ARECIBO, Puerto Rico – Covering and living through one of the deadliest and most destructive natural disasters to hit the island not only changed reporters’ careers, but their personal lives as well. Five years later, journalists reflect on their drive to cover the story while adapting to shifting roles as the community increasingly relied on them to stay informed.
Puerto Rican journalists like Víctor Vázquez-Domenech are no strangers to covering storms. With a hurricane season spanning from June until November, journalists know how to prepare for these types of weather events.
At WABA 850, the regional radio news station in Aguadilla where Vázquez-Domenech works as a host, the team braced themselves for the roaring winds as they prepared to provide full coverage of the storm. But he and his coworkers realized this was not an ordinary storm. Ultimately, they were unable to broadcast when their antenna crumbled.
The moment María, a category 4 hurricane, landed on Sept. 20, 2017, it was clear this was bigger than what they had anticipated. It had been more than 85 years since a hurricane this devastating had directly hit Puerto Rico.
Channel 6 WIPR, which is part of the Puerto Rico Corporation for Public Broadcasting, joined forces with the government in their effort to inform residents. Soon their signal would cut out and they would have to mobilize to other platforms in order to provide news coverage.
“It was a unique experience in the sense that, although we were a television team, we were working for social networks,” reporter Mayra Acevedo-Orta, reporter for WIPR, said in her native Spanish.
Telemundo PR on channel 2 also transferred their programming to social media because they were aware that few Puerto Ricans on the island had reception due to the island-wide blackout. At one point, more than three million people — nearly the entire island population — were left without power. The move to social media also allowed Puerto Ricans living in the mainland U.S. find out about what was happening on the island.
On-air TV reporters faced different hurdles. Although they warned the public to stay safely indoors, they had to do the opposite in order to narrate what was happening with María.
Aixa Vázquez-Camacho, reporter for channel 4 Wapa TV, found herself in the flooded streets of Guaynabo alongside her fellow photojournalist while trying to document Maria’s destruction. They required a police escort to make it back to the studio after their vehicle got stuck in flood waters.
“There are images showing when I entered the studio with all the policemen, all wet of course, sad and distraught because one does not stop being human,” Vázquez-Camacho said.
Once the winds had settled, the destruction was evident to all. Puerto Rico became a different place post-María. Journalists said they could not sit still. Reporters felt a tremendous need to help families recover from a strike such as María. By some estimates, more than 3,000 people died.
In order to do this, reporters had to relearn some older skills. Acevedo-Orta put it as “returning to pencil and paper”.
Radio stations, on the other hand, became the saving grace for many citizens. Most Puerto Ricans on the island did not have power or internet connection, but they did have a radio. They sought information and aid from the journalists behind the mics.
Instead of journalist going out to the public, residents sought radio stations to talk about what they had lived through and how they were suffering. “Many of our compatriots became citizen reporters,” said Roche-Morales in regards to the information that the government wasn’t providing.
Journalists from every corner of Puerto Rico became a shoulder to cry on, a helping hand and a witness to people’s collective suffering. Reporters Acevedo-Orta and Vázquez-Domenech admitted that what took a greater toll on their mental health was seeing all of the devastation and sometimes not being able to do anything about it.
Their commitment was so strong that reporters turned studios into temporary homes. Héctor Cabrera-Rojas, a news producer for Telemundo PR, arrived the day before the hurricane made landfall and lived inside a dressing room for two months.
While devastating, it is likely that Puerto Rico may have to go through another natural disaster in the not so distant future. María landed nearly two weeks after Hurricane Irma passed close to the main island leading to widespread power outages and and water service interruptions for days.
Regardless, Puerto Rican journalists say the are better prepared.
“I would do it again. I told my husband, and I have said it any time people ask me, even if he locks me in the house to prevent me from going to work, because he is concerned about my safety and my health,” Vázquez-Camacho said in Spanish. “This is in my blood.”
As Dr. Mario Roche-Morales, journalism professor, said in Spanish: “in extreme circumstances like Hurricane María journalists latch on to ‘the understanding of the civic utility of information.’” This commitment with their jobs held up for the months following the hurricane and in some aspects has lasted still to this day.
As journalists their job is to inform, but many Puerto Rican reporters feel a renewed sense of duty to the people they cover. They said it is not enough to inform; they need to serve, provide, and give a voice to those who do not have one.
“When situations like this occur, journalists go all in,” Roche-Morales said in Spanish. “They’re going to do the best they can and put their heart in it and make sure Puerto Rico moves forward.”
Hurricane María took a lot from Puerto Ricans, but it did not take a reporter’s drive to practice true journalism, they say. It showed them the ability to adapt to the situation, to persevere under the most catastrophic circumstances, and the comprehension of the powerful utility of information.
To this day, journalists in Puerto Rico continue to denounce cases that have been left unattended for the past five years since Hurricane María made landfall, including the reconstruction of the island’s fragile electric system and destroyed homes, proving their commitment to covering one of the most devastating storms in Puerto Rico’s history.
Ivarelis López-Martinez is a senior at the University of Puerto Rico, Arceibo studying journalism. She’s written for the school’s digital magazine, Tinta Digital, and reported for, as well as produced their radio broadcast, Notas del Saco. Reach her at ivarelis.lopez [at] upr [dot] edu and on Twitter @ivarelisangelie.