Local reporters in Puerto Rico ‘forge ahead’ through wreckage

Power line poles downed by the passing of Hurricane Maria lie on a street in San Juan, Puerto Rico on November 7, 2017. Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images.

When El Nuevo Día reporter Benjamín Torres Gotay came to a remote neighborhood in western Puerto Rico nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria, some residents thought he was with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Help, they hoped, had finally arrived.

The Category 4 hurricane, which lashed the island with 150 mph winds and claimed more than 50 lives, seemed to linger in Lares, where Pezuela is located, Gotay later wrote in his story about the storm’s effect on the area. Neighborhoods faced daily torrential rain and subsequent landslides. Families rationed food and apportioned water. In one suburb, Gotay encountered a mother who had only two bottles of distilled water left, the only kind her sick 5-year-old son could drink.

“They were, frankly, desperate,” the newspaper reporter says.

Reporters from outside Puerto Rico have done important work to portray the storm’s devastating effects. Their coverage, however, doesn’t convey the long-term tasks awaiting local reporters like Gotay, who are left to document the storm’s toll on the island while also grappling with the same aftermath in their personal lives.

RELATED: Puerto Rican newspapers lay off journalist in hurricane’s wake

Gotay has covered natural disasters before. In 2016, he went to Haiti to cover the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew, where locals had almost no infrastructure and no functioning government. But he was able to end that trip with a sense of normalcy. A day after his last dispatch, he  enjoyed drinks and live music with friends in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. After Hurricane Maria, there was no such escape from the devastation.

It’s like being a nurse or a doctor in an ER. You almost to a certain degree—I don’t want to say ‘shut down,’ but you continue to forge ahead and tell their stories.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

Local government officials, operating on meager budgets, were overwhelmed by their inability to provide food for their constituents, much less clean the roads or contact the central government. Everywhere he looked, Gotay saw roofless houses, decimated buildings and piles of trash covering the island where he lives.

“This time, you cover the disaster and after working you go back to the disaster,” Gotay says. “You talk to people who don’t have electricity, water, food, and after work you have to find precisely those things for your own family.”

For Puerto Rico’s local journalists, reporting on Hurricane Maria’s aftermath meant grappling daily with downed communication lines, impassable roads and a population desperate for basic necessities. Initially, Gotay said only a few outlets could operate normally— newspapers El Nuevo Día and Primera Hora, both owned by GFR Media, and local station WAPA Radio.

Telemundo Puerto Rico (WKAQ-TV), using generators and cellular technology, provided 12 hours of live coverage a day on the station’s website for nearly four weeks after the storm hit. It took five days before the station’s over-the-air capabilities were restored.

Local reporters, producers and managers interviewed for this story stressed the emotional toll of documenting a humanitarian crisis in their backyards.

“It’s like being a nurse or a doctor in an ER,” says Jose Cancela, president and general manager of Telemundo Puerto Rico. “You almost to a certain degree—I don’t want to say ‘shut down,’ but you continue to forge ahead and tell their stories.”

Reporters, forced to juggle constant coverage with providing humanitarian aid, came back with similar details: shelters without clean water, lines for gas stretched on for miles.

After Hurricane Maria landed on September 20, El Nuevo Día approached its coverage methodically, says executive producer Omayra González. The newspaper divided the island into 16 zones and assigned a reporter and photographer to each. Within days, El Nuevo Día’s reporters had reached 20 towns, says González.

Reporters, forced to juggle constant coverage with providing humanitarian aid, came back with similar details: shelters without clean water, lines for gas stretched on for miles. Each team was equipped with three days worth of provisions, González said, but most came back empty handed.

“They’ll come back and say, ‘All that you gave me, I gave to this family because they didn’t have anything,’” González says. “They get there and they see the need and they want to give all they have.”

RELATED: Journalists help connect families as crisis unfolds in Puerto Rico

During the first days after the storm, Telemundo Puerto Rico and El Nuevo Día faced another formidable challenge: accounting for their staff. With no cell phone coverage available, outlets used satellite phones, social media, and word of mouth to ensure employees’ welfare. Gonzalez said it took some reporters two or three days to return to the newspaper.

Some suffered property damage; one person on González’s team lost their home. In one case, says González, the newspaper called emergency services to rescue a reporter who had climbed to the roof of a house in the Levittown suburb to escape flood waters. The neighborhood, part of San Juan’s metropolitan area, is normally a 20-minute drive from the newspaper’s offices.

One of El Nuevo Día’s reporters, Ricardo Cortés Chico, says his father died of a stroke in his home shortly after Hurricane Maria.

“Somehow, I think that he might have had a better chance of surviving the stroke if the communications were better at the time,” Chico says. “But a simple phone call to 911 here is incredibly hard right now.”

The newspaper and TV station’s buildings became a temporary home for employees, family members and visiting journalists. Cancela, Telemundo Puerto Rico’s president, says his station housed 31 people, including members of an NBC team after the generator at their hotel exploded.

At El Nuevo Día, about 100 employees and their families turned meeting rooms into apartments. Those staying at the newspaper became like family, González says. The children, especially, became a reprieve from the devastation outside.

“You’re working, and this small face will smile and give you this sticker,” she says. “It makes you feel more human.”

Six weeks after the hurricane, cell phone coverage has been restored to about 60 percent of the island. Telemundo Puerto Rico’s broadcasts, initially consumed primarily by people in the states, are regaining local viewers as power returns to parts of the island.

We’re a month out from the storm and we only have 25-percent power output. If this was a state, this would be a nightly national story.

But Puerto Rico is hardly back to normal. Cancela says the island needs more national outlets to draw attention to the conditions inhabitants are still suffering. He points to the TV station’s recent coverage of a neighborhood in Toa Baja, where rotting trash and furniture piled on the sides of the roads have attracted mice, cockroaches and other vermin.

“We’re a month out from the storm and we only have 25-percent power output,” Cancela says. “If this was a state, this would be a nightly national story.”

For people outside the island, the scope of the disaster is hard to grasp. It’s difficult to encapsulate, even in person, Gotay says. But it’s a crisis that demands increased federal response and national coverage, he adds.

“Every day I have to take five minutes, breathe deeply and plead with myself not to get frustrated,” he says. “You have to see it to understand it. It’s kind of frustrating as a reporter, feeling unable to convey the magnitude.”

ICYMI: CNN vs. BuzzFeed: A media spat for the digital age

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Tiffany Stevens is a print journalist and local newspaper enthusiast living in Southwest Virginia. Their newsletter, "Happening at Home," rounds up great reporting from two different cities each week. Follow them on Twitter at @tiffanymstevens.