Hurricane Maria was a lot meaner than the Grinch, stripping Puerto Rico of not only utilities, housing and even its greenery, but as Christmas approaches, the people of the island are determined to move forward, and with that celebrate the holiday in the best way the people of the Island of Enchantment can.
“We will find ways,” said Ed Saavedra, an AT&T mobility services executive who returned home to New Britain just in time recently for Thanksgiving with his family after a 60-day stint on the hurricane ravaged island working with the telecommunications giant’s emergency response team to restore cyber optics and microwave systems.
There may be fewer lights, as many areas will lack power, but there will be gifts, sharing and, of course, the islands traditional holiday dishes, even in remote villages at the end of the destroyed power grid.
“If there is one thing Puerto Ricans do, is they celebrate holidays,” said Saavedra who was born on the island but migrated to New Britain as a child. He and his wife Sharon have three children, twins Gabriella and Alexandra and a son Noah.
Saavedra visits his homeland annually and arriving on the island on a private jet with 30 other senior executives a few days after the September 20 hurricane he was stunned by the totality of the disaster. “If you did not see it yourself, you would not believe it,” he said.
“The hurricane did not discriminate, the whole island was hit,” said Saavedra, who immediately started checking on what needed to be done by jeep and helicopter . His team also had to track down and help local AT&T employees who were stranded by the storm’s onslaught.
But looking beyond the destruction, Saavedra said the greatest impression he brought home to Connecticut was the resilience and ingenuity of the people of Puerto Rico and the commitment to “Puerto Rico se levanta’ was everywhere.
“Sadly there was a lot of disaster losses and deaths,” the AT&T executive said. There also was a lot of “team building and making of friends.” If there was a house that had better withstood the storm and had a generator, those residents would take in family and friends, he said.
The overall attitude of the people was similar to that throughout the nation after the 9-11 tragedy. People would bring bottles of water to police officers working on the street, Saavedra said, something that might not have happened in the past.
Not only will “Puerto Rico Rise,” Saavedra said, but “no doubt” it will be stronger.
The New Britain resident has responded to other disasters but he called his two months in Puerto Rico the “most rewarding experience” in his 31 years working in the telecommunications industry.
Saavedra had seen the local population rising to address the massive recovery challenges in San Juan’s city hall where he had an opportunity to meet the city’s “tireless” Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz, who was busy sorting humanitarian supplies.
He also saw Puerto Rico rising in the smaller towns, where the residents were working collectively to clear many of the roads themselves, and in the faces of the local AT&T employees who came to work right after the storm despite being in as much shock as anyone on the island during the first week after the storm.
And while Puerto Rico has a “ton of needs,” Saavedra said, there would be a Christmas.
Saavedra said he saw signs that the annual holiday shopping frenzy was under way before Thanksgiving and there would be a Black Friday, especially where major retailers like Walmart, who quickly sent in an emergency management team, were up and running again .
Thanks to AT&T’s restoring fiber optics services, stores nd other businesses could process credit card transactions again and enable hospital and business to make large data transmissions.
AT&T supplies 100 percent of the island’s fiber optics services and shortly after Thanksgiving Saavedra expects 95 percent of the system was working again.
Saavedra saw indicators that the island’s holiday feasting will take place even in some of the more remote towns still without power.
“Every morning I would talk to (AT&T) employees and they would share stories about their experiences. “Some would bring tears to the eyes,” but there also were uplifting reports.
In one case. an AT&T team had to spend the night in a smaller town and the employees described the hospitality of the locals and finding some small businesses open. They were especially enthusiastic about sampling the wares of a small shop that made specialty sausages.
The arrival of the Christmas season is just one of many shards of evidence that Puerto Rico is on the road to recovery from the hurricane. Saavedra also saw Puerto Rico rising to become “a different island,” with a stronger infrastructure. AT&T is playing its part, he said, by completely “hardening” its fiber optic system with the lines being moved into less vulnerable underground conduits.
Moreover, Saavedra also could report there were indications that “people are looking to invest” in the island. He said his company was receiving calls about starting up businesses on the island.
There is still a lot of work to be done, but the situation is less grim then when Saavedra arrived three days after the hurricane knocked out the island’s power, other vital utilities and had created gasoline and food shortages.
There had been scant movement of supplies, as the government relief effort got going a couple weeks after the storm, and Saavedra said it created some “eerie” scenes where roads that ordinarily would be jammed with thousands of cars were empty.
Members of the AT&T natural disaster team, who came from all over the mainland and included people who worked in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, said they had never seen anything comparable to what Hurricane Maria had done.
Saavedra questioned if the hurricane was “only” a Category 4 storm not Category 5 when it hit the island. He saw highway signs that were on giant metal posts bent 45 degrees, light poles shattered in three or four pieces and houses that looked liked they were bombed by drones.
AT&T was in the first wave of U.S. companies, and the first major carrier, sending in personnel and material in the days after the disaster. While private jets delivered most of the personnel, all the supplies had to be transported by cargo planes and barges.
While Saavedra could not place a price tag on AT&T’s efforts, he said, the company’s instructions were “whatever you need, you get.”
A big part of AT&T involvement required coordination with the island and federal governments. “We partnered with the FEMA, the Department of Energy and a lot of agencies, private and public.
The main focus initially was humanitarian, enabling the Puerto Ricans to contact their relatives on the mainland. The company placed mobile cell towers on wheels, the so-called COWs, in critical spots throughout the island such as hospitals. Satellite and microwave dishes were also installed.
The response team, Saavedra said, became “a mini power company,” setting up hundreds of generators and operating its own gasoline stations to keep its rebuilding teams on the move.
During his 60 days in Puerto Rico, Saavedra, who was involved in supervising infrastructure rebuilding, worked 12-14 hour days, seven days a week. He said the “days go fast,” but with the extent of the destruction awaiting repair every day is Ground Hog Day.”
Eventually, Saavedra was able to manage a three-day anniversary break in New Orleans with his wife Sharon Beloin-Saavedra, a New Britain native who is active in local causes and politics. She served as president of the New Britain Board of Education for several years.
Among the most disheartening sights greeting the AT&T teams was that the usually verdant tropical landscape had been stripped bare by the hurricane. “It looked like winter in New England,” Saavedra said. However, the greenery has returned and become a symbol of the rising of the Island of Enchantment, Saavedra says.
Some members of the AT&T team had never been to Puerto Rico before the hurricane, but seeing the island’s natural beauty, they plan to return, Saavedra said.