To feel the emotion of Joaquin Toro is to experience the desperation of the sick and elderly in Puerto Rico.
Toro is among what he terms the lucky stateside Puerto Ricans, people who were able to make a flight to the island in recent days, loaded down with supplies for family and friends.
And what he saw is searing. Mind you, this is two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck. Nearly half of the island still had no safe drinking water. About as many have no electricity. Internet service is sporadic at best.
Elderly people who normally don’t leave their homes often due to failing knees, bad backs, canes and walkers that are too limiting – they were up and moving, slowly, desperately trying to navigate the airport in San Juan.
He photographed a line of seniors waiting for a flight out in wheelchairs. He saw seniors falling, weakened by the trauma of the hurricane and their own ill health.
Then there is his own mother, confined to a bed by Alzheimer’s. The machines that help keep her alive are powered only by a generator. And the generator kept breaking.
One night, after spending the day trying to acquire diesel fuel, Toro came back to the family home to find his 85-year-old father atop the roof, struggling to get the generator working again. Toro clarifies that his father is a nimble, capable man. But really, is this a fate to which we should leave our fellow U.S. citizens? A full two weeks after the hurricane struck?
Still, Toro takes pains to steer conversations away from the political dimension. None of it, he believes, serves the people of Puerto Rico well at this moment.
President Donald Trump, it has been widely reported, did not see the most desperate portions of Puerto Rico during his four-hour visit. He visited Guaynabo, a suburb known for its wealth and gated security. Yes, even on a small island, those who are able to isolate themselves from poverty are often spared from Mother Nature’s wrath as well.
Toro doesn’t mention this in our conversation, a day after he has returned to Kansas City, bringing his in-laws back to the safety of the Midwest. His parents wouldn’t consider leaving. The island is their home, and his mother’s health would make it too difficult.
So Toro’s concerns are far greater than our president lobbing rolls of paper towels at a shelter like he’s shooting pop-a-shots at an arcade. The same goes for the embarrassing tit-for-tat Trump got into with San Juan’s mayor, Carmen Yulin Cruz, and his suggestion that Puerto Ricans are not willing to help themselves.
Toro’s preoccupation has been with basic needs for survival. He packed three bags with all kinds of extension cords and parts for generators – a lot of parts for generators.
To a stunning degree, Puerto Ricans have lost the technological infrastructure that supports everyday life. There are few cell phone connections. People have driven for an hour just to find a spot on the highway where a signal might connect.
This has compounded the tough economic circumstances that prevailed even before the hurricane. Crushed by debt, Puerto Rico has seen its population ebb to emigration. Unemployment before the disaster was at nearly 12 percent. The poverty rate for children was nearly three times the rate in the rest of the U.S.
And now it must deal with an estimated $95 billion in hurricane damage.
Puerto Rico’s debt burden has been compounded by decisions made in U.S., laws affecting the cost of goods (which are far more expensive than in neighboring islands in the Caribbean) and differing rules governing Medicaid and Medicare that limits its funding in Puerto Rico.
But, again, those are concerns for other, later conversations. For now, those who want to help Puerto Rico must deal with the more immediate concerns.
There are two segments of humanity that most of us cannot bear to see suffer: children and the elderly. Puerto Rico right now has both.
When Toro’s plane landed in Atlanta, there weren’t enough wheelchairs in the airport to accommodate all the seniors on board. So people waited, patiently, for their turn to be helped with de-boarding, assured that they were the lucky ones.
Reach Mary Sanchez at firstname.lastname@example.org.