As ‘the media’ neglected Puerto Rico, some reporters made it their mission

Homes with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA )/US Army Corps of Engineers blue roof temporary tarps are seen in San Juan, Puerto Rico, on Monday, Sept. 17, 2018. Photographer: Xavier Garcia/Bloomberg via Getty Images

David Begnaud cannot forget the man at the San Juan airport. After Hurricane Maria made landfall, on September 20, 2017, Begnaud, a CBS News correspondent, spent weeks reporting from Puerto Rico. He took a quick trip back to the mainland, then returned to the island in October. He hadn’t realized, in the chaos and scarce connectivity of those first days, how much attention his reporting and social media posts had received. So when he returned, he wasn’t prepared for the response. At the airport, “there was a grown man who put both hands on my shoulders and cried like a baby,” Begnaud remembers. “He said to me, ‘What you did was a lifeline for me. That meant the world and saved people’s lives’. . . I had never seen people so moved by journalism.”

Hurricane Maria and its aftermath were generally under covered by the US press—numerous reports and analyses have shown that hurricanes affecting the mainland received far more attention and that stories from Puerto Rico often failed to break into the national conversation unless they included a Trump angle.

But for a number of journalists from mainland outlets, who are either based in Puerto Rico or have made repeated trips over the past year, the story has become a mission. CJR spoke with several of them in the days leading up to the anniversary of Maria’s landfall. Together, their work has kept Puerto Rico’s recovery in the news and put pressure on the authorities to do more: from initial reports of devastation from remote areas, to early questions about the official death toll, to forcing FEMA to reverse a decision that would have prematurely ended emergency food and water dispersal, to exposing government waste symbolized by millions of water bottles sitting unused on a tarmac.

Begnaud has become the most well known of the group; his social-media nickname is Saint David of Begnaud. From highlighting the plight of Puerto Ricans desperate for supplies in the weeks after the storm to reporting on power outages across the country months later, he has worked to maintain the story’s place in CBS’s news broadcasts. Begnaud’s continued focus on the island’s recovery efforts have earned him the appreciation of Puerto Ricans on the ground and on the mainland. As he spent more time reporting from the island, similar reactions—from people who stopped him in the middle of San Juan or at a coffee shop in Manhattan—drove home the message that the reporting he was doing made a difference. “I never experienced that power before in journalism. I heard my colleagues talk about it. I heard college professors lecture to me about that. But I never felt it; I never knew it.”

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CNN’s Leyla Santiago, who was born in Corozal, Puerto Rico, and has spent six months of the past year reporting from the island, shares that sense of mission. “When I saw what I saw—that destruction, that desperation, that helplessness—[the reporting] was my way of saying I get it, I understand,” she says. “And now I have a responsibility. I will tell your story. In the last year of my life, I wake up with that.”

The journalists CJR spoke with had similar recollections of the days after the storm: reaching towns and villages cut off from all communication, seeing the disappointment of residents that journalists had arrived before FEMA or government officials, and receiving appreciation that someone cared to tell their stories. All were quick to credit their news organizations for making a commitment to sustained reporting on the story, but acknowledged concerns that, after the anniversary passes, news from the island may once again slip from the national conversation. “I feel a larger sense of responsibility because I get the sense that they have not gotten the coverage that they deserve in terms of airtime, minutes, words on a piece of paper,” Begnaud says of Puerto Ricans.

Some news organizations realized that reporting on the lives of more than 3 million Americans required more than sending someone intermittently to cover the storm’s aftermath. NPR relocated Adrian Florido, a national reporter, to San Juan, where he has spent 2018 covering daily news. Luis Clemens, a supervising editor on NPR’s national desk, says that having someone based on the ground demonstrated an organizational recognition of the disaster’s severity. “How could we not do it?” he asked. “We needed to show a commitment to covering a part of the United States that had been hit hard by this natural disaster.”

Frances Robles, a national and foreign correspondent at The New York Times, had already made three reporting trips to Puerto Rico in 2017—covering the government’s bankruptcy, a plebiscite on statehood, and the impact of Hurricane Irma—in the months before Maria made landfall. And in the year since the storm, she has returned repeatedly, breaking news about the death toll and the island’s ongoing health crisis. The Puerto Rican government recently revised the official death toll from 64 to 2,975, a decision that came after months of reporting from Robles and others that challenged the official statistics. “You have to stay on the story, the money, the deaths, the recovery, the rebuilding,” she says.

President Trump has stirred resentment of the press among people on the mainland, but Puerto Ricans have overwhelmingly responded to journalists with encouragement and gratitude. Santiago, the CNN correspondent, remembers covering the arrival of the first tourist cruise ship to arrive in Old San Juan after the storm hit. As she stood with a network logo on her mic, a tourist walked by and directed a “fake news” taunt her way. “I thought to myself, Wow, it’s been a long time since I heard that,” Santiago tells CJR. “Everyone on that island understood that we were doing what many would argue was life-saving work, getting the word out to people what was going on on that island. I forgot about that term for a little while.”

Keeping the story of Puerto Rico’s recovery in the national conversation may prove difficult now that the special reports pegged to the anniversary have passed. Dánica Coto, who has been based on the island since 2007 for the Associated Press, acknowledges that challenge, but believes that anger over the government’s slow response will help drive a spotlight to reporting. “Obviously there are some big stories coming up on the US mainland that might drown out what’s going on here in Puerto Rico, but I think a lot of outrage remains,” she says, noting that 60,000 homes remain roofed by blue tarps and that FEMA is expected to maintain a presence on the island for five to ten years. “The issues of not having power, of not having water, of being a respondent to the way Trump has spoken about Puerto Rico: I think that touches a nerve regardless of where people stand politically.”

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.