Island of Light, Island of Shadow

Issue 230

My journey home to Puerto Rico.

Nicholas Powers Nov 20, 2017

“Here’s where the hurricane tore off my roof,” she pointed upward. We look at exposed wood beams under open sky. “It was horrible,” Ruth crossed her arms. “Doors shook. Water came into the house.”

Her son tugged on her pant leg and she lifted him. “We hid in the bathroom.” Patting his head, she leaned on the balcony to study the island. It was like a furious giant had stomped and clawed the town of Utuado, Puerto Rico. Trees were snapped. Power lines, ripped. Mudslides bled over roads.

“No electricity. No water. All day to get anything done,” she said as she rocked her son. “I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon.”

Hurricane Maria

The storm fed on heat. Like an angry spirit seeking release, it climbed the sky. Warm. Sluggish. Slow. Hungry for fury. It found more than wind on the ocean. It tasted carbon, the gaseous exhale of civilization.

It fed on the heat spawned by a billion cars and thousands of jets that crossed the planet. Awakened to its power, the storm screamed like a newborn, its 175 mile-per-hour winds lashed waves upon waves.

Hurricane Maria’s eye opened, seeing a path. This fury, half made by nature, half by man. It violently spun in space, cursed hot breaths of lightning and storm. She drew darkness over the islands as the poor nailed wood over windows, heard of her immensity and said her name over and over … Maria.

New York City

“Are they safe?” I asked.

“I called,” Mom said. “But no one picks up the phone.” On screen, a NASA video showed a white foamy spiral around a black hole. Like the sky had been unplugged and all the weight and force of the atmosphere drained into the eye.

Everywhere Hurricane Maria passed went dark and then, slowly, photos surfaced. Dominica. Bahamas. Wrecked. Homes like piles of splinters. Roads cracked. Rivers gushed through the center of town. People digging through wreckage.

It churned over the Caribbean until its dark eye slammed into Puerto Rico and then vanished. An eerie quiet followed. No news came from the island. What happened to our family? What happened to Jesus, my mother’s first cousin? His wife Yeya? Their kids?

“Mom, did you hear anything?” I asked.

“No one answers,” she said again. “They didn’t have much.”

San Juan

As the JetBlue plane turned to the airport, I saw homes with blue tarps for roofs. Trees stripped of leaves. Warehouses, filled with shipping containers. Huge chunks of torn earth. When the wheels hit the runway, we cheered.

Outside the hot, damp air felt like a childhood memory wrapped on skin. It had been 30 years since I was in Puerto Rico. My family fled long ago. My grandfather ran from an abusive father. My grandmother from rural poverty. He died after I was born, glaucoma blinded him by the time I was a baby. He held me regardless, a new life in old hands.

Grandma and I lived here briefly. I spoke Spanish and chased salamanders up the walls. The jungle was my playground. We left, again for New York. My Spanish faded but the childhood joy glowed like an ember.

Growing up, I learned that Puerto Rico was a colony, its people and land stolen and stolen again. Shame replaced memory. I spat Spanish from my mouth. A gulf opened between who I was and who I am that deepened for three decades until the island was ransacked by a hurricane. I came back to save what I had loved and lost.

Driving around potholes and under dead traffic lights, I saw storm-beaten buildings. The windows looked like bruises. Street signs were folded by the hands of the hurricane.

I found Caritas de Puerto Rico, they welcomed me in, gave me a plate of food and testified to the island’s pain. Danny Rojos, a volunteer, shared how a client, a homeless man, lived on the beach. “He ran for safety as the hurricane ripped roofs off,” he said, eyes wide and unblinking. “The zinc roofs flew through the air like knives. Even now, he can’t sleep. Too traumatized. That’s just one story.”

The staff said Padre Monserrate could see me. We sat at the table and he talked in measured words. I asked about relief efforts. A hundred people a day came here for food, water and prayer.

“Anyone can come get a meal, water. It was and is still needed. The first days after the hurricane were horrible,” he said. “This generation has seen something they’ve never seen before. They never saw neighbors dying like this. Never saw helicopters having to deliver food. It forced us to care about each other, more.” He tapped his cellphone sarcastically. “We’ve become so individualistic.”

He gave me numbers for churches in Arecibo that delivered aid to towns tucked in the island’s mountains. I left and in the car, got a text from Pablo Borges, an activist friend. We planned to meet at the To Go food store.

Night had come. San Juan was a city of shadows. Passing car lights showed couples or lone men or families in brief portraits. Generators hummed as gasoline musk mixed with the sea breeze. Under fluorescent-lit stores, people charged cell phones and talked but often stopped and looked into the darkness as if trying to see a future.

Amid the devastation, innumerable acts of kindness.

I parked and met Pablo, young and wiry, a bushy beard under restive eyes. We went into the store. He grabbed beers and we drank outside as partygoers gathered on the dark sidewalk. Pablo gestured around, “It’s a stateless island. It’s a shock to my mom’s generation, they always thought the feds would take care of them. Corruption? Drugs? The feds would clean it up. Now, they pulled back and we’re on our own.”

Light and shadow took turns between us. Cars passed by, illuminating our faces in mid-sentence. We talked of Puerto Rico. We talked of the weight crushing the island, how the colonial elite had been replaced by a business elite. Anger drove his breath. The beers rose and fell like pendulums in our hands.

“Electricity has been failing for a long time,” he said. “Now this company Whitefish got a multi-million dollar contract to fix our grid and they had only two full-time employees. They’ll hire gringos and none of the money is going to stay here. None. The rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind.”

He took a swig. “There’s mobilizing going on. Go see Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas, they’ve been fighting the exploitation of Puerto Rico for 30 years.”


“Jesus y Yeya,” I shouted through the gate. A large woman dressed in a simple gown came from the house. Wincing at stiff knees, she opened it and hugged me. Thirty years apart, crushed by a hug.

She didn’t speak much English. I barely had enough Spanish to say my name right. Or ask directions. I had driven up and down Bayamón looking for a house with a large mango tree. By sheer dumb luck, a guy told me I was one street away. Sure enough, I found it.

She showed me the backyard, the mango tree was chopped down to a nub. The hurricane had broken its branches. Debris littered the yard. They had no generator, no electricity, just relentless heat during the day. Yeya leaned on a chair, squeezed my shoulder and repeated, “Terminado. Terminado.”

Her voice was tear-choked but she waved the grief away. Jesus, my grandmother’s nephew, rolled in on a wheelchair. He had white hair and a stern face. One arm was a twisted claw from a heart attack and he lifted it to hug me. They fed me coffee, crackers and cheese. I told them I was going to the mountains to report on conditions. While they said be careful, I took my phone and dialed mom’s number.

Handing it to Jesus, I saw him press it to his ear as if he could bring her right to his side. His voice rose and fell over the years separating them. He gave the phone to Yeya who laughed and talked, her eyes dancing in her face. They tied their lives together again and our family story flickered like Christmas lights.

I had to leave. Jesus pressed a “thank you” deep into me. Yeya held my face and kissed my cheeks. I got in the car and saw Jesus had wheeled himself out to the front porch to watch me go.


The muscleman pulled the cables, zipping the shopping cart across the riverbed as a remix of Queen’s “We Will Rock You” blasted from truck speakers. A crew from the radio station Magic 97.3 cheered as they caught it. On the other side, families waved on the ledge of a broken bridge. Massive pieces of it lay on the rocks below.

“There’s 25 families stranded on the other side,” said Zamaris Rodriquez, one of the staff. “No electricity. No water.”

We paused whenever the shopping cart wobbled on cables over the river. Rodriquez had a bullhorn and shouted instructions. Across the chasm, the cart wobbled and then was caught by outreaching hands.

“We come to help,” she said. “This is the first time a hurricane shut down the whole island. We had no nature left. All the cows and chickens died. What food was under the soil made it but everything else was wiped out.”

The house music thumped through the valley. We both bobbed our heads to it. She sheepishly shrugged. “We need to keep our spirits up.” The staff got back into the trucks, Puerto Rican flags fluttering on the hoods as they drove off.

On the other side, people took the supplies home. I peered over the ledge at the pieces of broken bridge, immense blocks of concrete that had been snapped and thrown downstream by raging waters. Here in Utuado, the hurricane descended with primeval force. Breaking. Bending. Smashing.

ADAPTING: A Puerto Rican man bathes in water flowing directly from a mountain stream. The island’s infrastructure was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria including the water system. Credit: Nicholas Powers.

I walked on a road where homes lay dark, trees ripped up; roots exposed like the tendons of a torn limb. Overhead, power lines spooled from poles. Back at the car, I felt the weight of devastation. My chest was tight. The pain on every face poured into my spirit and the body instinctively tightened to keep it from blurring the mind. 

Someone shouted. An older man asked why I parked at the abandoned house. I told him I was a reporter with family in Bayamón. He looked me up and down, went back and came out with coffee, cheese and bread. I was stunned by his kindness.

I drove to Utuado’s center, parked at the National Guard’s office and asked to see the officer in charge. The young men awkwardly pointed at Jorge Nieves, who laughed at his good luck and agreed to talk.

“Everything was destroyed,” he said while pulling up a chair for me. “In the first 10 days, we went on 53 missions and found people with injuries. Some needed oxygen but had no electricity. We got them generators. Airlifted them out. Dropped off food. We were working 22-hour days.”

I asked him what could have been done better. “The mayor has put security first, health second,” he said. “But every day we see more people with medical needs. There’s a lot of diabetes.” I thought of the cities with no electricity and asked him about Puerto Rico’s future.

He looked away, then back at me. “People are leaving, and it’s going to make it worse. We’re not going to have enough manpower to rebuild. Already, so many on the island are old or disabled or poor.”

He asked me where I was staying. I said in my car. He brought me to the kitchen, gave me plates of food wrapped in aluminum and bottles of water.

Driving away, I looked at the mountain where people lived in the dark. Turning on thin roads that coiled tight, I went up, up, up. On the side were wrecked homes and families talking in the street. A few looked at me suspiciously.

I parked and a pot-bellied man walked toward me as he cleaned a knife. He was scared but tried to hide it. I told him I was a reporter. He put away the blade, called to his friends. One of them said, “We have no electricity, no water. Too many people are leaving. If you have money, you go. The poor have to stay.”

They pointed to Ruth Montero who lived down the street with two boys. I walked over and she checked me out and waved me in. She gave me a tour of the house as her story, spilled out in one big wave. “Here’s where the hurricane tore off my roof,” she said. “Doors shook. Water came into the house.”

One of her sons came by and she picked him up. “We hid in the bathroom. Afterwards, it was so sad. There were no trees. Mudslides everywhere. No exit. We were out of power. I searched for water. People put pipes in the hillside, drank, showered and did laundry. They’re still doing it now.”

We looked out from the balcony. Night had fallen. The hills were black mounds under a purple sky. A few lights shone and people walked by like actors on distant stages. Generators hummed under the symphony of coquis, chirping in the gloam. It was a beauty maybe only briefly visible between bouts of hunger and panic.

She lit a candle. “I was thinking of leaving but I don’t think I can make it. It’s scary to start over. And my parents live next door. But we have to go through a lot to get a little bit of help from the government. The employees at the agency just talk to each other while we wait.”

Her youngest son squirmed in her lap. Her older one rode his three-wheeler in circles in the dark. As she talked, the candle flame wavered and the shadows of the family seemed to jump on the walls as if trying to escape.

“We need help. Trump cut Medicare and it’s less now. We deserve to be treated like U.S. citizens,” she said. I asked what message she wanted to give The Indypendent’s readers. Staring across the table, she said, “We are suffering.”

I got my things to leave, said goodbye, but in the car, I looked at the food from the National Guard and at her moving in the window. Getting out, I brought it to her.


“Go ahead.” Maribel pointed at the switch. “Turn it on.” I did and light beamed down. “It’s solar-powered.” She proudly pointed at the street lamps of Casa Pueblo. “When the hurricane knocked out the electricity, we still had power.” I held my hand under the glow. Weightless. Warm. Free. It was like holding the future.

Hours earlier, I woke up in my car’s backseat. I saw deep night. Stars scattered like seeds. Each one a bright grain because Utuado had no power, no light. The island had been thrown back into time’s abyss.

Driving to Adjuntas was like being in a submarine as my headlights passed over wreckage. Empty homes. Abandoned cars. Sagging power lines. Guardrails washed away. Roads crumbled into a cliff drop. In the absence of people, the nightmare future was more visible. Is this Puerto Rico decades from now? An island too hurricane-battered to live on?

By sunrise, I was in Adjuntas and went to Casa Pueblo’s big hall where Maribel showed me a photo of the first meeting in 1980 when one man showed up. The next time they threw a party and hundreds came. Casa Pueblo united the people to stop a strip mine that would have stabbed the earth. Then a pipeline that could have spilled poison. Now they drove trucks to nearby towns handing out water and food.

“We want to build more,” Maribel said of the prototype street lamp. “Make an industry for the people to have jobs. We can protect the island from climate change.”

Someone called to Maribel. Time to take supplies to the towns.

I followed them as they gave water to families. Tension left people’s faces as they took the supplies. Laughter. Smiles. Eyes brightened with relief. I realized this glowing gratitude was everywhere on my trip. Innumerable acts of kindness had scattered love like seeds for a future Puerto Rico. It was as if I had woken from a deep night and saw the people themselves were stars.


The beach was empty. Storm debris littered the sand. Here was southern Puerto Rico, where hurricanes hurled wind and water at the land. Here’s where I played as a child.

Thirty years. Thirty damn years. I’d been gone too long. I waded into the sea and cupped the water as if it was my own blood, felt each wave as if it was my own heartbeat, breathed in the breeze as if it was my breath. The trees were my bones. The sand, my skin. The leaves, my hair. The island had poured so much into me that it had become my larger body.

SPECIAL DELIVERY: Volunteers in the town of Utuado deliver supplies to 25 families stranded on the other side of a destroyed bridge. Credit: Nicholas Powers.

I lay on the waves as clouds darkened the sky. They foretold all the other storms to come. How much time do we have before gigantic hurricanes drive everyone to the mainland? Can we strengthen the island? Can we survive a changing Earth?

And aren’t millions being forced to ask these questions? Families fled cyclones in Asia. They fled drought in Africa. They fled fires in the American West. The farther they traveled, the more they looked back to the land that was like their own flesh and blood.


“Señora,” I called as Yeya walked out and smiled painfully at knees, still sore. She shook her finger at me.

“Señorita,” she made a mischievous eye-twinkle. We laughed. Jesus wheeled over. I told them about the bridge, Casa Pueblo and the beach. They listened, catching my glow more than my words. I said it was time to get a generator and that the family could pitch in.

I unfolded cash and asked Jesus to take it. He shook his head. Yeya looked at him knowingly and took it for him. Neighbors came by. Upon learning who I was, they asked, “New York? What are you doing here?” I told them of the trip. And they nodded politely, not wanting to relive their hurricane night.

I got up to leave and Yeya gave me her phone number. Jesus embraced me for a long time as if to say, in case you don’t make it back before I die, I love you. She kissed my forehead as if to say, you are my other son.

Hours later, I stood at the airport. One by one passengers showed their ID to the agent, turned and waved goodbye to weeping relatives. My eyes burned wet. My throat locked. I wanted to stay and rebuild the island. But I had a full life waiting for me in New York. When the time came, I held out my ID to the agent too.

The Next Storm

From the plane, I studied the sky and knew the next hurricane was already being spoonfed. The exhaust from this plane and all planes and cars, factories and farms were heating the oceans. In a year, another hurricane season will begin, another angry spirit will spin, slow and blind at first, then faster and faster until its eye opens.

It will careen through the Caribbean, bouncing off islands. It will shriek 100 mile-per-hour plus winds. It will lash homes, blast bridges and blow rivers off course. It will blow human lives off course.

People will stumble into a quiet morning of devastation. And face life or death. Modern civilization has turned the Earth against us. Death is here now. Death is chasing us inland. Death is forcing us from home. Life means a revolution against a system that has been embedded in us for hundreds of years. 

We have to make a choice. I leaned close to the window. The shadow of the plane rippled on the clouds.

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Photo credit (top): Carlos Javier. 

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