Faculty Commentary

Volun-tourism on the Island of Enchantment (Abandonment)

Professor Epstein, his wife, and another volunteer

We like to go somewhere warm over the winter break but decided this year that, given the suffering caused by hurricanes, it would have to be where our dollars and time would do some good.  Research led us to Vieques, a beautiful island off of Puerto Rico; and an online community bulletin board hosted by island residents linked us to a host who would rent us an apartment and connect us to daily volunteer work.  What we found was that Puerto Rico, known as “Isla del Encanto,” or “Island of Enchantment,” could instead be called the “Island We Abandoned.”

A Christmas day flight to San Juan was barely half-filled, testament to the collapse of the tourism industry.  San Juan International showed little effect of the storm until we passed a destroyed hanger, a skeleton of a building.  The flight to Vieques was more revealing – flying over towns one saw blue-topped home after blue-topped home, the color being the tarps that three months after the storm serve as roofs.  The island is verdant, but some destruction of trees was evident, and flying past the wind farm in Ceiba showed tall spindles without a blade.

Vieques is a magical place, a beach paradise that has escaped rampant development.  Horses roam the island unfettered, the beaches are pristine, and the greenery of trees and plants is everywhere.  But a taxi ride to where we were staying showed the prevalence of harm caused by hurricane Maria – power lines down, power poles toppled over, some damage to houses (especially those with wood or sheet metal roofs).

The power problem is substantial – an underwater cable brought much of the island’s electricity from Puerto Rice’s main island but apparently was not in working condition.  And even if it had been, there were miles and miles of lines to rehang, transformers to repair or replace, and new poles to be installed.  We saw no work on the electric grid while we were there and were told that months would go by before it was likely that power would be restored.

We stayed in Esperanza, a beach-front town perhaps 8 by 10 blocks in size.  A town now with no electricity.  A few stores, restaurants and homes had generators, but otherwise people were completely off the grid.  Our hosts gave us solar lanterns to use at night, water bags to heat for showers, a picnic cooler that needed two bags of ice per day to be a refrigerator, and a propane grill for boiling water.  We were lucky – we at least had these resources and the ability to charge our cellphones when the host ran a generator for an hour or two at a time.

What does the news report?  Restoration of electric power is now hoped to occur in February or March, and the new Trump tax bill will require companies operating in Puerto Rico to pay a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property held by “foreign” businesses, a burden projected to cause the loss of thousands of jobs.

There was also a deal – the price of the apartment would be reduced by fifty percent in exchange for volunteer work each day.  We began before we arrived, purchasing batteries, toys for children, and soaps and shampoo; and finished by leaving almost all of our clothing to be distributed to those in need.  But the majority of our volunteer work was in a local ‘meals-on-wheels’ effort.

Vieques residents self-organized.  They determined who needed food – because of age, infirmity, or simply because of a loss of employment.  There was/is no work – shops, restaurants, hotels are closed and businesses can’t keep their employees on the job.  And then they (and we) got to work.  At a restaurant operating under the auspices of World Central Kitchen (https://www.worldcentralkitchen.org/) 500 to 700 meals a day were prepared.  Out of the kitchen would come trays of meat, rice, vegetables, plantains or more and volunteers would spoon portions into Styrofoam containers.  Then drivers would take meals to group or individual homes.

I packed lunches and made deliveries.  I drove each day with Lulu, a transplanted New Yorker, a ceramicist in her 70s.  At each house I would approach the gate or fence to ask permission to enter, calling out “hola, meriendos.”  “Meriendos” is a colloquial term for “snacks” or a light meal.  The term was used to explain our presence and give the recipient dignity – we were sharing snacks, not meals.  But the contents were a full meal.  Those who received the meals were grateful, engaging, and often happy just to have some human contact.

There was more to volunteering, including a trip to a small church with an adjacent organic garden.  Weeding, watering plants, helping to install a cistern to catch rainwater off of the church roof were the afternoon’s projects.

Vieques retains its natural beauty: pristine beaches, the nighttime sky filled with stars, the winding roads curving through near-jungle growth and revealing spectacular ocean views.  But it is an island left to its own devices with no clear plan or capacity to rebuild and no manifest leadership.  Services are ad hoc and intermittent – signs in the local grocery announced mental health services for a two hour period at a local church.

It will take a civil engineering feat to restore the island to a semblance of on-the-grid life; and whether that will be a ‘fix’ or a serious plan to hurricane-proof the infrastructure to avoid a repeat of this collapse is anyone’s guess.

At the end of our five days we left Vieques as we came – by taxi and small propeller plane.  Some cleanup of storm debris had occurred, but the downed power lines and poles and the shuttered businesses remained.  A roof was being replaced, but with sheet metal – exactly the material the storm had ripped away so easily.

What does the news report?  Restoration of electric power is now hoped to occur in February or March, and the new Trump tax bill will require companies operating in Puerto Rico to pay a 12.5 percent tax on profits derived from intellectual property held by “foreign” businesses, a burden projected to cause the loss of thousands of jobs.

Would there be such a delay in restoring electricity, or an increased tax, on a hurricane-devastated area in the continental United States where the majority of people did not speak Spanish or have darker-hued skin?  I think not.  Vieques enchanted us, and we plan to return and to continue giving.  But as a people, Vieques is a land we have abandoned.

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  1. Deana Canny says

    Where did you stay that offered this deal and how many hours each day did you volunteer?
    We will be there in a few weeks and want to help!

  2. Patrick Burton says

    Deana Canny,
    I’m not a “native” to Vieques, yet my wife and I have many friends/adopted family who reside on the island, we are blessed to have visited numerous times over the past 6-7years.
    If you’re still looking for some help/contacts for getting involved shoot me a text or email and I’ll pass on some of my (trustworthy professionals) who will be able to direct you in the correct path…

    (contact information redacted)

    Patrick Burton…

  3. Natalie Birindelli says

    We are heading to Vieques in a few weeks initially for vacation but would also like to help some of these organizations needing assistance. Would you be so kind as to send some references so we can also assist in recovery efforts? Many thanks!

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