Hurricane Maria: Inside a Puerto Rican Barrio's Fight to Survive

What the G8 neighborhoods in San Juan can teach us about the coming age of permanent disaster

Barrio Obrero, one of the G8 communities, a week after Hurricane Maria hit. Credit: Alex Wroblewski/Bloomberg/Getty

On a hot and cloudless afternoon in mid-October, the eight San Juan barrios known collectively as the G8 look a lot like other neighborhoods in the hurricane-battered capital. Uprooted trees lean against roofless homes. Piles of storm detritus and soggy furniture crowd the streets, an odd diesel generator providing a rumbling soundtrack and some power, still a rare commodity on the island three weeks after Hurricane Maria laid waste to the national grid.

But these barrios are unique – a disaster zone within a disaster zone. For decades, G8 residents have lived in a near-permanent state of emergency on the perimeter of San Juan's gleaming "golden mile" business district. The immediate cause of this emergency is a collapsed waterway: 25,000 people are clustered along the Caño Martín Peña, an inland channel that once drained rainfall into lush mangrove swamps, then carried it east into the San Juan Bay. But that was a long time ago. Unregulated dumping and development have narrowed and clogged the Martín Peña into a parody of a functioning wetland. Since the 1970s, heavy rains have brought flooding to the streets of Cantera, Obrero San Ciprian, and the six other G8 neighborhoods. All lack a modern sewage system, meaning floodwaters invariably mix with trash and waste-waters.

"Growing up here, you get used to waking up after heavy rain to find everything floating, water for blocks around your house," says Chrismaury Alomar, a 22-year-old community leader from the G8 neighborhood of Las Monjas. "The Maria surge was worse, just like we knew it would be."

Routine flooding, government neglect and vulnerability. These have defined much of life and local identity in the G8, sometimes called the Caño communities. They've also weaved a social fabric of special strength, its eight bolts connected by community institutions that offer a model of "resilience" – that new-century buzzword for building out social and environmental defenses in an age of accelerating climate change.

"The island is going to receive more intense hurricanes as the atmosphere and oceans warm," says Louis Jorge Rivera Herrera, a San Juan-based environmental scientist and winner of the 2015 Goldman Environmental Prize. "The kind of community projects you see in El Caño, deeply rooted in citizen involvement and empowerment, provide an excellent footprint to follow in the years ahead."

"Resilience" translates to Spanish as "resistencia," a term with a double meaning that captures the essence of the G8's political culture. This culture has effectively organized campaigns for infrastructure investment by the government (promised but as-yet undelivered), and built networks of participatory democracy that from webs within and between the barrios.

This culture, which has helped G8 residents deal with regular flooding for years, helped them weather the heavier hits of Irma and Maria.

"Our communities may not have the most resources, but they know how to rapidly organize and help themselves," says Estrella Santiago, an environmental manager with Project Enlace, an umbrella organization for G8 institutions. "Being organized and having a history of active participation and solidarity was essential after Maria, especially in the crucial first week. The leadership already knew the specific needs of families, who were most affected, who needed diapers, a tarp, money. They also had experience with dirty floodwater and preventing diseases. In a lot of ways, people in the G8 were more prepared and more open to help each other."

In the streets of Israel-Bitumul, a Caño community, I meet barrio president Jose Gonzalez as he delivers bottles of water. A jolly giant of a man, he makes sure I notice a nearby wall covered with political murals. "The kids made these," he says. One depicts residents marching under a banner posing the question, "If you get to walk on carpets, why do we have to walk in shit?" Another shows a youth blocking a bulldozer and declaring, with an outstretched hand, "I am from here, and here I will remain."

"They'd love to get rid of us," says Gonzalez, 42. "Just like they did with Barrio Tokio." Tokio, once the westernmost barrio of the Caño communities, was razed in the 1980s, its residents removed but not resettled. After the nearest section of the channel was dredged, construction began on high-rise condos, a sports stadium, and office towers. "We're not going to let the city and developers do that again."

At the center of the G8's web of community networks is Project Enlace, which coordinates a range of activities across the area, including youth groups and adult education, urban farming and public art. In 2004, Enlace established a Community Land Trust to prevent displacement and gentrification; it marked the first time an "informal settlement" (as the G8 is designated) had ever used a public-private land trust to protect its territory. The pioneering Trust has since inspired other similar communities around the world and drawn international notice, including a UN World Habitat Award.

The offices of Project Enlace served as an emergency bunker in the immediate aftermath of Maria. Cells were established to organize clean ups, search and rescue, and other forms of aid. It also provided a ready-made network for city and federal authorities to plug into. In the days after the storm, FEMA contacted Enlace and asked them to help canvass the Caño communities' needs: Who needed a tarp? Who needed wood? Who needed insulin?

G8 residents signed up to assist in distributing federal relief, but have sometimes found FEMA to be a frustrating partner.

"They never gave us a time frame for delivering the aid, and from what I have seen, I have little faith," says Evelyn Quinones, a G8 resident who collected aid requests on behalf of FEMA. "We do this work with a lot of love, but also with a lot of sadness. We can't tell people when the aid will come. We're still waiting."

While sympathetic to the magnitude of FEMA's job, some G8 leaders have been disappointed by what they say are gaps in the agency's ground game. Lucy Cruz, the president of G8 Association, says FEMA is short on Spanish-language technicians, and has asked the communities to provide translators during visits. When Cruz visited FEMA's headquarters in the convention center, she says only a handful of FEMA staff members spoke Spanish. And very few of those could be found in the communities where they were most needed.

"We understand they're stretched thin, but we are the most impacted communities in San Juan," says Cruz. "We expected them to at least have offices here on the ground. They're asking us to prepare claims through the Internet and over the phone, but people don't have access to those things."

In an email, FEMA's spokesperson in San Juan, Daniel Stoneking, disputed such accounts, saying the agency had sufficient language resources on the island. "At least a quarter of the 1,500 people in the convention center are bilingual," he wrote. "Many of our staff are local citizens. Virtually all of the Puerto Rico National Guard are bilingual. [Thirty] days and I have not once had a problem communicating with anyone. Responders and survivors have been working well together with grace and dignity."  

The federal government, meanwhile, has yet to deliver on its promise to dredge the Martín Peña and help prevent and mitigate future flooding. No timeline or funding plan has been announced; both are complicated by Puerto Rico's debt crisis and the austerity measures imposed by the Washington-appointed Financial Oversight Board. The role of the board in its problems is something G8 residents understand very well.

"You can see the building where they have their offices from here," says Alomar, the activist from Las Monjas. "There's money for debt payments, but not to build us the same infrastructure everybody else has? We deserve to live healthy, the same as the rich. People are tired of waiting."

By triggering a wave of emigration, Maria has brought the G8 communities full circle. The growth of the barrios dates to the aftermath of San Ciprian, a 1932 hurricane that devastated much of Puerto Rico's agricultural economy. The government encouraged newly unemployed farmers to migrate to San Juan, find work in the factories, and build homes by clearing the mangrove forests on the banks of the Martín Peña Channel. Nearly nine decades later, Maria has triggered another wave of migration, this time an exodus for the U.S. mainland.

It has not escaped residents that Maria's dramatic highlighting of their arguments for environmental justice has accelerated the depopulation of the community. Like so many from around the island, many third- and fourth-generation G8 residents are making plans to leave. Among them is a very reluctant Chris Alomar, the 22-year old organizer from Las Monjas. His mother has enforced plans to move the family to Hartford, Connecticut, before the end of the year.

Standing on a bridge overlooking the narrow canal, Alomar tells me he plans to return to Las Monjas as soon as he can.

"I told my mom I'm not staying long," he says. "My grandparents lived here. Survived here. Sometimes, yeah, it's hard. Sometimes it makes you sad. Who wouldn't get depressed? We live in shitty ass conditions. Flooding. Bad plumbing. But that's when you got to hold yourself up. We've been through a lot. And we still here."