I see hope on the horizon for San Juan

Flight Attendant’s view of San Juan, Puerto Rico
Flight Attendant’s view of San Juan, Puerto Rico

As a flight attendant who speaks Spanish, I work flights to San Juan Puerto Rico regularly, and I’m horrified to see the destruction and aftermath Hurricane Maria caused. But I’m heartened to see so many who mobilized to help. For a limited time, my airline allowed employees to send cargo and generators to family and friends, free of charge. Employees from all departments worked together to ship over 800,000 pounds of supplies to San Juan over a one week period.

Supplies being boarded on a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico
Supplies being boarded on a flight to San Juan, Puerto Rico

Since that time people have continued to collect supplies to send, but others are reluctant because they’re suspicious supplies will not reach those in real need. As a Muslim, we believe that when you give something you do so to please God and what the person does with it is between them and God. Although, there should be some due diligence when selecting an organization to give to, we have a responsibility to give to those in need.

I’ve seen a lot of the giving spirit on the emotional flights I’ve worked to San Juan. Some of the passengers on my flights include Puerto Ricans taking needed supplies to family on the island, groups of volunteer aid workers, and technicians from all kinds of companies working on getting the electricity and connectivity back up and running (a project that some are predicting may take over a year to complete). Many get teary-eyed as they see their normally lush island looking a lot more brown than green.

On my first arrival I’d expected to see a defeated, broken group of people, but what met me was smiling faces, happy to see us and eager to get the necessary jobs done to make sure the needs of the people in our care were met.

Shortly after the hurricane the flights out of San Juan were carrying a lot of elderly people needing wheelchairs (up to 70 on some flights), who were reluctantly leaving their homes to stay with family on the mainland. Although those numbers have lessened it’s interesting that lately there are many elderly returning to San Juan. In spite of the difficulties, they prefer to be home.

I have heard reports of how Puerto Ricans are helping each other to make the best of their new normal, but I’ve also heard people say things like “Puerto Ricans need to change their culture and stop waiting for a handout”. When I hear that, instead of responding angrily, I ask questions like, “Why do you think that’s the case?” Then I take advantage of the opportunity to have a dialogue about the history of Puerto Rico and the economic challenges they face. For example, the Jones Act, which, while supporting US maritime industry, limits imports to San Juan to only those carried on ships constructed in the US and owned and crewed by Americans. That means goods on the island cost a lot more than those on the mainland.

Hurricane Maria dealt Puerto Rico a crushing blow and once the immediate danger is over there will be a need to restore the island and the economy. Some big-name industry leaders have committed to using cutting-edge technology to help rebuild the island (solar energy, Wi-Fi balloons, etc.). With that and the work of Puerto Ricans who have committed to rebuild, I’m starting to imagine the future of Puerto Rico as an incredible opportunity to create something amazing. As one teary-eyed passenger said, after seeing the downed palm trees adjacent to the runway, “The trees will grow back, and so will we”.

Downed trees along the runway in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  October, 2017
Downed trees along the runway in San Juan, Puerto Rico. October, 2017
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