How to Rebuild Puerto Rico
1. Round One
Fear hit Orlando Gonzalez only after the storm had already been battering his grandmother’s house for more than 12 hours. It wasn’t the wind or the rain. It was the voice of his father calling for his mother.
The scream startled the whole family, coming from such an unflappable man. Everyone—Gonzalez, his mother, his younger sister, and his grandmother—raced into the room, where they found Orlando Sr. hanging by his hands from one of the wooden ceiling beams, his feet dangling. The wind was shaking the rafters and rippling the corrugated metal roof; he was straining to keep all of it from being stripped away by Hurricane Maria.
His father insisted he could save the roof, and thereby save everything inside the house. Gonzalez ran to his father and threw his arms around his legs, trying to be his anchor.
Both of them were fighters. Orlando Sr. had put his son in a boxing ring when the boy was just 5, and for the next 16 years he oversaw his training regimen through 178 amateur bouts. Last year, Orlando Jr., 22, turned pro, incorporating a lifetime of paternal teachings to fulfill a family dream. Among the lessons that sank in the deepest were these: 1) Fortune often favors the smartest, not necessarily the strongest; 2) the smartest know their limitations.
Gonzalez is a featherweight, 126 pounds. His father, who’d fought as a flyweight, is even smaller. As the winds intensified, both father and son concluded this was a mismatch. So they shifted strategies. With the help of the others, they lashed together several belts, tying one end to the roof and the other to a dining table. It held for about five minutes. The belts snapped, and the roof disappeared with a shuddering whoosh.
Their house was set into a hillside in Aguadilla, a city of about 60,000 clinging to Puerto Rico’s west coast. The boxy structure was modest, like all the others on the hill, and for years it had provided them with dramatic sunsets over the Caribbean Sea. But now, as the boundary between indoors and outdoors was suddenly erased, the view was reduced to an inky blur. Rain and debris swirled around them as they rushed into the bathroom, which was protected by a cement roof. Gonzalez jammed a chair against the door, and for the next six hours the family and a neighbor hugged their knees and prayed.
At about 10 p.m. on Sept. 21, roughly 18 hours after the hurricane’s leading edge hit them, they staggered out into a flooded house. What once was furniture was now wreckage. From the balcony they saw floodwaters in the streets below. Power poles and streetlights had snapped in two. The shorn trunks of trees slanted atop buildings, and dozens of other homes had also been stripped of their roofs.
Almost everyone in the neighborhood—and the city, and the island—had lived through comparable dramas. Puerto Rico’s isolation, the fragility of its infrastructure, its status as a dependent child of the U.S., its dire financial outlook—all of it would combine to make the island’s prospects for recovery far more challenging than those of places like Texas, or Florida, or even New Orleans.
Today, nearly three months after the storm, more than one-third of the island is still without power, and in the areas where it has been restored the service is often unstable, with occasional outages. Thousands of businesses remain closed. Normality sporadically peeks out from it all—on a street with a string of working stoplights, in an air-conditioned hotel lobby—then quickly retreats, as if ungraspable.
I arrived on the island about a week after the storm, when the sole focus of the relief effort was triage, and when everyone was trying to grade the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response in distributing food and water, tending to the wounded, and helping restore electricity. When I returned to travel around the island a second time, in mid-November, people didn’t care so much about what FEMA was or wasn’t doing, as if focusing too much on that was to miss the point of this particular recovery. Nearly everyone I spent time with—families piecing together their lives, farmers rebuilding their businesses, even aid volunteers—agreed that the future of Puerto Rico depends on more than simply mending what Maria destroyed.
For a decade, Puerto Rico has experienced a steady erosion of economic opportunity, and now there’s a fear that the storm has convinced too many residents, a critical mass, to pursue new livelihoods elsewhere. The island needs self-sustaining industries that don’t depend on subsidies or tax incentives. It needs a revival in sectors as basic as agriculture, which had dwindled over the years to near-extinction. The Centro Unido de Detallistas, a small-business advocacy group, estimates that about two-thirds of Puerto Rico’s small businesses have been closed for at least part of the time since Maria, and up to 40 percent of them might never reopen; it needs those businesses, particularly in rural and isolated communities. And perhaps more than anything else, Puerto Rico needs a stable, educated workforce that’s able to weather even more adversity. It needs people like Orlando Gonzalez, in other words.
He’d been planning to enter his third year as a student at the University of Puerto Rico, where he studies sociology. The morning after the storm ended, though, as he explored a landscape in ruins—the once-turquoise sea now brown, the palm trees bent and bare, the end of the pier simply gone—the future seemed an impossible challenge. His main sources of local pride, the town’s pristine beach, its quiet parks full of ancient trees, were unrecognizable.
He later recalled that moment. “I thought, Man, if this happened to us here, what happened to the rest of Puerto Rico? What are we going to do?”
The Puerto Rico Convention Center in San Juan was the busiest hive of activity on the island in the weeks after Maria. Emergency cellular and Wi-Fi communications were quickly established in and around the building, and a potent bank of generators powered air conditioners that had people hunting for jackets and sweaters, though the heat index outside pushed 100F.
The building was the headquarters of the relief effort, where thousands of people plotted and monitored aid missions. Getting past the security perimeter wasn’t hard: If you had any sort of identity badge that could be affixed to a lanyard and if you flashed it with a trace level of confidence, the guards waved you in.
Among the military uniforms and government bureaucrats streaming through the doors were lots of private-sector types. They weren’t simply profiteers drawn to the storm; many had been on the island for years. The U.S. tax code exempts income sourced in Puerto Rico from federal taxes, treating the island, which is a U.S. territory, as a foreign country. In 2012, Puerto Rico’s government passed laws, collectively called Act 20/22, that aimed to turn the island into a tax haven for financial-services companies. If certain types of businesses—particularly investment and hedge funds—moved to Puerto Rico, their corporate profits would be taxed at a flat 4 percent and the money managers would pay no taxes on their income. Individual investors who moved to the island and spent more than half of the year there would be exempt from all taxes on dividends, interest, and capital gains.
By the time Maria landed, about 1,500 people had signed up for Act 20/22 programs. This community of transplants generally values the private sector over the public and is particularly sensitive to how the U.S. collects and manages money. With Maria, many of them quickly realized that if they wanted to slip into the disaster relief system, there was plenty of space for them to assume a role.
Nicholas Prouty, chief executive officer of Putnam Bridge, a fund that specializes in buying distressed assets, relocated from Connecticut in 2013 and began pumping money into local real estate. Like many of the other big investors from the mainland, Prouty had considerable clout. Inside the convention center he could regularly be seen conferring with Ricardo Rosselló, Puerto Rico’s governor, or ducking into closed-door meetings with other high-level officials. One morning a little more than a week after the storm, he sat down in the commissary and dug into a plateful of scrambled eggs and potatoes. A green lanyard with an all-access government pass hung against his blue polo shirt. He was unshaven after a string of days spent chartering private relief missions to deliver food and medical supplies to remote areas in the island’s interior. The day before, he’d flown over communities where the helicopters of military rescue and federal aid workers had yet to penetrate.
“I didn’t see a single Black Hawk in the air,” Prouty said.
He didn’t know it, but another stateside transplant had launched a parallel private-sector mission, and at that very moment was at the convention center arranging for a helicopter to transport a federal emergency medical team to a remote town on the west coast.
Like Prouty, he’d moved to Puerto Rico shortly after the tax laws went into effect, first to work for one of the biggest construction companies on the island, then as the co-founder of a startup that invested in cellphone towers. He exuded authority, one of mysterious provenance, because he seemed to possess no official affiliations whatsoever. The man who introduced him to me had compared him to Harvey Keitel’s character, Winston Wolf, from the film Pulp Fiction—a shadowy freelance fixer whose job was to solve problems, whatever they may be. It caught my ear because less than 24 hours before, I’d met a different gringo transplant—in a completely separate context, totally unrelated to this man—who was introduced in exactly the same terms: “like the Harvey Keitel character in Pulp Fiction.” Later I met yet another man whose title on his business card read, simply, “Director of Making Shit Happen.” The hurricane was luring all these guys toward the same aggressively air-conditioned HQ.
The man with the helicopters at his command didn’t call himself the Wolf. “I’m the Ghost,” he said. “I solve problems. But you don’t see me.”
But everyone saw him, all the time. He had close-cropped gray hair and a gray goatee, and he always walked as if he knew where he was going. His speech was heavy on acronyms and technical jargon, betraying a military past. He’s no longer affiliated with the government—or with any other specific entity, for that matter, he insisted—and he possessed firm convictions that the federal government alone couldn’t solve a problem like Maria. It needed free agents who weren’t bound by restrictive bureaucratic structures. People like him.
“I sort of fall between the cracks and can go anywhere,” he said. “One reason I can do that is because of my behavior. I’m not running around acting like an idiot.”
His real name is Robert Anderson, and shortly after the storm hit, he reported to the convention center, figuring his technical know-how might be of use. He’d done the same thing during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, joining a group of private volunteers called Radio Response in Bay St. Louis, Miss. Back in 1989, when he was in the U.S. Army and studying Russian at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., he’d leapt into action to provide emergency services after the Bay Area earthquake.
Inside relief headquarters in San Juan, he’d met some recent arrivals with the Department of Health and Human Services, helping them get their bearings and assisting them with their mobile communications equipment. He’d since begun treating his undefined role as full-time work, and when I pressed him about his motives—what angle was he playing?—he curtly repeated that he liked solving problems and wasn’t making a cent. According to Anderson, Don Boyce, director of HHS’s Office of Emergency Management, witnessed him in action at the convention center and told him, “I don’t know who the f--- you are, and I don’t know what the f--- you do, but keep doing it.”
Now, he was wearing an all-access pass, coordinating field missions, and declaring that the gaps within the federal disaster response apparatus represented ideal working conditions for anyone with the personal initiative to occupy that space.
“You want to get on a helicopter?” he asked me. “Let me know. I can get you on a helicopter.”
When the storm hit, Miguel Szendrey-Ramos was in Madrid with his wife, enjoying a vacation he’d been planning all year. Unlike everyone back home, he was able to get a sense of the breadth of the devastation from television footage. He tried to call his parents and sister repeatedly but couldn’t get through. For almost a week, until he was able to fly to San Juan, the fate of his family and home was left to his restless imagination.
Some of his thoughts dwelled on a 38-acre plot of land about 45 minutes west of San Juan, next to a high school. His family owned the lot, and three years ago Szendrey-Ramos decided to rent it from them. By that time, in 2014, Puerto Rico’s economy had already endured eight straight years of recession, and the construction industry was particularly hard-hit. Szendrey-Ramos, an architect, had struggled to find jobs. So he decided to become a farmer, and turned his energies to that forlorn plot of land.
When he was a kid, it was the last job he would have considered. “I think in Puerto Rico, in those days, the only people who maybe ever thought of becoming a farmer, maybe, would have been the son of a farmer,” said Szendrey-Ramos, 48. “Nobody really even considered it a profession.”
Yet the island was lush, with a year-round growing season. Agriculture had once been the backbone of the economy, but that was before 1947, when the U.S. launched an economic development plan called Operation Bootstrap. The idea was to turn the island into an offshore industrial center, and a series of incentives proved spectacularly effective in steering workers away from farms and toward factories. Additional tax breaks were instituted in the 1970s, including one that allowed industrial companies to avoid corporate income tax on profits made in Puerto Rico, and manufacturing’s share of the economy almost doubled within a decade. Agriculture essentially disappeared, and the island now depends on imports for roughly 85 percent of its food.
That turn toward industry drew few complaints, until the industrial sector started to collapse. In 1996, as Congress worked to reduce the federal deficit and balance the budget, critics targeted the corporate income tax break as a form of corporate welfare. President Clinton signed a law to phase out the breaks by 2006, and not coincidentally, Puerto Rico’s ongoing recession began that year. By 2014 the island had lost half its manufacturing jobs, and the government tried to compensate by selling bonds. Puerto Rico racked up $74 billion in new debt (and Wall Street collected some $900 million in fees), but that did little to ease the strain. The most recent U.S. Census statistics indicate the island’s poverty rate is double that of Mississippi, the poorest state.
About four years ago Puerto Rico’s government decided the economy would benefit from a return to its agrarian roots. It dangled numerous incentives in front of would-be farmers: They could get reimbursed for half of the cost of tractors; all farm supplies were exempted from sales and use taxes; farm vehicles, such as pickup trucks, could be bought tariff-free, which reduced the price by up to 40 percent. More than 30,000 acres of new farmland and almost 2,000 new farms have been established since 2013. It seemed one of the very few points of light in the local economy, until Maria. In the days after the storm, the government reported that about 80 percent of crops were destroyed. Entire coffee plantations were leveled, and acres of plantains were stripped to stubble. Traveling back to the island, Szendrey-Ramos—one of those who’d been attracted to the profession by the incentives—hoped his small operation had fared better than most. While he was in Spain, a friend had been able to snatch a cell signal in San Juan and send him a picture of his field via Facebook: Several of his dragon fruit plants—a cactus that grows on wooden stakes—appeared to be standing. But the picture didn’t show the main part of the plot, which had been planted with ají dulce, or sweet peppers. Szendrey-Ramos had grown a test crop earlier in the year, but this was his first major planting. He’d planned to harvest them the week after he returned from Spain. The expected yield was some 10,000 pounds, worth about $20,000.
When he finally drove to the field, he found the access road blocked by fallen trees and the perimeter fence down. He made his way to the rows of peppers. If they’d survived, he knew he could sell them. Demand for anything fresh in Puerto Rico was soaring after the hurricane. Much of the space on the ships serving the island’s ports was occupied by relief supplies, and the produce arriving via air was often left sitting in airports for days at a time. “They see the ‘perishable’ sticker, and they don’t care,” said Jose Sierra, an administrator with Drouyn & Co., a food distributor based in Guaynabo. “They’re dealing with so much volume, they don’t pay attention.”
Desperate for fresh produce, Sierra had called Szendrey-Ramos, eager to snap up all the ají dulce he could get. But when the farmer was able to get a close look at his crop, he called the distributor back with the kind of news the company had grown accustomed to hearing. “It’s a total loss,” Szendrey-Ramos told him.
2. Ghosts in the Machine
In central Aguadilla there’s a plaza that contains the Ojo de Agua, a natural spring that was a principal water source for conquistadors in the 15th century. Christopher Columbus himself claimed Puerto Rico for the Spanish crown in 1493, and many believe he made land in Aguadilla Bay, about 2 miles south of the spring. Columbus and his crew encountered a native population of Taíno Indians, whom they found to be unusually peaceful and welcoming. The Spanish wasted little time enslaving the natives and putting them to work in gold mines and on plantations. The island has been a colonial property ever since—it became a U.S. territory in 1898, a spoil of the Spanish-American War. Puerto Ricans became U.S. citizens in 1917.
In the days after the hurricane, Orlando Gonzalez walked to the Ojo de Agua every day. There he filled water jugs and buckets and lugged them up the steep hillsides to his grandmother’s house. It was lung-busting work, and it was also training: Before the storm, his manager had secured him a fight in Tampa on Oct. 13 at the A La Carte Pavilion Center, a venue that for decades has showcased up-and-coming fighters, including several who went on to become world champions.
Flights out of Puerto Rico were a mess, and cellphones weren’t working in Aguadilla, but Gonzalez’s family desperately worked to find a ticket, for his sister’s sake. Eighteen-year-old Samantha is a diabetic, and her insulin supplies would last only a couple more weeks. Evelyn, Gonzalez’s mother, found a landline that hadn’t been severed and was able to call the airlines a few days after the storm. At first the ticketing agents told her no outbound flights were available until late October, but once, while Evelyn happened to be on the line, three tickets popped up as available. She snagged them.
Evelyn, Samantha, and Orlando would go to Sanford, Fla., where Evelyn’s sister lives, to stock up on insulin and other supplies. Meanwhile, Evelyn would look for temporary work, and Orlando would fight, collect his purse ($2,000, win or lose), and return to the island a few weeks later with the money that would help his family reclaim their lives. In the two weeks between the storm and their flight to the mainland, he trained three times a day, augmenting his water hauling with strength and stamina workouts at 5 a.m. and 10 a.m., and a 3 p.m. session with his father to polish his technique.
The family has a cistern with some potable water, but they knew it could be months before they had running water again, and their supply might not last. Gonzalez and his father agreed that he would shower just once a day at home, and after his other two workouts he’d bathe at the Ojo de Agua. It was there, in the natural pools in the center of town, that his optimism returned. The pools were full of people bathing, washing clothes, collecting drinking water, and playing. The low-hanging branch of a tree became a diving platform. If you got into the pools, you’d more likely than not be invited into a game of tag.
The festive feeling seemed a form of resilience to him, something Puerto Ricans consider a defining spirit of the place, one they trace back to the Taíno. But confronting that spirit is a tricky thing. Some outsiders equate it with complacency; to others, that suggestion itself drips with colonial condescension. At a leadership conference three years ago, Prouty, the Act 20/22 investor, suggested Puerto Ricans needed to chisel a sharper edge onto their collective identity. “Someone tried to explain to me the coat of arms of Puerto Rico, which has a lamb sitting on a Bible, as opposed to, for example, Mexico’s, whose coat of arms is an eagle standing on a cactus with a snake in its mouth,” Prouty said. “Symbols have great value and should never be overlooked, as they are windows into a country’s culture—in this case, docility vs. courageousness.” The island needs a makeover, he said. “We need to develop modern symbols.”
On Sept. 28, America’s then-acting Homeland Security director, Elaine Duke, praised the federal government’s relief efforts, prompting the mayor of San Juan, Carmen Yulín Cruz, to respond, “Damn it, this is not a feel-good story; this is a people-are-dying story.” That was true, but it wasn’t only that kind of story. Gonzalez had never seen the people of his hometown connect as they did now. The spirit he encountered at the Ojo de Agua reinforced an idea that people in Puerto Rico would talk about for months: how disaster brought out the best in the people here. It sometimes felt uncomfortable to acknowledge this, as if doing so might undercut the urgency of the disaster, but how could anyone deny it? The peace that Gonzalez discovered at the Ojo de Agua became a new source of local pride for him, and it infused his upcoming fight with meaning. When he boarded a plane to Florida on Oct. 8 along with his mother and sister, he told himself that he was fighting for the spirit of Puerto Rico.
The morning after he arrived, Gonzalez called the boxing promoter to check in and get the details on where he should report for prefight preparations. His manager in Puerto Rico, like Gonzalez and almost everyone else on the island, had been cut off from cellphone and internet coverage since the storm. The promoter listened to Gonzalez introduce himself, and then he apologized. There’d been a misunderstanding. He hadn’t heard from anyone in Gonzalez’s camp. He’d replaced Gonzalez with another boxer. There was nothing he could do, he said. He’d assumed there was no chance anyone from Puerto Rico would have been able to make that fight.
On Nov. 10 the U.S. Army commander in charge of the military responders in Puerto Rico, Lieutenant General Jeffrey Buchanan, announced that he was returning to the mainland. Since late September the military had cleared thousands of miles of roads, provided emergency medical attention to 5,000 local residents, and distributed 20 million meals and as many as 51 million gallons of water. Governor Rosselló, at the news conference announcing Buchanan’s departure, suggested that the emergency phase of the hurricane response was transitioning into something less urgent, if not less challenging. “We are now entering a recovery phase,” he said. More than half the island was still without electricity, and thousands of businesses both small and large had yet to reopen. Trade associations reported that about 30 percent of hotels and almost 40 percent of restaurants remained closed. The government reported that the number of people applying for emergency unemployment benefits in October was triple that of the same month the year before. Although official statistics blamed the storm for only 62 deaths, a recent review of the island’s mortality statistics by the New York Times showed that 1,052 more people than usual died in the months after Maria, suggesting the storm was far more lethal than the official death toll implied.
On the same day Buchanan’s departure was announced, Mark Curry drove to a warehouse in Las Piedras, on the east side of the island, to load a pickup truck full of rice, lentils, pinto beans, toilet paper, fruit, and water for Loíza, a poor community east of San Juan where many residents remained in temporary shelters. Curry had moved to Puerto Rico to take advantage of the tax breaks in 2013; in press releases put out by his principal company, Sol Partners, he was described as a financial technology entrepreneur and a “disruptive philanthropist,” a term favored by those who fund alternatives to taxpayer-backed social programs.
Since immediately after the storm, he and other members of the Act 20/22 Society—a dues-paying organization of businesspeople who’d sought tax shelter here—had been organizing relief runs such as this one. Most Act 20/22 participants, like Curry, are wealthy. “As a broad rule, we say if you don’t make more than $2 million a year, it’s probably not worth it for you to do this,” said Robb Rill, a leader of the group who runs a private equity firm with nearly $100 million in assets.
Before Curry loaded his truck with supplies, he outlined a general philosophy that I heard repeated by several Act 20/22 transplants (“People want a hand up, not a handout”) and sketched what he believes is the government’s ideal role in the long-term relief effort (“Empowering small business”). The private sector’s responsibility, Curry said, is to direct its competitive drive and creativity toward the humanitarian effort. A few days before, he’d made a deal with Uber Technologies Inc., which had agreed to deliver aid supplies free of charge anywhere on the island. When Curry or his associates got a donation or purchased a batch of food or water, they could call Uber, and the drivers would be fully compensated at Uber’s expense. Details were still being worked out, which meant that on this day Curry had to drive more than an hour to load his truck before dropping the supplies off at a public basketball court in the center of Loíza. “It’ll be much faster and more efficient to do something like this with the Uber deal,” he said, driving past downed power lines and abandoned houses on the way back from the drop-off. “And it gives people jobs.”
Robert Anderson—the Ghost—had formed a partnership with a group of like-minded free agents to advance a similar line of thinking. In mid-November, I joined him in the convention center to meet one of these partners, a man named Steve Birnbaum, whose affiliations were just as hard to pin down as Anderson’s. When asked what company or agency he worked for, Birnbaum never varied in his reply: “Nobody.” He’d come to the island just before the storm hit, funded by an unnamed organization that anticipated the disaster and “wants to stay out of the picture.” Since then, he said, no one was paying him a salary, and his motivation was simply “to help any way I can.”
The convention center had undergone a transformation in the past month. As power and internet access had been restored to other parts of San Juan, the media had been kicked out of the building, and several other agencies and nonprofits had moved to other offices. Security was tighter, but Anderson and Birnbaum met me at the door and shepherded me toward a table, where they began to explain part of their plan to help Puerto Rico.
Birnbaum said “an associate” of his had determined that from 40 percent to 65 percent of Puerto Ricans customarily purchased the bulk of their food supplies with federal aid in the form of Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, cards. Small businesses around the island depend on EBT spending. In many rural areas, the point-of-sale terminals in grocery and convenience stores still hadn’t been connected to a network, meaning cash was the only option. Most of the ATMs in those areas were still offline, too. The stores, as a result, were unable to sell goods to a customer base that desperately wanted to buy them. “By enabling those terminals, the store can pay its employees, let the residents buy food, and create less reliance on FEMA for food distribution,” Birnbaum told me.
As he and Anderson began to explain how they were working together to solve this, someone approached the table to interrupt. “How you doing, gentlemen?” It was the head of security for the facility, backed by four members of his staff. The press was no longer allowed in FEMA headquarters, he said. He then began quizzing Birnbaum and Anderson. “Who do you work for?” he asked. Anderson answered that he’d been granted authority to be in the building by Puerto Rico’s chief information office, where he’d been working as an unofficial, and unpaid, technical consultant.
Birnbaum, however, didn’t budge when pressed for his employer.
“Nobody,” he said.
The answer inflamed the security chief, who asked Birnbaum if he’d been telling people he was with FEMA to gain unapproved access to the convention center. (Birnbaum wasn’t; he was getting in with a volunteer firefighter ID that he said FEMA earlier had told him was okay to use.) Birnbaum’s denials didn’t work, nor did Anderson’s attempts to smooth things over. Within minutes, Birnbaum was banished to the parking lot, where he began calling friends, wondering if he might have ticked off someone at FEMA or if someone had fingered him as a target of suspicion.
Maybe the controversy surrounding the contract given to Whitefish Energy Holdings LLC had put FEMA on edge. The Montana company’s two full-time employees had anticipated the storm, and in San Juan they quickly established the connections that led to a $300 million contract with the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority to rebuild the island’s electrical grid. The blowback from that deal, which was canceled on Oct. 29, seemed to make FEMA acutely sensitive to the prospect of private companies angling for fat government contracts, and Birnbaum’s evasions might have been a red flag. “When you say you’re with nobody, people don’t understand it,” Birnbaum told Anderson.
“Well,” Anderson conceded, “it does rub some people the wrong way.”
That was beyond doubt, and now that Birnbaum had been exiled from headquarters after almost two months of access, he dropped his air of mystery. About an hour later, he and Anderson reconvened at a house where a loose coalition of private, for-profit organizations was based—and where their affiliations finally would snap into clearer focus.
Miguel Szendrey-Ramos bent low and held one of his ají dulce plants by the stem, pulling the leaves back, searching for a miracle. Not all the plants had died, and he’d continued to tend to them, hoping they might sprout pepper buds. No such luck.
“The few that survived are in so much stress that they’re not producing,” he said. “A plant like this, by now, should have about 30 peppers on it. But it’s doing nothing.”
His dragon fruit field, which he’d planted earlier this year, would need an additional three years to reach maturity; after that he expected them to produce fruit for 15 years or so. While those plants matured, the peppers were supposed to be his cash crop. He’d counted on reaping up to three harvests per year, which would allow him to pay off his farm loans until the dragon fruit became his moneymaker.
The loss of the $20,000 crop left him dazed. He’d responded to Puerto Rico’s economic collapse by remaking himself into a farmer, but many of his friends and relatives—including three of his four sisters—had left Puerto Rico, moving to the mainland, where opportunities were easier to find. From 2010 to 2015, Puerto Rico shed more than 7 percent of its population, reducing the number to about 3.4 million. The majority of those who left were working age, and many took with them the next generation of workers; the island lost about one-third of its elementary school students from 2005 to 2015.
Since the storm, the pace of the exodus has accelerated, and it remains difficult to find an available seat on a departing airplane. In the first five weeks after the storm, 199,000 people left the island by boat or plane. An additional 100,000 had booked tickets on flights before the end of the year. Some analysts predict that 400,000 to 500,000 could leave by the end of next year.
Szendrey-Ramos had taken out loans for the farm, and he was paying off a mortgage on his house. He couldn’t just pack up and leave. But standing in a field of ruined peppers, he struggled with unavoidable questions. Should he replant or should he downsize his whole operation to minimize the potential losses? If he risked replanting, would he be setting himself up for another disaster? Would the next hurricane leave him with the same questions?
He began seeing a few scattered job offers. FEMA and the insurance companies were looking for architectural inspectors to review hurricane damage. That seemed like something he could do. But what would happen when the disaster responders left the island? Rosselló was lobbying Congress for $94.4 billion in aid, but as of December, the White House had asked for $44 billion to cover combined hurricane costs in Texas, Florida, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico. At the same time, the new tax bill being debated in Congress aimed to encourage U.S. companies to invest domestically instead of overseas. The unique tax status that had benefited the territory in the past would now be a liability, and the island’s government worried that it would be a deathblow to the industries that remained. Some in Congress were searching for last-minute changes to the bill to soften the potential impact on Puerto Rico, but all of the discussions led Szendrey-Ramos to a conclusion that almost every economist shared: Puerto Rico’s financial troubles weren’t ending anytime soon.
“If there’s no money, there’s no architecture—it’s a formula,” Szendrey-Ramos said. “And there won’t be additional jobs in the long run, not until the economy gets better, which will be many, many years.”
His bank had given him a three-month reprieve from his mortgage payments, a grace period that would stretch through January. He decided to spend that money to buy new sweet pepper seedlings. He was, effectively, renewing his commitment to the new life he’d adopted three years before.
“Producing food seems pretty safe, in one sense,” he said. “Everybody needs to eat.”
Gonzalez, his mother, and his sister had planned to stay in Florida for a few weeks, just enough time for them to stock up on insulin and earn a little money to bring back to the island. Both his mother and his sister found jobs at the same Walmart where his aunt worked, but the jobs came with a catch: They had to promise to stay for at least six months. They agreed, and began working in mid-October.
Gonzalez, meanwhile, felt lost. With the fight canceled, he faced the humiliating prospect of returning to the island empty-handed. He learned that Guillermo Rigondeaux, the super featherweight world titleholder from Cuba, was training in Miami for a pay-per-view match scheduled for Dec. 9 in New York’s Madison Square Garden. His opponent was to be Vasyl Lomachenko, the junior lightweight world champion. Both fighters were southpaws, as was Gonzalez, who was told Rigondeaux might be looking for a sparring partner. He took a bus to Miami to speak with the fighter’s promoter, who offered him $100 to spend one day in the ring with the champion. Gonzalez needed a longer commitment, for more money. He reluctantly declined the offer.
His cousin came up with another opportunity. He could get Gonzalez hired for a temporary construction job that paid close to $15 an hour with a $40 per diem. Gonzalez jumped at the chance. He hoped to make enough money to help rebuild his grandmother’s house and also to pay down the loans he’d taken out for college. He planned to start another semester at the University of Puerto Rico, where he had maintained a 3.2 GPA while compiling a professional record of 6-0 with five knockouts.
Every morning he joined a temporary workforce that was overwhelmingly Latino, and he purposefully treated his days as if he were a sociologist, quizzing the other laborers about their experiences. He met Hondurans who worked 10 to 12 hours a day, with a 15-minute lunch break, for the minimum wage of $8.10 an hour. Most lived six to an apartment, they told him. He befriended a Cuban who couldn’t understand the instructions the boss gave him in English; when other workers teased the man, telling him he’d probably spend 20 years in America and never be able to understand the boss, he responded that he’d rather go back to Cuba than spend 20 years doing this kind of work. “He said, ‘This is a slave country for the Latin people,’ ” Gonzalez recalled. “He said that to me. ‘A slave country.’ That really surprised me to hear that.”
During his two weeks struggling on the mainland, his island pride swelled. He began posting messages on his Facebook page asking the local Puerto Rican community to donate food that he might take back with him. He collected 480 pounds of nonperishables but struggled to figure out a way to ship it home. He hoped to send it by boat, because it was cheaper, but was told it would take six weeks. “My cousin called a friend at an airline and got a discount, and we could send all the food back for 50¢ per pound,” he said. “But we had to leave 80 pounds of water, because we didn’t have enough money for it.”
He returned to Aguadilla on Nov. 8. About a third of Puerto Ricans still lacked running water, and more than half remained without electricity. But on the balcony of his grandmother’s house, a bedsheet hung with a message painted in large black letters: Hoy es un nuevo día de nuevo bendiciones. “Today is a new day with new blessings.” A Puerto Rican flag was tied to that same balcony railing, affixed by a cord from an old telephone that no longer worked.
Anderson and Birnbaum stepped into the kitchen of a six-bedroom rental house in a quiet residential neighborhood in San Juan. Through the rear sliding glass doors they could look out on a hammock and a swimming pool. They popped open beers and sat down at a dining table. The house had become a sort of alternative headquarters for several small, independent relief organizations that shared one goal: to open up the field of disaster response to the kind of parachute-style, private-sector problem-solving that they’d elevated to an ideal. Three others joined them at the table, listening to the story of Birnbaum’s expulsion from the convention center. When Birnbaum got to the part about the security guard, Anderson jumped in to point out that FEMA’s staff was, to be fair, simply doing its job—a necessary job to distance itself from profiteering carpetbaggers. A security guard, he pointed out, couldn’t be expected to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.
I was having a hard time with that myself. Anderson and his cohorts’ repeated insistence that they worked for “nobody” piqued all sorts of suspicions in me. Anderson had already spent more than two months working long days, and he swore he hadn’t been paid for any of it. The notion that they might be scheming to orchestrate some sort of Whitefish-style contract kept rearing its head. But as he and Birnbaum continued to talk with others around the table, those suspicions were quelled. So was the idea that they were pure free agents, working for absolutely no one, determined to wholly self-finance their altruism.
Jesse Levin—the “associate” Birnbaum had referred to earlier—was the house leader. He’s a fit 32-year-old who speaks with machine-gun speed and efficiency. The team he’d assembled wasn’t just a team, he said, it was “an initial post-occurrence instigation force.” He was a co-founder of Brooklyn Boulders LLC, a chain of rock climbing gyms with branches in New York, Chicago, and Boston. His new project is Tactivate, a for-profit company he’d brought to Puerto Rico, one that aims to combine the mindset of military special operations forces (though he’s not himself ex-military) with the sort of business savvy he picked up at Babson College. He calls the hybrid “expeditionary entrepreneurship,” and one of Tactivate’s missions is to bring it to disaster zones.
During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, Levin had turned his Brooklyn gym into a temporary headquarters for a group called Team Rubicon, a Los Angeles-based nongovernmental organization formed by former marines. It was there he met Birnbaum, who at the time was working for the Global VSAT Forum, an industry association for the satellite communications business. During Sandy, Birnbaum was appointed to something called the FEMA Innovation Team, made up primarily of private-sector experts, and he later received a “Champions of Change” commendation from President Obama’s White House for his work in setting up temporary communications networks in the New York City communities of Red Hook, the Rockaways, and Staten Island. Birnbaum left the nonprofit in 2015, and this year joined forces with Levin and Tactivate, becoming its director for response and recovery.
“We’re all essentially against the traditional NGO model,” Levin told me. “They’re not sustainable. All the smart people who want to effect change are always begging for money. They implement solutions, but they’re dependent on fundraising. What happens when the money goes away? If you want to build sustainable, lasting capacity, it has to come from the private sector. It’s OK if there’s a profit motive. That’s what makes the world go round, you know?”
When Maria hit, Levin saw Puerto Rico as the perfect testing ground for his ideas. In a blog post written in early October, he could barely contain his enthusiasm: “This is a call to arms. We are not often handed a chance to innovate and experiment on such a grand scale with so much incredible immediate need and impact potential. Stop blaming. Stop trying to accuse or fix the system and get working outside of it. The system may or may not catch up. If there is one thing Americans are good at, it’s being solution-focused and creative when there is a profit motive. In Puerto Rico, you get to have your cake and eat it too.”
The men in the Tactivate house don’t try to disguise how much they love all this stuff—the field missions, the helicopters, the chance to do things “MacGyver-style,” as the Tactivate website phrases it. They’re adventurers, and they don’t see any shame in that. Plenty of people are looking for a physical challenge, for excitement, for a sense of purpose, they say, and Tactivate is fulfilling a market niche. They recognize that there’s a certain selfishness somewhere near the core of that—a desire to gratify personal needs—but so be it. “At the end of the day, if you’re helping people and doing good, nothing else really matters,” Anderson said. “The payoff is, I sleep really, really well at night.”
Their work bringing point-of-sale terminals online is the best example they can hold up to illustrate their approach. After Levin and Birnbaum identified it as a mission for Tactivate, Anderson tried to find partners who might be able to provide connections to those EBT and credit card stations. He first reached out to Google’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to provide internet access to remote areas, but found that they couldn’t keep the balloons in the right place for long enough. After following a couple more dead ends, Birnbaum connected with Focused Mission Inc., a company in Orlando that models its work on what it calls the “servant leadership of Jesus.” Steve Hailey, a former American Red Cross technician who co-founded the company two years ago, described it to me as “mission first, profit second.”
Hailey suggested that Tactivate implement a machine-to-machine satellite connection that can provide simple connectivity to special point-of-sale terminals. The company donated the first three satellite terminals—each about the size of an iPad—in addition to performing the installation work at no cost. Anderson began crunching government data to help find the regions of the island most isolated from connectivity, and Tactivate continued to install more satellite terminals as the weeks passed.
Tactivate earns some money through training seminars with corporations in the U.S., but mostly through a variety of side projects, such as a roving pop-up bar called Mortar & Pistil, where Tactivate members offer survival training courses while customers sip elaborate cocktails. The company uses profits from those ventures to finance its trips to disaster zones; once there, it looks for ways to cover its expenditures. In San Juan, Tactivate had rounded up several rental apartments and re-rented them to NGOs. To offset the point-of-sale project, Levin said, Tactivate could form a partnership with a credit card processing company, for example, or even craft a deal with a chain of convenience stores. So far, though, that wasn’t happening; none of the team members had collected a salary or landed a contract.
“I’m paying for it,” Levin said. “Right now, I’m probably $55,000 deep, and I don’t have a clue where that’ll come from. But I’m confident enough in my ability to figure it all out afterwards.”
4. The Hawk and the Kingbird
Szendrey-Ramos spotted a guaraguao, a kind of hawk, drifting slowly over his field. “Sometimes, when you see him circling like that, he has five or six little birds bothering him,” he said.
There’s a saying in Puerto Rico that goes, Cada guaraguao tiene su pitirre, or, “Every hawk has its kingbird.” In the popular telling, the hawk represents imperial America, whose shadow falls on almost everything. The little kingbird, meanwhile, is Puerto Rico—small, brave, and relentless.
This particular hawk, however, soared undisturbed. Remarkably, a single, small gray bird—a kingbird—was perched on a table in the field where Szendrey-Ramos had placed a few potted açai berry trees that he planned to plant in the swampier areas of his plot. If anyone dared read anything symbolic into that resting bird, anything suggestive of a local surrender to the larger forces of either nature or geopolitics, the tenacity Szendrey-Ramos poured into his fields could neutralize it.
He was waging a war against the ants that were harassing his fledgling dragon fruit. Yet he was itching to do more, and almost every day he tried calling his seed supplier so that he could get started on his sweet pepper replanting. If he got them into the ground now, in mid-November, he estimated he might be able to harvest a full crop by the beginning of February, when the grace period for his mortgage payments expired. He hoped to plant 3,500 seedlings, or 500 more than had been wiped out by the hurricane. “I have to act fast now, to take advantage,” he said.
It would take more than his willingness to work, however. Because of the ongoing troubles with cellphone connections in some rural areas, he struggled to make contact with seed suppliers. When he finally did, it was late November, and he was told that one customer, a business that develops seeds into seedlings, had purchased the entire stock of ají dulce. Szendrey-Ramos tracked down the nursery in early December and bought all the seedlings he could get. “He’s dividing them between a couple of farmers, including me, but I’m not going to be able to get the 3,500 that I need to cover my field now,” he told me. “I’m only going to get 1,500.”
And he’d still have to wait for the seedlings to mature enough for replanting. At best, he could get them into the ground in mid-December. Until then, all he could do was try to suppress every anxious impulse that told him precious time was slipping away. If all went well, he might be able to start selling by late February. Between now and then, the fate of his peppers wouldn’t depend on the economy, or an aid package from Congress, or the details of a tax reform bill. It would be up to the kinds of forces that, every once in a while, still could make everything else seem comparatively insignificant: the sun, the wind, and the rain.
For a few weeks after the hurricane, anyone flying over Puerto Rico at 15,000 feet or so would have said the predominant color of the island was brown. The coastal palms were shorn of fronds, crownless. Forests dense with rosewood, teak, and tabonuco trees had been stripped of their leaves, and the trunks were indelicately exposed, bent at painful angles, allowing unaccustomed light to shine down and dry the electric-green moss to cheerless shades.
But within two months, the vegetation reasserted itself. Leaves sprang back, and fronds extended, and the moss recovered. You could still see brown in the forests below, but it was more difficult now, and the bare trunks that had been so stark were now blurred by greenery.
Somewhere down there, in the middle of all that, Anderson and Birnbaum traipsed through jungly thickets in the mountainous municipality of Jayuya—“the heart of darkness,” Anderson called it—on a field mission to transport doctors to a rural community and restore connectivity to a point-of-sale terminal in what they’d identified as one of the most isolated stores on the island. Levin and Tactivate had secured funding for the project from the Foundation for Puerto Rico, a San Juan nonprofit that before the storm was dedicated to promoting tourism and innovation. By December the Tactivate team had installed 15 units, with eight more planned, and Levin estimated that the connections had enabled more than $1.3 million in transactions.
In Aguadilla, Gonzalez and his grandmother, Blanca Hernandez, stepped onto the balcony of her house. Here, too, everything was newly brushed with green, but some of the hillside trees that had stood between them and the sea were simply gone. “Look,” Hernandez said. “See that? Look at this view. See it? I actually got more view now than I did before. See? It ain’t like it’s all crying or something all the time over here.”
Hernandez is a lean 62-year-old. In her smile there’s something sly, and in her vowels there’s a lot of Brooklyn, where she lived from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, before she and her husband, Carlos, moved their family back home. She keeps family pictures in the bedroom, and they’re curled at the edges from all the water. She grabbed one of her husband, who died in 2014, and her voice got a little dreamy: “He had green eyes,” she said.
Since the storm, Gonzalez has been living with his father in a different neighborhood, and Hernandez has stayed with a family friend. She got one blue tarp from FEMA and draped it over as much of her house as she could. Earlier in the afternoon it rained hard, as it did almost every day in November, and the tarp sagged. It couldn’t cover everything, and the tile floor in Gonzalez’s old bedroom was covered with about a half-inch of water.
In an exposed closet hung some of Gonzalez’s shirts. They were damp. “Every time I try to dry anything it rains,” Hernandez said. She pointed to bedding that was bundled in plastic bags. “I can’t use those sheets,” she said. “Rats got into them.” The mosquitoes, too, have been a problem. “You go to the store, you can’t find no candles.”
She held an envelope with a letter inside. It was a form from FEMA, with a telephone number she could call to see if she might be eligible for an emergency loan. She wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. The agency had provided the family with about $500 to buy food, and she was waiting for another check that might help pay for home repairs. Gonzalez said his girlfriend’s family had received a check for about $2,000, which wasn’t enough to pay for a new roof. “They’ll have to take out one of the loans,” he said. But Hernandez wasn’t eager to call the number. The last thing she wanted to spend energy on now was waiting in more lines, dealing with more bureaucracy, and contemplating how she might pay back borrowed money.
All she needed, she said, was a new concrete roof and—more than anything—her family, in Puerto Rico, together in the same place. That’s why she and Carlos had returned to the island 30 years ago. “I just want my family back,” Hernandez said. “To me, a miracle is gonna come.” Her eyes began to water. “Because God knows my heart.”
Gonzalez watched her without a word. Back at his father’s house, in a small bedroom crowded with trophies and medals and baseball caps, a cluster of packed bags and a backpack sat on the twin bed. In about three hours, he too would leave, to an apartment he shared with four other students. The next day, he was starting his first day of the fall semester at the University of Puerto Rico’s main campus in Río Piedras, about two hours away by car.
Last spring the island’s financial crisis threatened to slash the campus’s budget by as much as half, sparking student protests and a closure that cut two months out of the semester. This fall, Hurricane Maria lopped about seven weeks out of the beginning of the semester.
Around 4 p.m., Gonzalez said goodbye to Hernandez and his father and caught a ride to Río Piedras. When he arrived, he discovered that the windows in his university apartment unit had been blown out by the storm, and the school still hadn’t replaced them. Another student let him and three others sleep in her apartment on cots. A week later, they moved into another apartment; six students shared two bedrooms. For the first two weeks, they had no refrigerator or stove, and it was hard to find a reliable internet connection anywhere on campus.
Numerous universities on the mainland have offered reduced fees, or even waived fees altogether, for Puerto Rican students this fall. Several of Gonzalez’s friends seized the opportunity to leave. Others are simply dropping out. In early December, two of the six students sharing his apartment left school.
Gonzalez is the first person on either side of his family to go to college, and his father, especially, has encouraged him to stick with it. When he was young, Orlando Sr. tried to become a professional boxer before he was ready; he lost his first two pro fights, and his career was over. “My father was a good fighter, but he didn’t have a good adviser,” Gonzalez said. “He told me, ‘Well, I didn’t study, so I never really had another alternative. If you go to a university, you’ll have more alternatives.’ ”
Gonzalez still dreams of professional boxing success, but he knows how precarious it is and how many punches he’ll have to take to be a champion. His other dream, the one he goes to school for, is to become the sort of adviser his father never had: one who can read the fine print of a contract and keep others from being exploited. After he gets a sociology degree, he said, “I want to go to the school of law, right here, in Puerto Rico.”
If there’s one sort of job that will always be in demand in Puerto Rico, he said, it’ll be that of an advocate. Someone who’s educated and experienced and interested in making sure the people who live there get a fair deal. He figures it might as well be him.
(Updates to clarify that Steve Birnbaum was accessing the convention center in San Juan with a volunteer firefighter ID he said was previously approved by FEMA. This story was originally published on Dec. 14, 2017.)