Local businessman Kaming Joa Martinez is known to literally wear his Puerto Rican pride on his sleeve. For the past sixteen years, Martinez and his partner have been building up their screen printing business in their garage in Santa Monica. They get orders from all over the world asking for the former marine’s custom designs – tank tops that say “ay, bendito” or “Boricura” which means Puerto Rican.

“Being from Puerto Rico…well, you know how proud us Puerto Ricans are,” Martinez said in an interview Monday while taking a break from organizing fundraisers and watching the news for updates on the island. Martinez and his partner both grew up in Puerto Rico and lived all over the world before setting in Santa Monica eight years ago. “For us, the whole family is back there. We go back constantly. We also have a businesses that’s directly linked to Puerto Rico.”

In the midst of a near-total collapse of communication, Martinez is like many Puerto Ricans in the United States – treasuring the precious moments he can get updates from friends or family members with working phones. While those in urban areas can spread the word to get updates on neighbors, Martinez considers himself lucky to have been able to reach his mother in a rural mountain area on her landline during the storm. The landline hasn’t worked ever since.

For fellow Puerto Rican Zoe Muntaner, the situation is worse. She says she has not heard from her mother, Norma, since their last conversation before the storm. Cell phone towers in the area have been destroyed so Muntaner has no idea what has happened to her mother or her house on Calle Salamanca in Ponce on the south coast.

“It’s chaos and crisis,” Muntaner said.

In the meantime, those on the mainland are helping however they can – raising money and gathering much needed supplies like generators for the island. Martinez is donating all the proceeds from selling special Puerto Rico posters on his website, www.aptbcollective.com, to rebuilding efforts. He is also involved with Voices for Puerto Rico, an initiative based in Los Angeles raising money to organizations already on the ground. Those interested in helping can donate at www.voicesforpuertorico.com.

“This is a once in a generation type of thing,” Martinez said. “I was young for Hurricane Hugo which was the last violent, violent hurricane I can remember in Puerto Rico in 1989. Everyone is telling me that Hugo was nothing compared to this.”

The situation in his homeland is dire – while supermarkets are gradually re-opening in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, many customers are going home disappointed. Most food stores and restaurants remain closed. That is largely because power is out for most of the island and few have generators or enough diesel to power them. The shops that are have long lines outside and vast empty shelves where they once held milk, meat and other perishables. Drinking water is nowhere to be found.

Mercedes Caro shook her head in frustration as she emerged from the SuperMax in the Condado neighborhood of San Juan with a loaf of white bread, cheese and bananas.

“There is no water and practically no food,” she said. “Not even spaghetti.”

Maria Perez waited outside a Pueblo supermarket in a nearby part of San Juan, hoping to buy some coffee, sugar and maybe a little meat to cook with a gas stove that has enough propane for about a week more. “We are in a crisis,” she said. “Puerto Rico is destroyed.”

The fact that some stores and restaurants have re-opened for the first time since Category 4 Hurricane Maria roared across the island Sept. 20 is welcome in a place where nearly everyone has no power and more than half the people don’t have water.

Gov. Ricardo Rossello and other Puerto Rican officials said some ports have been cleared by the Coast Guard to resume accepting ships, which should allow businesses to restock.

SuperMax opened on a reduced schedule for several stores in the San Juan area as well as in the hard-hit towns of Caguas and Dorado. Walgreens has reopened about half of its 120 locations in Puerto Rico on a limited basis. Walmart says it has a “handful” of its 48 stores and Sam’s Clubs open but the process has been slowed by the power outages, port closures and the near total collapse of communications.

Two Medinia supermarkets opened in the coastal town of Loiza. But Manager David Guzman said he had to impose restrictions on cooking gas and other products that were running low and might not be restocked soon. “We are restricting so we can give something to everyone, to extend what we have left,” he said.

Therese Casper was among several dozen people waiting for a Walmart in the Santurce section of San Juan to open its doors, but that didn’t happen Monday. She and her husband were looking for something to get rid of all the moisture that had accumulated in the apartment they rented three weeks ago when they moved to Puerto Rico from Denver, Colorado. They have been getting by in their dark, sweltering apartment on instant oatmeal and anything else they can cook on a propane stove as they wait for a flight back home.

“I tell my husband it’s like camping. It’s ‘Survivor’ Puerto Rico,” Casper said. “It’s not what we bargained for.”

Stores are still packed with dozens of brands of shampoo and other consumer products, but those aisles were largely empty as people rushed to buy the basics, using cash sparingly since that is also in short supply and credit card transactions aren’t being processed at all places. Ruth Calderon, a retiree, filled her basket with processed sausages that she planned to cook up with rice and share with an older neighbor who can’t leave her apartment. “I’m surviving,” she said with resignation. “I have what I need.”

Others also described helping neighbors and there are no signs of widespread hunger, at least not yet. “There is a tradition here of people helping each other especially during disasters,” Doris Anglero said as she looked for what was available in an Old San Juan supermarket.

Some disappointed shoppers were also sharply aware that there are others on the island in a worse situation. Caro began to weep as she talked about her four grandchildren in Rincon, the western town that has been largely cut off from aid shipments as well as contact with the outside world. “Not knowing is so hard,” she said, turning to walk off.

Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Chris Gillette contributed to this report



Kate Cagle

Senior reporter for the Santa Monica Daily Press