My Life in Puerto Rico
Frances Davis Furr / Community Voices
"There is no way I could sum up my story of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in a short blog post. I’ve been telling my story over and over, to different people I have met since the storm, Each time with more attempts at cheer as I try to wrap things up neatly and cleanly. As if by telling the story perfectly to someone else I would be better able to make sense of it myself, but the truth is that so much of the story is a complete mess."
- Frances Davis Furr
Frances is a Real Life Community member and was a long time resident of Puerto Rico. She shares her story, experiences and the impact Maria has had on her life and home town since the destructive storm hit on September 20, 2017.
The photographs in this post were taken by Frances on her first walk around after the storm.
My life in Puerto Rico started 14 years ago at the age of 17 when my family moved to the island the summer before my senior year of high school. I grew up in New York and I wasn’t very happy about leaving the city. To tell the truth, I was a reckless teenager running wild all over the island of Manhattan, a change of scenery was probably a good idea. While our life in the little surf town of Rincon was certainly slower and simpler than the big city, our family quickly realized that life on the island was anything but straightforward.
Many people have this fantasy idea about what life in the tropics is like. This idea that we are sipping pina coladas while sitting on pristine beaches watching beautiful sunsets without a care in the world. For the most part we are blessed to live in paradise, but there are lots of things that make island life complicated. In Puerto Rico there are many challenges in day to day life, electricity and water services being one of them. Filling out paperwork in government offices is a challenge no matter where you go, but if you own a small business in Puerto Rico it is truly an adventure. Puerto Ricans are United States citizens although the islands political status is complicated. Puerto Rico is part of the United States but exists as a colonial possession of the United States, it is not a state itself. Puerto Ricans are not allowed to vote in the Presidential election and don’t have representation in higher government, all while being subject to regulation and taxation without representation. While it is true that the most beautiful beaches in the world are in Puerto Rico, there are harsh realities that many people are unaware of.
In reality, the people of Puerto Rico are being robbed and abused in so many different ways it is unbelievable. Puerto Ricans are being robbed by corrupt local government officials who prioritize building projects and for profit government businesses before supporting services that will better the lives of the people they are meant to be serving. They are robbed by the federal government in many ways, most notably via the Jones Act, which nearly doubles the cost of US goods imported to Puerto Rico. They are robbed by the power and water companies which provide terrible service at nearly twice the cost of the mainland United States. Power and water companies in Puerto Rico rob and by all accounts extort their customers. These practices have been going on since we moved to the island 14 years ago, before we arrived, and are still underway now. I am generally not so dismal and direct, but after this past year I can’t bring myself to sugar coat the reality of the situation.
Leading up to Hurricane Maria I was constantly checking the weather report, praying that the storm would change course but with a deep sinking feeling inside that I knew something big was coming. I didn’t want to talk about it at the time but I had a feeling this storm was going to be life changing.
In many ways, the storm itself was amazing. Sounds of wind whipping through the trees and the force of rain beating against the sides of our apartment was incredible. I am lucky enough to be able to say this because I rode out the storm in a on the second floor of our concrete building where I was able to peek out the windows and watch the massive trees dancing in the wind from a place of safety. For my neighbors whose roofs were blown off while in their homes I imagine they would describe the storm as nothing less than terrifying. Listening to the sounds of the wind whipping and the tree limbs cracking was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
I didn’t sleep much the night of the storm, but I remember waking up sometime shortly after dawn. I had to see what had happened. I wanted to know if things were as bad as the sounds I had heard the day before. I knew I would want to remember and share this time, so I took my camera with me to take photos of the neighborhood. I witnessed an amount of damage which was truly incredible. Power lines down, huge massive trees toppled over, shattered glass and twisted metal fences. Entire wooden houses with walls and ceilings missing, bed frames and mattresses blown up into trees. I was truly in shock and in awe of the damage the storm had done to our town. I had seen photographs of storm damage done to the other carribbean islands just a week earlier and it was hard to believe that the same thing had happened in the place where I lived. As locals we had talked about the possibility of a big storm passing through, but it was baffling to actually be living in that moment that we had always known was possible.
The photographs in this post were taken by me on that first walk I took and also by my partner, Greg Hastain, later that day. Neither one of us had looked through the photographs or video that we took until now. The images are a painful reminder of the reality of what we lived through. Even though these images bring me a great sadness as I look at them I am grateful to have them and grateful to know that there are more photographs like them out in the world. It is so important that we share our stories through photography, because photography is brutally honest when it comes to telling the stories of our past.
At the time, my memories of the first few weeks after the storm were dreamlike. We were suspended in this pocket of time without communication to the outside world, no way of knowing what was happening on the rest of the island or even in the next town over. I collected rain water in a large metal pot, so that I could flush our toilet, and watched as my neighbors wore bathing suits and showered in the rain water running out of the gutters on the sides of our building. We all have so many memories of raw survival.
There is no way I could sum up my story of Hurricane Maria and its aftermath in a short blog post. I’ve been telling my story over and over, to different people I have met since the storm, Each time with more attempts at cheer as I try to wrap things up neatly and cleanly. As if by telling the story perfectly to someone else I would be better able to make sense of it myself, but the truth is that so much of the story is a complete mess.
Most days I find myself wishing this was a story that would end. I wish it was over, to be finished with the trauma, loss, and rebuilding. Hurricane Maria stripped everything away. It took the leaves from the trees and the power lines from the poles. People lost their homes and all of their material possessions. Other less fortunate victims lost their lives or the those of someone they loved. Hurricane Maria was a traumatic experience for every single person who went through it.
For me, the storm took away my sense of purpose. After the storm came months of cancelled weddings and portrait sessions. Who was I without my business? What was I doing with my life if I wasn’t photographing weddings? I felt like a useless heavy lump. I don’t like to admit this, but I have been depressed and angry for most of this year. Left with only a handful of wedding dates, our inquiries for new weddings had come to a screeching halt. I felt like my life was coming apart at the seams. I was grasping to the past and unable to let go of things which were no longer there.
In many ways Hurricane Maria forced me to grow. I had to take a long honest look at my life and future and make some big decisions. Up until the storm my partner and I had been working together as wedding photographers, growing and continuing to push ourselves creatively. I knew this was the path that we wanted to stay on, and I questioned whether or not this would be possible if we stayed on the island.
Before the storm I was able to look beyond the complications that came along with life on the island and enjoy the beauty and wild freedom that Puerto Rico has to offer. After the storm, everything became so exposed. The outdated power grids whose quirky and unpredictable outages that had for so long been an almost comical part of life seemed to be in hopeless disrepair. With most residents facing weeks or months without electricity, the fun of an afternoon off from work due to a power outage quickly lost its charm. In the wake of two other major storms that had hit the US mainland only weeks earlier the federal government's complete disregard for the well being of its own citizens in Puerto Rico was evident. Regulations, permits and stacks of paperwork that had been hiding corruption and thievery were ripped away like an old useless band aid. Things which were once small annoyances had become fully inflamed.
I know from talking to so many people both on and off the island that there is no way to fully understand the impact of Hurricane Maria unless you experienced it firsthand. In a way, this shared experience is a beautiful thing because it has brought all of us so much closer together. I feel bonded with my family, my neighbors and the people I experienced this with. We all worked together to clean up the complicated mess that Maria left behind. For some, that meant staying on the island, chainsawing trees, and rebuilding houses and businesses. For others, it meant moving their families away from the island temporarily to finish the school year. Everyone had a different path. While we all struggled with the lack of power, water and communications on the island, we also struggled with our own personal decisions.
I consider myself to be incredibly lucky. As a wedding photographer I have a trade that I can take with me wherever I go. Unlike many small business owners on the island my partner and I have the ability to open ourselves up to work off island. After many difficult months of indecision, tears and struggle, we made the choice to leave Puerto Rico. We are currently in Portland, Oregon and have made ourselves available in the Pacific Northwest for the summer wedding season. In a way, I’m ashamed to say that I left the island, that I left my parents and my friends. I wish I could say I was staying to rebuild and to help fight against the forces that are causing Puerto Rico to struggle, but that isn’t my calling. To everyone who is still there living the island life working to make things better: I salute you, I love you, and I hope that you can understand why I had to leave.
We don’t plan on being gone forever, and will be back to Rincon for weddings during the upcoming winter months. My love of the magical island of Puerto Rico will keep me coming back, but for now the best thing for me and the people I love is for me to focus on building my career and my life.
Want to help Puerto Rico?
TAKE A VACATION!
Spend money at local, non-corporate owned establishments, tip well, and spread the word. Returning to a profitable and healthy tourist economy will be vital to the long term recovery of the island, and your presence and support goes a long way to lift spirits! My family owns and operates two small guest houses in Rincon, Puerto Rico. They are Lemontree Oceanfront Cottages and QueChevere Hotel. Please consider a stay with them and say hello for me when you check in.
If you are a wedding photographer please consider going to the Fearless Conference in Puerto Rico this year. The conference is put on by sponsor donations with 100% off all registration fees going directly to hurricane relief efforts.
Places I recommend for donations:
West Coast Ecuestre
A not for profit organization that offers equine therapy to children and families in need. Their work has gone a long way in treating the mental health of many special needs children affected by the trauma of Hurricane Maria.
Blue Water Task Force - Surfrider Foundation
This is a group of local scientists and community leaders that did water quality testing during the aftermath of the storm. Many residents relied on this vital information as they were obtaining water from local streams and springs. Their work greatly impacted the quality of life for thousands of people and prevented many from becoming sick from drinking contaminated water.
One more thing...
If you meet someone from the island and you are curious about their experience please treat them with respect when asking them to share their story. Everyones experience is intensely personal and complex and you need to be prepared to give them your full attention and listen to them while they speak. Asking someone to share about a traumatic experience is not an opportunity for you to share your own personal politics or beliefs on the situation. To show genuine interest and respect, please talk less and listen more. Also understand that some people may not wish to talk in depth about their experiences, and their desire to remain silent should be respected. Please give anyone you meet the opportunity to choose whether or not they want to discuss their experiences with you in that moment.