It’s been six weeks since the worst natural disaster to hit the Caribbean, and more than half of Puerto Rico is still without power.
Last month, as President Trump briefly visited to toss paper towels and tweeted that Puerto Ricans “want everything to be done for them when it should be a community effort,” two Mainers with connections to the island flew there to help.
Jo Silver and Todd Weeks touched down in the city of Ponce — where Jo grew up and her mother, father, and grandfather still live — less than a week after the hurricane hit. The stories they witnessed of the resilience, collective effort, and transformation of the island is staggering.
For those in the states — and particularly some 1,700 miles away in Maine — it can be difficult to understand the complexity of the situation in Puerto Rico, or understand the ways that ordinary citizens in the states can help. The magnitude and complexity of the problem is exacerbated by the Jones Act, a 1920 law stating that all incoming ships must come from the United States, making it harder and more expensive for countries to send aid.
For that reason, the Phoenix is publishing the conversation with Jo and Todd in full, leaving the stories in their words intact.
This conversation was with the musician Nat Baldwin, a co-producer of a fundraising effort (“Maine Stands With Puerto Rico” on Friday, November 10 at SPACE Gallery) benefiting the Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund, a/k/a the Maria Fund, a frontline organization which provides emergency assistance and helps build communith agriculture programs among the most vulnerable parts of the island.
This interview was conducted on November 2 and has been edited for length and clarity.
What were your first steps when the hurricane hit the island?
Jo: I lost contact with my family the day before. After it hit, we didn’t speak for four or five days. Then my mother just called me from a satellite phone. Todd and I just bought a ticket. I’m not going to be here in Maine just waiting. We packed supplies and decided to go. We brought our own food. The weird part was that we didn’t get any information on the TV or the news. We didn’t know what was going on. The only way to have an idea was by Facebook, from friends from the island who were living in the states.
What were the conditions of their living arrangements?
Jo: For the most part, okay. Their house is concrete, so it wasn’t that bad. I think the big problem is the people inland, but the wooden structures along the coast are also wrecked. We didn’t have communications, so we didn’t know where they’d be. We thought we’d just go down there, talk to the neighbors and figure it out.
Did you participate in relief efforts there?
Todd: The first couple days we were just checking in on family and friends. Friends from here were super generous in donating supplies, so we were able to get water filters and solar lights and a couple chainsaws down there. Actually, Home Depot in South Portland donated two chainsaws. That was kind of funny. The girl there was like, yeah, we try to do what we can, we actually donated a bunch of stuff to Standing Rock.
Hah. I thought Home Depot was owned by conservatives.
Todd: Ha, I know! Maybe the individual stores have some autonomy? We saw family and friends and then we went to Adjuntas, which was roughly in the center of the island. When we first flew in, it was pretty startling. The place Jo and I got married last winter just doesn’t exist anymore. When I landed there in the past, I had always been impressed just how green it is. Now — well, it was still green, but it looked like Maine in the winter, minus the snow. No leaves on the trees, everything dead. Lots of roots ripped off. Anything that was within any wooden structures was just ripped off to the slab. Personally, I expected maybe damage to be more uniform, but you kind of quickly saw that it wasn’t. Probably more than any geographical boundaries, [the damage correlated to] class boundaries. If you don’t have much money, you’re probably in the less sound structure.
Were you in touch with other networks of folks who went to the island?
Todd: No, we were one of the earlier flights going down. The networking was really hard. There was so little communication with people who were on the island. We just kind of went down there hoping that we would be more useful than not. We were worried — were we gonna just be two more people consuming resources?
Ultimately, at the time we bought the ticket we still hadn’t heard from Jo’s family, so that was the most important. After checking in with friends and family, we went to Adjuntas where a friend of Jo’s has been living. In the town, there’s this pretty rad community center called Casa Pueblo. It’s been involved in a lot of environmental struggles, and kind of a somewhat radicalized community organization [Casa Pueblo was founded in 1980 in response to an effort by the Puerto Rican government to start a catastrophic mining operation for gold, silver, and copper deposits]. They were going to a lot of the neighborhoods on the outskirts of this town. It’s a small town but it functions as a hub for a lot of the small communities in the mountains in the area. They had been getting them resources. At that point, a lot of those were being brought in by people on commercial flights — just bags of full of stuff. Which is what we did too — the airlines were waiving the typical baggage fees. We were up there for a little while helping them to distribute things, and some of the places we were going, no help had arrived. They were asking, Where’s FEMA? Where’s the Red Cross?
Jo: They were asking us. We were like, we don’t know, we don’t work for them.
Nat: Are there some areas where in order to get out there would have to be structures built?
Todd: Yeah, there were bridges that were down. But even in those cases, people had made ziplines for passing across the river.
Jo: But that was even weeks after the hurricane, so those people had probably no water or food [during that time]. Another point is that there’s no communication. People that live there don’t know what’s going on. They don’t even know they’re not supposed to be drinking the water.
Todd: At a certain point, we actually had a lot more information than people there, which was weird.
Jo: We were bringing bottles of water and they were like, we don’t need that, we have water. And we told them you’re not supposed to be drinking that water!
Nat: Yeah, people have died from drinking bacteria.
Todd: It felt important to see [Casa Pueblo’s work], because it was roughly the same day that Trump came down and was throwing paper towels and talking about people just sitting around waiting for help. Everything that had been cleared there had been cleared by the community. You’re seeing guys standing on a slab of his house that’s been totally wiped clean, just pulling nails out of two-by-fours to try to cobble together some kind of new structure to live in. It was a pretty infuriating contrast, what we were seeing there to how it’s been described.
What was your family’s experience during the hurricane?
Jo: Well, the hurricane was 12 hours. It was moving very slow. It was a long time with all the sounds and the wind. Friends described the hurricane as like Godzilla going through the streets making that awful sound.
Todd: Everyone talked about the sound.
Did they know what they needed help with? Did people know how to direct you to help?
Todd: It was pretty obvious, just getting basic stuff to people and clearing things out. There was still stuff that’s down all over the place. That fear that we had before going down there [that we would not be useful], thankfully — or not, I don’t know — ended up being relatively unfounded.
Jo: Something that really impacted me was the relationship this one lady had with her property. I mean, if you saw the space, there’s nothing there. Her house was completely down. She was talking on the satellite phone with her sister, and her sister said, leave your space, come here. She was like, no, everything’s here. All that I have is here. And I was looking at her, and there’s nothing there. I mean, there were some dirty clothes; she was just cleaning all her clothes. My point is that maybe for someone, she could get away and just move to New Jersey to live with her sister and forget about everything. But she was like, I have to keep working on this. It was pretty beautiful.
There were horror stories, too. I heard this story about this guy who before the hurricane hit was with his partner/wife, who had cancer. She started dying before the hurricane hit the island. When she died, he called the mayor and said my wife just passed away — can you send someone to help me with her body and do something? And the mayor said, well, you have to wait for FEMA. We can’t do anything for you right now. He had to wait five days.
On the other side, there are people who are being super brave and getting together, being patient. The country is working for the country; the town is working for the town. I hope that helps the mentality of the island.
Todd: It’s interesting to see Jo’s mom interacting with all her neighbors.
Jo: People are opening up more to their neighbors. Right now, that’s what they have. Neighborhoods were created so that if you need help, they will be there to help you. That was the essence of a neighborhood. It’s [become] very different [these days] — like gossip; looking out the window. That essence is lost. Now on the island, it’s coming back. Things like that are changing in a good way. People are also realizing that they can’t wait for the government to do something for them. They’re like, alright guys, we have to start building our own communities.
Todd: Granted, we were just two people with our own subjectivity, but we saw such limited assistance in terms of government or FEMA or even big NGOs. We saw close to nothing. Occasionally we’d see a couple big FEMA trucks on the highway.
Nat: Was there a military presence at all yet?
Jo: A little bit at that point. I think now it’s more militarized.
Todd: We went to this small town that was hit really hard. They had a sports stadium that had been turned into a resource center for that town. That was super militarized. Limited resources, but lots of dudes hanging around with guns.
How useful or possible is it for people to come from the states to help?
Jo: Totally useful. There’s a bunch of organizations that are doing the right work. Most of them are non-governmental, obviously. They need volunteers. The best way is to contact them or donate. They need some basic stuff, or if people from outside came and did some physical work.
Todd: Communication there is still so limited. It’s way easier to communicate with someone up here from down there than it is for two people down there to communicate with each other. I think it’s gotten better than this, but when we were there, there were maybe a couple points on the highway where you could get service. Just lines of cars.
How did you settle the Maria Fund as the primary donation fund for this event?
Jo: We met them on the island. They’re super well organized. All the supplies they’re getting they distribute to other organizations, so everything isn’t going to one organization.
Todd: Yeah, it’s more of a fund than an organization. The groups we saw were really cool, helping with small-scale agriculture, pretty granular-level stuff.
Nat: People that would probably be the last to receive federal funds? Like the hardest hit and rural communities?
Todd: Not necessarily exclusively rural, but yeah, people who would probably be the last to have the wherewithal and ability to access federal help. The work they were doing seemed really positive.
Nat: And it’s run entirely by Puerto Rican people, right?
Jo: Yeah, like 50 percent are working there and the other half are in the states working. Just because working from there is very hard — to organize and get in touch with people.
Todd: It was nuts, even when we went to [the Maria Fund’s] headquarters, most of their resources were still coming from people carrying bags in commercial flights. Which I guess is cool, but does not address the scale of the problem.
Jo: There are also some private airplanes bringing in more stuff to the island, but you have to have that connection.
Do people there understand the level of neglect by the President and the US government?
Jo: I don’t think people have the time. And they don’t have the access to read the news. We’re just here surviving.
Todd: I think it’s also a colonial exploitative relationship that they’re kind of used to. So expectations are pretty low. Politically, the fault lines are a little different than here. There are basically three parties there. There are people who want to become a state. There are people who want to maintain the status quo. And there are people who want independence. For the people who want independence or to become a state, they’d probably find a lot of confirmation of their opinion [in Trump’s behavior]. They’d think something like, well, if we were a state, or if we were an independent country [they’d help us]. I don’t know what people who favor the status quo are thinking.
A lot of conversations here are about whether Trump is going to privatize the energy grid in Puerto Rico. Are they thinking about that there?
Jo: Some are. That’s one thing people are really scared of. They’ve been privatizing everything already, like the airports, for example. So now, the opportunity is big. It’s scary.
Todd: That sort of disaster capitalism-type approach was already underway with the junta, the taking control of the island’s finances by this board of bankers forcing a bunch of austerity measures. So it’s already happening with the debt. I think some of our friends who are more politically aware in general are aware of that. Other people are just wondering when they’re going to get their power back.
Jo: It’s going on two months now, and I don’t think things are changing. I mean, people are more helpful with each other, but things are not moving. I’m wondering what’s going to be the new normal over there.
Todd: It’s definitely not going to be the same.
Jo: I’m also thinking about employment. I was talking with my mom, and she was saying that the problem right now, in her opinion, was jobs. She does marketing for a pharmaceutical company, and she said the doctors don’t have the same schedule. They just work [abbreviated hours], and everyone else has to adjust. Other people can’t run their business because they don’t have power. Some businesses have started cutting their employees, so you have less hours and you’re not making the same amount. Most people on the island already live paycheck to paycheck. For Halloween, they had a curfew of 9 pm. That’s hard for businesses who want to make some money. So it’s like a domino effect.
Todd: There’s a lot of really fucked up feedback loops over there. People losing jobs, and then in some cases leaving the island because they lost their jobs.
Do you have plans to go back?
Jo: I hope to go back in December. We have to build our own assistance. I don’t know if you know about the Jones Act [a/k/a the Merchant Marine Act of 1920], that says if there’s another country that wants to send supplies or help, [Puerto Rico is] not allowed to accept that.
Todd: Only American flag vessels. Not just for aid but shipments of commercial products, which even under normal circumstances makes everything more expensive. If you’re buying something from Brazil or the Philippines, it has to go all the way up to some American port where they take everything off the ship, put it on an American ship, then bring it to the island. In a situation like this, it means that if Cuba offers help, Puerto Rico can’t even accept it.
Jo: It was lifted for like ten days — that’s not enough. [President Trump temporarily waived the Jones Act on September 28, but it was restored on October 8.] I think what we are trying to focus on is trying to grow our own stuff and not depend on others. For example, the only foods coming in are shitty foods, like foods that people don’t like to eat here. We don’t have, like, red tomatoes. Just pale tomatoes. That’s another thing we have to change.
“Stand With Puerto Rico,” fundraising event for the Hurricane Maria Community Recovery Fund | with performances by milo + Lina Tullgren + Kafari + African Dundada + Lisa/Liza | Nov 10, Fri 8 pm | SPACE Gallery, 538 Congress St., Portland | $10 sugg. donation | www.space538.org |
Latest from Nick Schroeder
- Hearin' out the crows — D.Gross & Los Federales travel far with new album 'Crooks'
- 8 Days a Week: Men breaking down, pre-holiday anxieties, and constructive girl talk
- Movement-building — 'The Twenty' makes an art of resilience from American grief
- "Love is Alternatives to Incarceration" — Youth organizations Maine Inside Out and Portland Outright collaborate for Nov. 8 show at USM
- Maine Senator Susan Collins Could Again Dash GOP Reform Plans