Returning to Puerto Rico After Hurricane Maria
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
It was five months after Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria pummeled the island. I was finally on my way to run the half-marathon that had been postponed due to the storm, and I had mixed emotions: Was the trip going to be worth it? What condition was the island in? How would I feel about its condition? Would I ever want to return? Friends from the island who had vowed to never leave were had now packed up and were living in the states, an action that spoke volumes. I read and re-read my blog from three years ago titled My Undying Love for Puerto Rico in an attempt to remind myself of the reasons I loved the island prior to the storm...but a part of me was still afraid that what I once knew would no longer exist.
The day finally came to take the trip. I was more than prepared to spend only one night there, as my prior plans to take a road trip through the south and west side of the island had now been cancelled. As the plane started to make its final descent over Puerto Rico, I was overcome with nostalgia. It didn’t take long to recognize the birds-eye view of the coastline and cities that I had seen several times before. My initial thoughts were that, wow, things were actually looking pretty good. I was surprised at how colorful things looked from above, with blue roofs glistening almost everywhere...but as the plane got closer to the ground, I quickly realized that they weren’t blue roofs-- they were the hundreds, if not thousands of blue tarps covering the roofs that had been torn away by the storm. The beautiful palm trees that once welcomed you to the island were now disheveled and blown in one direction, a sad reminder of the fierce winds that ripped through them during the storm.
I’d been warned prior to arriving to be careful taking a car, as there were several stop lights that were still out. Well, this was for sure no joke...and not just at small intersections, but many major ones as well. As a result, this created the occasional traffic mess, as well as traffic accidents from drivers taking their chances making it across. After dark proved especially difficult, because not only did they not have the stop lights, but many street lights were out as well.
As I navigated the streets of San Juan, I couldn’t help but notice that all of the places that were there during my last trip no longer had a trace left. In an Uber ride I took to Old San Juan, we joked that talking about Puerto Rico was now much like referring to certain time periods in history as “BC” (Before Christ) and “AC” (After Christ)-- now we had to refer to things as “BM” (before Maria) and “AM” (after Maria).
While some buildings appeared to have sustained no damage whatsoever, other buildings had clearly taken a beating. Buildings that once advertised new condos now had doors that were boarded and windows that were shattered. In some areas, you could still see debris scattered everywhere from torn shrubs and collapsed roofs.
At one point, I stopped at one of the major hotels to chat with an old friend. I listened as he told me how much the island had changed the way business was being conducted. He said that the property was only closed for a day or two after the storm before reopening the bar to prevent business from going too far into the hole. While a fairly private property, the hotel was now holding events open to the public once a week as a way to bring in additional business. He mentioned that five months after the storm, 50% of the island was still without power. Many of the restaurants that you’d normally find open during the day had now restricted their business hours to early evening only, as a result of low tourism, lack of staff, and for some, due to the dependence on a generator.
But despite the struggles that were still being encountered, the customer service and quality received everywhere was impeccable. In fact, if there’s one thing that stuck out to me the most during the trip, it was the fact that no matter how much the storm changed the surroundings, it did not seem to take away from the pride that everyone had in their island. The warmth and friendliness remained, and the positive energy among everyone resonated.
The beaches remained beautiful and busy with people scattered everywhere taking in the sun. The streets of Old San Juan remained bustling with tourists and locals alike. El Morro continued to welcome visitors, and families and children filled the surrounding lawn, flying kites and running through the perfect breeze. Simply judging by the sights around us, it was as if Maria had never even happened.
So that being said, is Puerto Rico worth visiting at this point in time? Absolutely. Despite the expected struggles of an island trying to recover from a major hurricane, San Juan, Puerto Rico itself still has so much to offer not just physically, but culturally. And from the sounds of it, tourism is exactly what the island needs to help to boost the economy and provide it with the resources it needs to return to being the Isla del Encanto that everyone remembers.
Much like my very first trip to the island, when the time rolled around to leave, I couldn’t...and I didn’t. Instead, I took full advantage of the unfortunate late flight delay that I encountered and changed my flight to stay one additional night. It wasn’t much, but all I needed was just one more day to take in the beautiful weather and the unforgettable touch that the island bestows upon all of its guests.
The only thing I can say I truly regret about my trip is not making it longer from the start. Puerto Rico still has my heart, and I look forward to future trips as the island regains the strength and beauty I’ve always known.
Stay connected! Join the Travel Unapologetically Facebook Group for blog updates, travel news, and to interact with other unapologetic travelers!