Last November, with Puerto Rico thrown into chaos after Hurricane Maria, I was frantically trying to reach a funeral home in San Juan. My dear cousin Alma Otero-Pérez, a free-spirited poet who was my mentor and model growing up on the island, had died overnight at her home for patients with Alzheimer’s. I loved her and the loss pained me, but as her guardian, I needed to focus on medical and legal paperwork and making the necessary funeral arrangements from New York.
I had a relationship with the reliable funeral home that had guided my family through another emotional passage when my mother died several years ago. I called, but the telephones were still out months after Maria had struck. I tried emailing from their website not expecting much. But within minutes they responded by cellphone and in no time my cousin’s ashes were prepared and waiting for my arrival and a proper memorial.
That gathering didn’t happen until months later, in early March, as I waited for a semblance of normalcy to return to the island. Some of Alma’s friends and relatives had lost electricity and even running water. Others had joined the exodus, leaving the island to wait out the rough aftermath of the disaster.
But even by the time I made it to the island more than five months since Maria, I found that the place where I was born and raised, and that I visit every year with my husband, Jim, was laboring to reestablish its balance. (Last week it erupted in a massive march against new austerity measuresthat was marred by violence.)
With the fresh eyes of newcomers, Jim and I marveled at what everybody else already took for granted — the damaged traffic lights, dangling and dark; the giant street signs lying mangled on the side of the road; the nonworking streetlights that left whole neighborhoods pitch black after dusk.
“I can’t believe the hurricane was in September and Puerto Rico still looks like this,” my husband said as he maneuvered our rented car through a busy honor-system intersection under a traffic light hanging useless from its crossbar.
But nothing held my attention more than the vegetation. The ebullient tropical flora that forever feeds the nostalgia of those of us who leave for good — a paradise of flower beds in backyards and brilliant green forests on mountainsides, the skyline of towering fruit and palm trees — was in a state of distress, almost a kind of paralyzed melancholy, not unlike some of the people. Just like a pair of cousins who seemed to have revved up their drinking, or my sister Mari, who refused to be out at night, a Cinderella by 6 p.m., the familiar foliage showed new stress-induced idiosyncrasies even amid signs of resilience.
“Oh my God — what happened to the mango tree?” I asked Mari the morning after I arrived at our family home, when, in the light of day, I noticed a massive stump across the street where there had been a wildly productive 25-foot-tall mango factory.
“The trees were left without a single leaf,” she said of the day after the hurricane. “It was shocking. They cut it down.”
The mango tree had been a landmark of sorts on Lorenzo Noa Street in El Comandante, the suburb of San Juan where I grew up. Its branches seemed to grow more gigantic over the decades, threatening to smother the houses around it. Its abundant fruit attracted mice.
But its sweet mangoes — small and round, the perfect snack — were coveted by neighbors and even those who lived blocks away. People stopped their cars to pick up the mangoes that had dropped on the front yard and sidewalk. My own diabetic mother crossed the street often in her older years to satisfy her sweet tooth, cheating on my sister’s strict dietary controls and leaving the evidence in the trash can (five pits was her record.)
All that was left of the tree now was a Michelangelo-like sculpture with missing limbs.
Our own backyard was in even sorrier upheaval, untouched since Maria as my sister waited for the verdict of an insurance adjuster. One of two coconut trees lay flat across what had once been my mom’s meticulously groomed garden, a piece of chain-link fence crushed underneath.The tree under which we interred her ashes, a button mangrove, survived somehow, but it was now surrounded by debris blown in from around the neighborhood, including a sign from Famous Dave’s, a barbecue restaurant a mile away.
The hurricane uprooted so many trees that visitors to El Yunque, Puerto Rico’s famous rain forest, were now treated to newly opened vistas of the ocean. We visited on a Sunday morning and found most of the national park closed, still ailing from landslides and wobbly trees that park workers told us were still falling and shutting down trails and roads.
Other trees were dry rather than lush, stripped bare and just starting to revive, or misshapen, with missing branches and a phantasmagoric look. In this haunted forest, what was still available became more precious. Major tourist draws like La Mina waterfall and the Yocahu Tower, with panoramic views of the rain forest and coast, were out of reach. But a small group of tourists gathered by the side of a road took selfies at La Coca Falls, where the waters tumble 85 feet onto a rock formation. Souvenir shops along the way were open.
And more visitors found the Angelito Trailhead leading to a river and a swimming hole that was inaccessible because a bridge had washed away. A few intrepid tourists, speaking English, Spanish and Mandarin, crawled their way over some stones to get across.
My cousin Ednita, back from a stay with her daughter in Texas, told the only happy story I heard. True, her home in San Juan suffered major roof damage and was quickly taken over by termites. But her first-floor beach apartment in a modern development in Vega Baja, to the west of San Juan, was unscathed and now, for the moment, had an ocean view of sorts, since Maria had carved out a triangle-shaped opening between the once dense sea grape trees she could see from her living room.
“I can see the waves,” Ednita said, blowing kisses in their direction.
It was only fitting that we held Alma’s memorial gathering in this upbeat apartment near the water, and not just because everybody else’s homes were in mid-repair. In her poetry, Alma had written prolifically about Puerto Rico’s natural beauty. For two hours, more than a dozen close friends and family transported ourselves to her idealized world, reading verses, reminiscing and telling funny stories.
“Hallelujah to the land where I was born,” one of her poems, titled “Song to my Land,” reads.
“Holy land, motherland.
Each morning, on the wings of a thousand birds,
You kiss the day.”
Before I left New York City, I had wondered if my cousin was among the more than 1,000 estimated hurricane-related deaths. But the home where she lived had a generator and had only asked for bottled water and an extra $80 a month for hurricane-related expenses.
The immediate cause of death was listed as “cardiac arrhythmia” on her death certificate, with other contributing conditions. Josie, the friend who saw her the morning after she died, reassured us at the memorial: “She looked at peace, like an angel.”
My cousin’s advanced Alzheimer’s spared her from the collective suffering after the hurricane, which afflicted many of her loved ones. Geka, a lifelong friend, reported she still had no power or running water in the mountainous town of Orocovis, in the middle of the island. She said she had adapted with a generator, a newly built cistern and bottled water.
Maritza, a cousin from the town of Juncos, still lived under a blue tarp from FEMA that increasingly leaked.
“You can’t find the panels to fix the roof,” she said.
The conversation at the memorial inevitably turned to the hardships of coping, still too present for anyone to relax. A three- to four-month wait for hurricane shutters. The high price of generators. A rise in crime. Deadly traffic. The lack of power for thousands of households and the intermittent power outages for millions more.(Fun fact: you can create a washing machine by making holes in a plunger and plunging away.)
I was about to cook lunch one day when San Juan and surrounding areas were hit by a blackout. Two power stations shut down when a transmission line failed, underscoring the continued instability of the power distribution system. I later went to San Patricio Plaza Mall, where some stores remained open with generators but many operated in semidarkness or had closed for the day.
The movie theater was dark, screenings of “Black Panther” canceled. But the food court, where the mall’s generators powered numerous electrical outlets, was packed with people who had brought their own power bars and extension cords to charge laptops and other electronic devices. The mall had welcomed the electricity-starved crowds after the hurricane, a security guard explained, and since then it had become the place to go whenever the lights went out.
More than seven hours later, after I had brought takeout food home for dinner, the power was back. The next day in Old San Juan, which looked like its lovely self, minus countless trees, the owner of Café Puerto Rico, on the edge of Plaza Colón at the entrance to the old city, said the outages deterred customers, already so sparse since the hurricane, he said, that he no longer opens the second floor of his restaurant.
Puerto Rico is in comeback mode on many fronts, including cruise ship tourism, but “the recovery has been too slow,” the cafe owner, Héctor Andújar, said. “The government wasn’t prepared for something so big.”
So, people wait — for more tourists, for hurricane shutters, for consistent power, for building materials, for a better normal.
My sister is still waiting for her insurance company to start fixing up the backyard. We then plan to have another gathering to plant a tree with Alma’s ashes next to my mom’s. When one day that tree shows off its plumage, it will honor her love of country — la tierra — and help make her beloved Puerto Rico as splendorous as she once remembered it.
Mireya Navarro, a former reporter for The New York Times, is the author of the memoir “Stepdog.”
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