JEN­NIFER HER­RERA FIRST HEARD THE WINDS AT 2 A.M.

Coastal Living - - NAVIGATOR -

JIt was Wed­nes­day, Septem­ber 20, 2017. The 32-year-old chef and her then-fi­ancé, Alex Merino, had al­ready hauled a mat­tress into the bath­room of their sixth-floor apart­ment in San Juan’s Isla Verde neigh­bor­hood, ter­ri­fied of the ap­proach of a hur­ri­cane that had flat­tened neigh­bor­ing is­land Do­minica two days be­fore. The hisses, whis­tles, and howls be­yond the thin bath­room door grew stronger, sound­ing as if the storm was right in­side the apart­ment. When Her­rera felt her 16-story build­ing be­gin to sway, she wept. She prayed. She said her good­byes.

Early the next morn­ing, the ex­hausted cou­ple emerged from their tiny bath­room, slosh­ing through 5 inches of stand­ing water that had seeped into their liv­ing room. Her­rera found, to her as­ton­ish­ment, that the apart­ment’s win­dows were still in­tact. She peered through them at a world that was not. “Every beau­ti­ful, lush tree looked like a gray twig,” she says. “I thought, al­most au­to­mat­i­cally, ‘Are we at war? Did we just get bombed?’ It was like the apoca­lypse.”

What Her­rera and Merino had awak­ened to, along with 3.4 mil­lion Puerto Ri­cans, was the af­ter­math of Hur­ri­cane Maria. The cat­e­gory 4 storm, with 155-mile-per-hour winds, was the strong­est to hit Puerto Rico in 85 years. Maria caused $94 bil­lion worth of dam­age, leav­ing thou­sands home­less and the en­tire pop­u­la­tion with­out elec­tric­ity for months. It took 2,975 lives.

Those who sur­vived en­dured a limbo of de­pri­va­tion. They waited hours in line at su­per­mar­kets, gas sta­tions, and banks. Some stayed in­side for fear of po­ten­tial loot­ing and vi­o­lence. Cell phones were use­less. Over­taxed gen­er­a­tors broke down. As days and weeks turned into months, more than 100,000 Puerto Ri­cans who had evac­u­ated de­cided to stay away per­ma­nently.

The cal­cu­lus may be grim, but what the sta­tis­tics don’t show is what re­mains: a stun­ning com­mit­ment among res­i­dents to help those around them and to re­build. And amid the ubiq­ui­tous blue tarps that con­tinue to drape over still-roof­less build­ings in San Juan, there’s some­thing hum­ming. Young and pas­sion­ate Puerto Ri­cans are dou­bling down and ex­pand­ing their ven­tures with a fresh crop of ho­tels, restau­rants, and bars. It’s a brac­ing, beau­ti­ful op­ti­mism.

Her­rera’s path for­ward be­gan in ser­vice. “I couldn’t just stay in my apart­ment know­ing that there was so much de­struc­tion,” she says. “And then I heard that José An­drés was com­ing.”

An­drés, a renowned chef with restau­rants in the United States, Mex­ico, and Puerto Rico, was also the founder of World Cen­tral Kitchen, a non­profit or­ga­ni­za­tion formed to pro­vide aid to Haitians af­ter the is­land’s 2010 earth­quake. Within five days of Maria’s land­fall, An­drés and World Cen­tral Kitchen were al­ready feed­ing thou­sands of peo­ple daily at the José Miguel Agrelot Coli­seum, a Su­per­dome-like struc­ture that had sus­tained sig­nif­i­cant dam­age but pro­vided the space the team needed. Her­rera joined An­drés’s army of cooks and vol­un­teers, and the chef put her to work. Every af­ter­noon, she would over­see 500 vol­un­teers who made 100,000 hot meals and 40,000 to 50,000 ham-and-cheese sand­wiches to dis­trib­ute the fol­low­ing day. In the morn­ings, she’d head into towns and vil­lages out­side the city with a team of armed Home­land Se­cu­rity of­fi­cers (and two Jeeps packed with food) to scout sites for satel­lite feed­ing pro­grams. Along the way, she’d pass out sand­wiches, fruit, and what­ever else they had avail­able that day. If the lo­ca­tion had fun­da­men­tal re­sources like water and a place to set up op­er­a­tions, she’d re­turn to or­ga­nize the feed­ing pro­gram, train cooks, and get things rolling.

“I did this for 20 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months,” she says. Ul­ti­mately, Her­rera helped open 22 kitchens that each pro­duced 5,000 meals a day.

What Her­rera—a Puerto Ri­can by blood but New Yorker by birth—gained in this full-tilt work was a crash course on her her­itage. “Be­ing in the field, be­ing con­nected with com­mu­nity lead­ers, I be­came con­nected with Puerto Rico,” she says. She and Merino went back to the main­land to get mar­ried ear­lier this year, and re­turned to the is­land with big plans, in­clud­ing open­ing her own bak­ery, La Con­desa Figueroa, in Old San Juan next sum­mer. She is also de­vel­op­ing a “farm-to-pas­try” pro­gram to men­tor kids and boost the farm­ing com­mu­nity, and is work­ing with Marriott In­ter­na­tional to help de­velop an emer­gency dis­as­ter-re­lief tool kit. A re­cent visit to fam­ily in Ponce, a city on the is­land’s south­ern coast, re­minded her of what will al­ways be at stake. “My aunt still has a blue tarp in­stead of a roof,” she says. “I feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to mo­bi­lize peo­ple to never give up, espe­cially in the face of dis­as­ter.”

“I’m from here and I won’t quit,” Loisse Herger says. The 39-year-old hote­lier is sit­ting in the rooftop lounge of her O:live Bou­tique Ho­tel in Con­dado, San Juan’s ocean­front neigh­bor­hood that is home to a pa­rade of lux­ury ho­tels, many of them mem­bers of deep-pock­eted hos­pi­tal­ity groups that are in­vest­ing mil­lions of dol­lars to bring their prop­er­ties back on­line. (Many al­ready have—see page 65.)

Herger and her hus­band, Fer­nando Dav­ila, a civil en­gi­neer, were al­ready un­der­way with their sec­ond project—a 26-room sis­ter ho­tel called O:LV 55 that sits just a block away—when Maria hit. O:live Bou­tique Ho­tel sur­vived the storm with mi­nor dam­age, so Herger turned her at­ten­tion im­me­di­ately to keep­ing stranded guests calm, shel­tered, and fed for weeks as they waited for flights to take them home.

And while the cou­ple had planned to open their sec­ond ho­tel by the sum­mer, they sur­mounted set­backs in ma­te­ri­als and la­bor to put O:LV 55 on sched­ule to open in De­cem­ber. The new prop­erty, with its green­ery-cov­ered walls, seems al­most a mission state­ment. “Puerto Rico is al­ways green, but just af­ter the hur­ri­cane, the land­scape was brown and ugly,” Herger says. “When I saw that, I started cry­ing. I never cry for any­thing. But I cried for Puerto Rico. It dawned on me how much I re­ally love this is­land.”

In­side, O:LV 55’s black-and-white mar­ble interiors have a mod­ern, post-trop­ics sen­si­bil­ity, which Herger says is sym­bolic of a de­sign re­nais­sance on the is­land. “There is a lot more at­ten­tion to de­sign in San Juan right now,” she says. “Ev­ery­where you look—new ar­chi­tec­ture, restau­rants, yoga stu­dios, cof­fee shops,

“I’M FROM HERE AND I WON’T QUIT” —LOISSE HERGER

even Airbnbs. I think San Juan has the po­ten­tial to be the art and de­sign cap­i­tal of the Caribbean.”

Herger and Dav­ila see their obli­ga­tion to the new aes­thetic of San Juan as reach­ing be­yond their ho­tel walls: The cou­ple has adopted a prom­e­nade across from their prop­er­ties, along­side the Con­dado La­goon, a serene water­way of pad­dle­board­ers and small craft. “We put a lot of in­vest­ment in mak­ing the sur­round­ing area beau­ti­ful,” she says. “We couldn’t wait for the gov­ern­ment to clean the streets af­ter the hur­ri­cane. We did it. We did it be­cause we feel it is our duty.”

With an easy and near-con­stant smile, Mario Ormaza might be taken as be­ing a bit of a softy. And maybe that’s why, when the 38-year-old restau­ra­teur/ chef learned of Hur­ri­cane Maria’s pro­jected Puerto Rico land­fall, he raced to se­cure his five restau­rants and dis­trib­ute food to his 70 em­ploy­ees be­fore the storm hit. With winds ac­cel­er­at­ing, Ormaza made an­other fran­tic set of rounds. He checked on ex­tended fam­ily, mak­ing sure their apart­ments were bat­tened down. He helped neigh­bors find shel­ter.

It grew dark, and fierce. It was 9 p.m. when he fi­nally re­turned to his apart­ment to join his girl­friend, Cristina Ji­minián, only to re­al­ize the one thing he’d ne­glected: him­self. And a ninth­floor apart­ment with win­dows that were large and vul­ner­a­ble. “We weren’t safe there,” Ormaza says.

In the mount­ing storm, they fled to a friend’s. The next morn­ing, Ormaza re­turned to find he’d been right. The win­dows had blown out, and the apart­ment was flooded with 8 inches of water. “Things were scat­tered all over the apart­ment,” he says. “What had been in the bed­room was in the kitchen. Ev­ery­thing was trashed.” Even af­ter hours of bail­ing out water and se­cur­ing tarps where the win­dows had been, Ormaza was fo­cused on get­ting his restau­rants open. “I re­al­ized peo­ple in the com­mu­nity needed to eat. They likely didn’t have much food, nor a way to pre­pare it.”

Ormaza set up a re­lief op­er­a­tion at Café Tresbé, the first restau­rant he opened (in 2010) af­ter hav­ing trained with renowned chef Jean-Ge­orges Von­gerichten on the main­land. The lit­tle café—built into a Cray­ola yel­low ship­ping con­tainer set in the midst of the raff­ishly artsy San­turce neigh­bor­hood— had set the tone for Ormaza’s bur­geon­ing culi­nary em­pire. And now, thanks to a gen­er­a­tor, it was a bright spot in a city want­ing for just that. “Peo­ple were grate­ful to have a place to come,” he says. “Ev­ery­one was strug­gling. They had no power. There was a cur­few. So hav­ing a place out­side their home, away from the

“PUERTO RICO RIGHT NOW IS THE LAND OF OP­POR­TU­NITY” —MARIO ORMAZA

re­al­ity of what was hap­pen­ing, was im­por­tant. We were like an oa­sis for the whole neigh­bor­hood.”

Ormaza’s con­nec­tion to that neigh­bor­hood runs deep. He was born and raised in San­turce, and pi­o­neered the re­ju­ve­na­tion of its Loiza Street with Tresbé. Lit­tle by lit­tle, he ex­panded the space, adding poke-and-sushi bar Dos Palil­los and cof­fee­house Café con Cé. To­day the com­plex bus­tles with fam­i­lies, beach­go­ers, and young cre­ative types. Across the street, the flow­ery murals of Sab­rina, Ormaza’s bistro, mark it as the stylish big sis­ter. Azu­cena, which Ormaza opened in sum­mer 2018, is the cool aunt, with a lo­cally sourced menu of con­tempo-tra­di­tional fare.

In the months since the storm, Ormaza has brought all of his restau­rants back. And like Her­rera and Herger, he’s dou­bling down post-Maria—ex­pand­ing Sab­rina with a juice bar, a lounge, and a seven-room bou­tique ho­tel on top. He tells this story while sit­ting in his apart­ment, where blue tarps cast the room in a sur­real tint; he re­mains on a wait­ing list to get his win­dows re­placed.

Ji­minián walks into the room with two dogs: inky black Can­dela, and Calle, a mish­mash of gray, cream, and brown. The sweet-na­tured pair are right at Ji­minián’s an­kles, as if they’ve spent their whole lives in her sway. But these dogs, in fact, are very re­cent ad­di­tions to the fam­ily: Ormaza and Ji­minián found them wan­der­ing the streets of San­turce, one or­phaned just be­fore the storm, one just af­ter. Ormaza pulls Can­dela close and mas­sages the ruff around her neck. “These guys were the best thing to come out of the hur­ri­cane,” he says, and it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be­lieve that even in a world turned up­side down, a city still draped in tarps, there’s good to be found.

“For those of us who stayed, Puerto Rico right now is the land of op­por­tu­nity,” Ormaza says, giv­ing his dog a squeeze. “It doesn’t mat­ter how many hur­ri­canes hit us. We’re go­ing to get back on track.”

The view west from Playa Peña to­ward Old San Juan; Loiza Street (below) in the San­turce neigh­bor­hood

Food and color in San­turce: Mario Ormaza in front of his flag­shipCafé Tresbé and the lively scene at his Sab­rina Brunch & Bistro (above)

The eter­nal beauty of Puerto Rico’s north­ern shore

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.