San Juan—As Donald Trump’s rule-by-disinformation strategy intensifies, three weeks after Hurricane Maria, a reeling Puerto Rico is becoming more of a sideshow for his callous stereotyping and ruthlessness. He is subjecting the island’s citizens to layers of anguish, at once revealing the resourcefulness of a sturdy rural culture and the banality of government by public relations. Puerto Ricans, meanwhile, are suffering that all-too-human affliction, the desperate need to connect.
One of the enduring images from Puerto Rico in the wake of Maria is people crowded together near outposts of cable or wireless companies, trying to get a signal so they can communicate. By now most people know that their friends and loved ones have survived; that they may in some cases have water but almost never electricity; that they may need precious medications, or may have stood online at their local pharmacy for hours to get them; that they may have lost all or part of the roof to their home. Survivors have seen their neighborhoods strewn with the carcasses of dead trees, discarded mattresses, and refrigerators; have spent hours trying to get cash out of the few working ATMs in their area or—now a less common complaint—waiting in a gas line.
Sustaining contact on an island littered with fallen power lines and cell-phone towers is difficult, and it contributes to a pervasive feeling of disconnection and chaos. This island is full of people suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress disorder. Imagine finally reaching the remote mountaintop home of a close friend or relative, who sits there with a municipal government–issued packet of crackers, applesauce, and bottled water, looking up at you watery-eyed and saying, “I was wondering whether you even wanted to talk to me anymore.” The disconnection has exposed the inadequate response of the federal government as well as Puerto Rico’s executive branch, led by Governor Ricky Rosselló.
“The problem is that Hurricane Irma allowed the local government to exploit public relations and say ‘Look how well we responded to the storm; this has been a success,’” said Heriberto Martínez, an economist, radio host, and occasional political consultant, in a packed San Juan cafe. “Apparently they wanted to maintain the same standard after Hurricane Maria, and when they realized it was unmanageable, they started to look for help outside, but they wasted a week already. What has happened in that week was the self-efforting of the people, who went out on the streets with tools and small cranes to clear streets and roads.”
So it was with Melvin Encarnación, a neighbor of my mother’s in Barrio Barcelona, a remote community near the El Yunque Rain Forest. Just a day after Maria hit, he organized a brigade of local residents to clear with machetes the road that connected with 191, the artery that leads to the entrance of the rain forest park. After hours of work in hot, humid conditions, they trekked up 191 to a well that was operated by barrio residents, cutting through an intense tangle of flayed foliage. Within days of the hurricane, water was restored, just as it was in the days following Irma.