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Safety Tips for Travel to Puerto Rico in the Aftermath of Hurricane Maria

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Five weeks after Hurricane Maria and the island of Puerto Rico is still suffering from its devastation. Thousands are homeless, 1.2 million are without potable water and nearly 85% of the island lacks electricity. The Puerto Rican government released a report stating that electricity could take six months to restore.

I had the opportunity recently to travel to Puerto Rico to witness the destruction first-hand and all I can say is “wow, what an experience”. I went to the island for work reasons and while there, stayed in a telecommunications office which was spontaneously converted to a heavily guarded hotel. My time spent was extremely challenging and at times uplifting. I’d like to share with you my observations and travel safety advice should you or your colleagues go to the area.

The Situation

Hurricane Maria was one of the most powerful and damaging natural disasters to hit the U.S., and it destroyed parts of the Caribbean as well as most of the infrastructure of the entire island of Puerto Rico. In Puerto Rico alone, such widespread destruction has overwhelmed the local government, first responders and security providers. Many businesses have been helpless to respond. I cannot stress enough the criticality of emergency planning ahead of any natural disaster that may be looming. The amount of time and energy you and your organization invest in such an endeavor can help to secure your company’s stability and assets, thereby saving millions of dollars.

As of today, nearly all the island remains on generator power. There are a couple of tiny pockets that are back on the grid, however, I would estimate this to be no more than 2.5%. Many neighborhoods have no light, no water, no air conditioning and nowhere to go and nothing to do while the island is actively trying to recover. Gear and supplies are coming in however there are long lines and increased frustration amongst citizens.

For those fortunate employees who work for a business that can provide their own electric, the workday may be shortened because everything closes at 6:00 PM and doesn’t reopen until the following morning. Evenings are when the hotels start-up their generators but there’s no guarantee that they will operate all night long. They might be old or simply run out of gas. And gas can still be very tricky to find sometimes.

If you can secure a nice hotel, be prepared to be out by 8:00 AM. That’s the hour that all the power is turned off, there’s no water and you may be asked to leave. This is not the worst thing in the world given the current state of affairs, nevertheless, if you are there for a visit, be prepared to be 100% mobile in daylight hours.

San Juan at night is surreal. The majority of the city is lit up only by the lights of passing cars. Most citizens go out into the street at night so that they can avoid their uncomfortable living situations due to the lack of air, water, refrigeration, and toilets. Suffice to say that environmental conditions certainly drive behavioral changes; some pleasant, others far less so.

Important Tips to Plan for Safer Travel

If you or someone from your organization is planning to visit Puerto Rico, keep these points in mind.

  1. If hotels are open, it may only be for nighttime hours. At 8:00 AM most shut off their generators for cost-saving purposes and they may not let you leave your things in the room.

    Recommendation: Bring a good backpack vs. a suitcase.

  2. Gas is at a premium and cannot always be found easily because of all the generators running. This has had a significant impact on vehicular movement in general and on Uber and taxi services specifically.

    Recommendation: A trusted driver is still a better option than commercial transportation services.

  3. A lot of people are out of work, have no air conditioning and no running water. Because of increasing desperation, patience is down and tempers are up. It helped to remind myself that I was only there for a limited time and that others would be living in the difficult conditions much longer.

    Recommendation: Expect to be inconvenienced while you are visiting and be prepared to offer compassion. This will help you avoid conflict and unnecessary attention.

  4. Crime has unfortunately risen considerably, especially during hours of darkness.

    Recommendation: Try to minimize any night time activities away from a hotel. If you must go out at night, use the buddy system and ensure that you maintain a clear head.

  5. Communication is still spotty. Even if it’s generally good in a particular area, cellular networks go in and out of service a lot. I found that If you leave a “good” service location, even if only by a few blocks, you may lose your wireless altogether. This might explain why there are not many Uber drivers to be found.

    Recommendation: If there’s a good chance you’ll be away from cell service, consider bringing a satellite phone and a solar charger.

  6. Many restaurants are open but may close earlier than normal for safety and/or curfew reasons.

    Recommendation: If you’re used to a rigid meal schedule, consider the fact that you may need to alter your habits or be sure to have plenty of snacks.

All things considered and given the opportunity, I would go back. Despite the hardships, there is something deeply satisfying about pitching in to help others in a crisis and being a part of something that is bigger than yourself. As I looked at the tired but determined faces of the people living and working around me, it was clear that the sentiment was shared by many. And that’s a good thing because the island and people who live there are going to need it all and more. Straw poll results suggest that it could be years before “The Shining Star of the Caribbean” is back at 100%.

 

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