For two weeks after the devastation of Hurricane Maria in September, Frances Westerman, a retiree from Kent in northwestern Connecticut, got information from Puerto Rico only in dribs and drabs, she said. Power and cellular towers were down, and she couldn’t connect with anyone at the condo complex in the island’s southwest where she spends the winter every year.
“It was very scary the first days,” Westerman, 85, said of trying to find out what was going on from afar. “We also have family in Florida, and we were going berserk with the hurricanes.”
Seasonal visitors to Puerto Rico — snowbirds, repeat tourists, those who spend Christmas with family or friends — joined in the collective hand-wringing over the aftermath of this year’s powerful storms.
Compelled by the devastation, many visitors have been monitoring the news on social media, sending money and supplies like bottled water and even signing up to volunteer in cleanup and rebuilding efforts.
And adjusting to the new reality, the Puerto Rico Tourism Co. said that it is working with hotels and tour operators to offer package deals at discounted rates to allow guests to combine vacation days with a volunteer stint in the recovery effort, a mix of volunteering and tourism known as voluntourism that has become increasingly common in other parts of the world.
A similar effort is underway in the U.S. Virgin Islands, another U.S. territory in the Caribbean whose three islands — St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix — sustained modest to crippling losses from the one-two punch of Hurricanes Maria and Irma within a two-week span.
Hurricanes, some tour operators say, tend to scare away leisure travelers or steer them to other destinations unscathed by the weather as they make plans for winter travel. For every Puerto Rico, St. John, St. Martin, Dominica or other island ravaged by hurricanes this year, operators said, there’s an Aruba, a St. Lucia, a Jamaica or other Caribbean spot ready and open for business.
But many loyal visitors, especially those with relatives, friends and property in the affected areas, say they are still planning to travel to their getaways, eager to somehow help out, if only by injecting tourist dollars into battered economies.
That would be me.
I have lived in several states for more than 40 years but was born and raised in San Juan and visit every New Year’s Eve with my husband, Jim. In the agonizing first weeks after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, I learned about the fate of my sister and extended family, including a cousin with Alzheimer’s living in a home for the elderly, at an excruciatingly slow pace and only through sporadic emails, texts, Facebook postings and snippets of phone conversations before the calls dropped. It was hard to sleep at night.
Through a cousin in Texas, I found out about another cousin who lives near El Yunque National Forest in the northeast of Puerto Rico. Through another cousin, in San Juan, I learned about other relatives scattered in both urban and rural areas around the island. All my loved ones were safe, although in survival mode.
My attention turned then to the touchstones and places that give Puerto Rico its beauty and culture and that I now realize I have taken for granted all my life.
What was left of El Yunque, known for its waterfalls and endangered parrots, I wondered? I later learned that the 28,000-acre treasure, the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. forest system and a major driver of the island’s tourism, was obliterated.
What about the restaurants and kiosks nearby along Luquillo Beach — Jibaro’s, Terruño, La Parrilla — always good for fritters like alcapurrias, home cooking and music after a day in the sun? Was Old San Juan still recognizable? Did the ice cream place with the long lines for the freshly made waffle cones, Mantecaditos Los Chicos, survive in Culebra, the Puerto Rican island municipality to the east? What was the damage to the delicate bioluminescent bay in Vieques, another island municipality?
What did Hurricane Maria not annihilate? How long would it take for it all to come back?
Westerman, who eventually confirmed the well-being of both her neighbors and condo and who has been mailing checks to some friends to help them cope, said she planned to see for herself.
She and her husband were planning to go back this year for their usual December-to-mid-April stay in Boquerón, a beach village in the town of Cabo Rojo on the island’s southwestern tip, with one condition — they will not fly down until the electricity is back on. “If worst comes to worst, we go a month later,” she said.
Restored power was a big “if,” though. By early November, more than a month after the hurricane hit, the power company was generating less than 40 percent of electricity, government figures showed. Close to 20 percent of the island was without running water and about a third without telecommunication services.
The Army Corps of Engineers, charged by the White House to rebuild the power system, has warned that total power restoration could take nearly a year, partly because of the challenge of getting supplies like utility poles quickly to an island.
Neighboring St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands have not fared much better.
“Power lines are strewn across our roads; utility poles snapped in half like matchsticks; boats lie sunken in the harbors; many thousands of our homes stand heavily damaged or destroyed and some of our major road systems are impassable,” Gov. Kenneth E. Mapp of the U.S. Virgin Islands wrote in an Oct. 12 letter to Congress, estimating that rebuilding would cost $5.5 billion.
Both governors in the U.S. Caribbean — Puerto Rico, with a population of 3.4 million, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, with about 110,000 residents — have optimistically said that nearly all power should be back by Christmas because of a ramp-up in restoration work.
In the meantime, tourism officials, hoteliers and others in the service industry were scrambling to get hotels, beaches and tourist attractions back on their feet to salvage at least part of their peak tourist season, a crucial economic engine that runs from mid-November to April 1.
But while cruise ship traffic has been rebounding, top hotels in Puerto Rico like El San Juan Hotel and Dorado Beach, a Ritz-Carlton Reserve, shut down because of damages, and many of those that remained open with the help of generators were housing workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other relief agencies.
The Environmental Protection Agency and local government officials have warned against bathing in beaches, rivers and streams because of possible raw sewage discharges as a result of hurricane damage to treatment plants.
In St. Thomas and St. John, major hotels have closed for six to 18 months, and officials expected a significant decline in overnight visitors. “We lost the last quarter of the year,” said Beverly Nicholson Doty, commissioner of tourism for the U.S. Virgin Islands.
It is true that tourism-dependent islands have been able to recover quickly after hurricanes, even if visitors have to look at topless palm trees. When I reported from St. Thomas, St. Martin (divided into French St. Martin and Dutch St. Maarten) and Antigua less than two months after Hurricanes Luis and Marilyn in 1995, I found varying degrees of progress, but much of the tourist industry was ready for visitors, and some tourists were trickling back.
But tourism officials in the U.S. Caribbean acknowledged that Irma, which made landfall in the Virgin Islands on Sept. 6 as a Category 5 hurricane, and Maria, which hit Puerto Rico barely short of that magnitude as a Category 4, were like no other hurricanes in recent history because of their power and reach. In Puerto Rico, hardly a corner of the island was spared its destruction, officials said.
José Izquierdo, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Co., said such impact had led the agency to appeal to new types of travelers. One local tour operator that the agency has partnered up with, Local Guest, planned to take volunteers to mountainous regions where brigades of about 15 people each could plant crops of coffee and root vegetables, rebuild bridges and homes and help in other recovery efforts.
Some travel companies, like Global Works Travel, are signing up high school students to visit in 2018 and combine community service with a vacation.
Izquierdo said he also expected more Puerto Ricans to visit from the mainland, perhaps those who had not visited in several years and were eager to reunite with relatives on the island after the disaster. The local newspapers have noted the influx, and I know friends who headed for the island as soon as flights became available to bring supplies and money and to check up on relatives. (By the same token, others were hosting Puerto Rican friends and relatives escaping the hardships of the island temporarily in New York and New Jersey.)
“A hurricane like this changes the profile of tourists,” Izquierdo said. “The diaspora now takes a greater prominence.”
Within days of the hurricanes, volunteers started showing up in St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the organization All Hands Volunteers set up operations in the gym at the Kingdom Life International Christian Center in the capital, Charlotte Amalie.
The disaster relief group, based in Massachusetts, received more than 1,600 applications by the end of October but can accommodate only about 70 volunteers at a time in spartan quarters. People can come for as long as they want to work in cleanup, mold remediation and reconstruction, among other efforts.
Erik Dyson, All Hands executive director and chief executive, said the organization planned to extend its work to Puerto Rico by early 2018.
“Anyone can help,” he said. “There’s a need for people to carry things. There’s a lot of not highly skilled jobs.”
One volunteer who arrived in early November, Sid Sharma, 48, of Allen, Texas, spent his honeymoon 26 years ago in St. Thomas, which he remembered as “lush, green and beautiful.” A general contractor who does residential remodeling, he committed to three weeks of volunteer work.
“Seeing the devastation on the news, I just had a little time on my hands and a push from my heart,” said Sharma, who is still married and the father of two children. “This is something that I should be doing.”
Regular visitors to the Virgin Islands like Joanne Barker, a resident of Washington who last went to St. John in January, have found ways to send care packages directly to those in need. Barker said she was shopping in October to fill up boxes with items like baby powder milk formula and diapers after being paired up with families through a site — Adopt a Family in USVI — that matches donors to specific people.
“At least you’re doing something,” she said. “You just feel so helpless up here.”
Tourism officials say they have not totally given up on leisure travelers. Izquierdo noted that big attractions like Old San Juan sustained only “minimal” structural damage (although it lost many trees).
And, he added: “At the core of every successful tourism destination is the quality of the people and hospitality, and that wasn’t washed away by the hurricane. That’s stronger than ever.”
But some in the tourism industry warned that a minimum level of services is required to lure travelers back. Jack Richards, president and chief executive of Pleasant Holidays in Los Angeles, which books trips for 23 countries in the Caribbean, said that the destination must have electricity, phone service, internet, clean water and medical supplies — and no public health issues.
“Given the level of devastation in Puerto Rico,” Richards said, “it’ll take a long time for things to get restored.”
Puerto Rico residents like my younger sister, Mari Navarro, and two nephews were still living day to day in a kind of surreal, stressed-out world as November approached. Our family home in San Juan, not far from the airport, sustained only minor damage except for the landscaping, which was gone. But without electricity, Mari was cooking on a small gas stove, washing clothes and towels by hand and using flashlights to see at night.
My sister had prepared well for Hurricane Maria, but supplies were running low, and she asked me to send D batteries for flashlights and a battery-powered fan. She had to line up for food and bottled water at stores.
She was back on the job as an account executive with a health insurer, but she avoided driving except to work, she told me, because most traffic lights were not working. On a recent outing, two cars in front of her had crashed into each other, setting off a panic attack.
“I’m grateful that I have a roof over my head, that we’re all working and that we’re doing better than a lot of people,” she told me over the phone, “but sometimes it’s hard not to get depressed.”
Then she burst into tears. And I teared up, too.