Maria’s ruins: Then and now in Puerto Rico

Hurricane Maria was devastating to Puerto Rico when it hit in 2017. It toppled power lines, severed communications and destroyed roads and communication lines that had been essential to the island’s economy.

In the week following Maria, however, much of the island was engulfed by an uncharted, darkened wonderland. The Puerto Rican people fled across the ocean in search of safe harbor. Workers from all over the island, and even from miles away in Puerto Rico, came together to do what needed to be done — and where it was needed.

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I was one of them. I lived in New York at the time, and my wife and I flew to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to stay with our daughter, Myriam, on the day after the storm. My office in New York had been destroyed by the hurricane, as had our apartment on the Upper West Side, so we packed up and moved to San Juan, where we took up residence in one of the City University of New York’s many temporary housing facilities.

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I was surprised to find that the children were in a frenzy. They had lost all of their toys. The only play thing they had was a large cardboard box in which they had tucked the toys. The room was littered with broken and damp drawers and walls. The plaster floor was covered in ketchup. The air was hot and humid, and everything inside was soaked. My sister and niece knew that the water-based toys they had lost were perhaps the only toys that would survive the disaster. But then we looked into their faces and saw a list of what we knew they really wanted.

They needed Dora the Explorer, Nerf, Power Rangers, Pokemon and Zepplin games, plus Star Wars toys and stuffed animals. While our household was flooded with other possessions, the toys were all the only things the kids would have in a world without electricity.

They also needed books, new duffle bags, shoelaces, crayons, bubble wrap, shampoo, body soap, toilet paper, toothpaste, household dust remover, a silver box, false eyelashes, rose petals, candies, candles, sand, eggs, mini-fridge, 7-Up, bottled water, mustard, ketchup, Heinz ketchup, Fritos, mac & cheese, baked beans, wet wipes, lantern, Kodak camera, DVD player, iTunes playlist, Clorox disinfectant wipes, candles, cream of mushroom, Instant coffee, electrical cords, a cooking pot, a shotgun, fishing knives, a shotgun, a machete, a skateboard, a rocket launcher, a skateboard, footballs, sponges, towels, tweezers, books, pacifiers, three-day hair spray, hair ties, disposable cameras, clip-on earrings, butterfly charms, magnets, sequins, and phone chargers.

We immediately began searching for toys, eventually deducing that the only toy these children would have was a briefcase stuffed with toys. Our apartment on Park Avenue South, having water and electrical power, seemed like a good place to store the briefcase.

The first thing we did was take out the charger, some plastic zip ties, sheets of bubble wrap, a plastic box, and a gallon-size garbage bag. The cover of the case was a small plastic bag. The battery-powered flashlight, which we took in an easier-to-clean plastic bag, had holes in the end that made it more compact. I passed it around to my niece and sister, while they opened the plastic baggie, took out the flashlight and placed it in the charged-up battery.

When the flashlight came on, the room suddenly lit up. Tears began streaming down the girls’ faces. They were entranced, and their unbridled joy overtook us. With batteries inside the flashlight, my niece and sister put the case away, tore apart their jam-packed living room to look for all of the stuffed animals.

I handed the flashlight over to my niece and sister. They would quickly work out the kinks in charging the case and returning it to their room, carefully and

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