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Small Business Owners Struggle, Hope For Prosperous Future After Hurricane Maria

Sep 22, 2018

For nearly seven decades, generation after generation has operated Carlos Bonnet-Vargas’ bookstand on the colorful streets of Old San Juan.

With painted green shelves, messy piles of books and magazines and Puerto Rican flags flying high, the kiosk has attracted enough customers to keep each owner afloat.

But after Hurricane Maria, Bonnet-Vargas is struggling to make ends meet.

“I lost everything,” Bonnet-Vargas said. “I was without a job or my work for about three months because the federal government never sent me nothing.”

Hurricane Maria took his kiosk, inventory and savings. Then, Bonnet-Vargas said, he was denied financial assistance and food stipends from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the Puerto Rican government. He wasn’t sure how he could reopen his bookstall. Or how he could even survive.

Fortunately, he said, the Center for a New Economy, a think tank dedicated to reforming the island’s economy, stepped in and gave him nearly $2,000 to partially restock and reopen three months later.

Even with the help, however, it’s not enough. Bonnet-Vargas said. The tourists who usually purchase his merchandise aren’t coming.

“I no longer make any money,” Bonnet-Vargas said. “I earn $3, and I have to give $2 to the government.”

After Maria, he said, his energy bills have gone up and he now eats only once a day because that’s all he can afford.

Bonnet-Vargas’ struggle is all too familiar.

Erwin Robles, who recently began working for Yokahu Kayak Trips, prepares the boats for a bioluminescence tour on the Laguna Grande along the northeastern coast of Fajardo, Puerto Rico.
Credit Neosman Flores/WUFT

About an hour’s drive east, in Fajardo, Luis Méndez said he, too, could not operate for four months and lost money.

“We still hurt because it’s about 40, maybe 50 percent less tourism,” said Méndez, who owns Yokahu Kayak Trips.

Méndez said he used to take a least two large groups a night through the mangroves into Puerto Rico’s Bahía Bioluminiscente, or bioluminescent bay, during the peak tourist season. The sparkling blue water used to attract tourists from across the island.

Now, he’s not even sure when “peak” business season is.

“It’s been up and down, very unpredictable,” Méndez said. He’s been in business for 18 years but estimated he can only last another six months to a year if tourism does not become more consistent.

Despite the struggles Bonnet-Vargas, Méndez and other small-business owners continue to face, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said that the recovery process is nearing completion and that the government is now focusing on rebuilding.

“Business is back on its feet,” Rosselló said. “Tourism is even higher than it was before the storm.”

Old San Juan bustled with businesses and visitors before Hurricane Maria.
Credit Kaitlin Hall/WUFT

But Carla Campos, executive director of the Puerto Rico Tourism Company, disagreed.

“We’re still in the process of recovering fully,” she said.

Campos said that while more than three-fourths of Puerto Rico’s hotel rooms have reopened, there are not as many commercial flights coming to the island. Many people flying in and staying in hotels are recovery workers and are not here for leisure, she said.

The bright spot is that cruise ship passenger arrivals are on their way to breaking records, according to the tourism company. Still, Campos said Puerto Rico is battling a “major perception issue” and that’s why small businesses are still struggling.

“People are wondering, ‘Well, is Puerto Rico really ready to receive me?’”

“People are wondering, ‘Well, is Puerto Rico really ready to receive me?’” Campos said. “While they are back, travelers still have that question in their mind.”

Still, Bonnet-Vargas remains optimistic about the future. It’s the past that is filled with horror.

“I have three friends that died because they didn’t receive the medicine, the service,” Bonnet-Vargas said. “For me, it has been very hard.... This is like a genocide.”

It’s a wonder that Bonnet-Vargas has managed to stay strong and hopeful.

“We Puerto Ricans always survive,” he said. “People are coming here for us, for the people, for the beach, for the food, for the music, and that is why I feel comfortable.”

A team of 11 University of Florida student journalists from WUFT News and Noticias WUFT traveled to the island for a week to document life after Maria. What captured their attention were the stories of resilience and determination to keep moving forward. To see the entire series, visit www.lifeaftermaria.org.