerto Rico’s expressways and highways before Maria are gone. Debris from a hanger at San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport the hurricane destroyed remains visible from one of the runways.

The humanitarian catastrophe that continues to unfold in Puerto Rico more than five months after Maria is unconscionable. The federal government’s response to it speaks for itself. The good people of Puerto Rico, however, are resilient and doing their best to rise above the circumstances in which they and their beautiful island find themselves.

A woman at the Bear Tavern PR, a gay bar in San Juan’s Ocean Park neighborhood, on Feb. 1 passed around pieces of her Birthday cake. Ely’s Place, a lesbian-owned restaurant that is near the beach in Luquillo, was open on Feb. 3 and serving mofongo (mashed plantains) and other traditional Puerto Rican dishes. Marciana Encarnación Caraballo, a 101-year-old woman who lives in Vieques, on Jan. 30 began to smoke a cigarette on the porch of her house before Labiosa, Bonilla, the Intersections International volunteers and this reporter left.

Marciana Encarnación Caraballo, 101, smokes a cigarette on the porch of her house in Vieques, Puerto Rico, on Jan. 31, 2018. (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

It is going to take billions of dollars and political will from D.C., San Juan and Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities to rebuild the island. The 3.4 million people who lived in Puerto Rico before Maria deserve nothing less. Their fellow Americans who live in the mainland U.S. must also not forget about them.

T-shirts for sale at a store in Ponce, Puerto Rico, on Feb. 2, 2018, have a hashtag that reads “Puerto Rico will rise again.” (Washington Blade photo by Michael K. Lavers)

Michael K. Lavers is the international news editor of the Washington Blade. Follow Michael

Comments are closed
© Copyright Brown, Naff, Pitts Omnimedia, Inc. 2019. All rights reserved.