Just two weeks have passed since power returned to some communities in the Salinas-Guayama region of Puerto Rico. The Southeast was one of the first places to feel Hurricane Maria’s wrath, and it’s been one of the last to feel a sense of relief. Ruth Santiago has been there for it all.
Santiago works as an attorney with El Puente’s Latino Climate Action Network, a Puerto Rico-based initiative dedicated to environmental justice. She lives in Salinas, in the heart of the island’s energy production. Puerto Rico’s Afro-Descendants also concentrate in this region: 18.5 percent live in the municipality of Guayama, according to Census data.
After the eye of Hurricane Maria struck the region head-on on September 20th, many residents remain without electricity. Telecommunication services are sporadic, sometimes nonexistent. Santiago was in New York City last week meeting with the New York team of El Puente, so Earther took the opportunity to sit down with her and hear what a day in her life on the island entails under Puerto Rico’s new “normal.”
Santiago starts her day early, usually around 5:30 a.m. She lies in bed and stares up at her white ceiling, still tired even though she should feel well-rested. In the weeks after the hurricane, Santiago’s sleep was irregular as the groans of generators kept her up at night. (The media doesn’t call Puerto Rico “Generator Island” for nothing these days.) With fewer of her neighbors using generators since power returned, Santiago’s been sleeping better recently.
But for the most part, everything still feels out of whack. Santiago’s community has been fortunate to have running water—and she’s grateful—but it’s not the same. Using too much water can lead to low water pressure, so showers have to be quick. They don’t provide the relaxation they once did.
Santiago misses the natural soaps she used to buy at an organic market back in Ponce, a 45-minute drive away. The organic market is pretty much bare these days; the hurricane has made little available anymore.
Before the power came back, Santiago would usually fill a bowl with cereal for breakfast. Almond milk won’t go bad as quickly as dairy, which is the kind of thing you discover when you can’t keep food in the fridge. Santiago and her husband learned to finish their almond milk in just two days.
When Santiago got real sick of eating cereal, she’d head to her go-to bakery in town, La Exquisita. After about 15 to 20 minutes of waiting, she’d buy her pan de agua or pan sobao. When the hurricane first hit, the bakeries weren’t operating the same, if they were open at all. When they did open, close to 50 people would line up in the morning.
Now that she’s got power again, Santiago’s fridge works. She can store eggs and cook them for breakfast. Man, does she miss her old meals, though. For breakfast, she’d have toast with eggs and creamy, crumbly quesito blanco with some fruit on the side. Before the power returned, her dinners would consist of tuna fish or other canned goods, so she’d try to eat a hefty lunch while out.
Thinking about the fruit and cheese makes Santiago nostalgic. Her markets don’t sell the cheese anymore, and fresh fruits, including bananas, mangoes, and pineapples, are still hard to come by.
In fact, the trees that used to grow the bananas and the plantains are gone, too. Santiago used to pass the farms down the road all the time. First, she saw them on the ground, torn down. Now, they’ve been cleared out, and it doesn’t look like they’re being replanted. Santiago can’t imagine any farmers attempting to grow with the rains Puerto Rico’s been seeing. Hurricane Maria was something, but the rains didn’t stop completely after the storm. Some have been torrential.
About twice a week, Santiago drives into San Juan for work . She used to just work from home, but without internet, home isn’t much good for work. The drive used to take her an hour; now, it’s usually an hour and a half. The roads are always flooded with cars now. Everyone from the South is trying to find internet access, or heading north for groceries.
Her legal work isn’t all Santiago does. On the days she doesn’t head to San Juan, she goes to a community center in Salinas’ El Coquí ward that is helping with relief efforts by providing lunches for the elderly, pampers for babies, water, and even solar lamps. Even before the storm, she’s been sure to be as involved as possible with her southeastern community to protect it from nearby pollution. The region is home to power plants, as well as a giant coal ash mound.
After a long day’s work, Santiago returns to her home, which is now lit up with the power that recently returned. Before, it was mostly dark, lit up only by the solar lamps sent to her by her son in Philadelphia.
Santiago takes her nightly shower—the second of the day—and prepares for sleep. Now that her power is back, she doesn’t have to turn on her radio anymore to drown out the sounds of generators, or shut off her solar lamp. But she still has to brace for tomorrow.
With a shiver and prayer, she shuts her eyes and prepares.