Keep­ing Rincón alive Town re­build­ing af­ter Maria faces iden­tity cri­sis

South Florida Sun-Sentinel (Sunday) - - Nation & World - By Bianca Padró Oca­sio Or­lando Sen­tinel [email protected]­lan­dosen­tinel.com, 407-232-0202, Twit­ter @Bian­caJoanie

RINCÓN, PUERTO RICO — For

16 years, guests at the Tres Sire­nas Ocean­front Bou­tique Ho­tel could walk down con­crete steps from the re­sort’s deck di­rectly onto Sea Beach, where they lounged on the ex­panse of sand and took dips in the wa­ter.

Then, one year ago, Hur­ri­cane Maria struck, bring­ing surg­ing tides that caused the steps to shat­ter. The wa­ter car­ried away the sand. The deck col­lapsed. The coast shrunk. Nearby homes and busi­nesses that over­looked the wa­ter crum­bled atop the rocks meant to keep out the ris­ing sea. The beach dis­ap­peared. “My guests used to be able to walk for miles,” said Lisa Masters, who co-owns the ho­tel with her part­ner, Wanda Acosta. “If tourists don’t come … then the mar­kets suf­fer, the maids suf­fer . ... Every­body is af­fected by it.”

The surf town of Rincón wasn’t the hardest-hit mu­nic­i­pal­ity in Puerto Rico. By the time Maria reached the is­land’s west coast dur­ing the early af­ter­noon of Sept.

20, it had weak­ened to a Cat­e­gory

3 hur­ri­cane.

But the storm has has­tened Rincón’s steady loss of some­thing fun­da­men­tal to its com­mu­nity: the beach.

Maria stole the sands on which tourists used to sun­bathe and from which surfers used to pad­dle out into the waves — ac­cel­er­at­ing the process known as coastal ero­sion, which had al­ready been slowly eat­ing away at Puerto Rico’s coasts and threat­ens to re­shape the en­tire iden­tity of ocean­side com­mu­ni­ties like this one.

Ero­sion causes the coast­line to re­treat, driven by nat­u­ral events like sea-level rise, flood­ing and storms. It usu­ally hap­pens slowly. But Hur­ri­cane Maria caused cat­a­strophic losses for about 4 miles of Rincón’s beach — half of its 8-mile coast.

Though all of Puerto Rico’s beaches saw the ef­fects of ero­sion af­ter Maria to some de­gree, Rincón’s case is shock­ing to en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists and of­fi­cials alike.

“We used to play base­ball with four bases on those beaches. That doesn’t ex­ist any­more,” said Rincón Mayor Car­los López Bonilla. “I know the en­tire coast­line like my own hands and I watched how with time, we lost those beaches.”

‘We don’t want to be’ on the beach

Hur­ri­cane Maria un­leashed his­toric dev­as­ta­tion on the is­land. Af­ter the storm hit Sept. 20, 2017, some peo­ple here were with­out com­mu­ni­ca­tion and went months with­out run­ning wa­ter, power and, in some cases, food. Many have since packed up and left.

Maria reached its peak sus­tained winds just hours be­fore hit­ting Puerto Rico’s south­east­ern coast as a Cat­e­gory 4 hur­ri­cane. It re­mained a ma­jor hur­ri­cane for days as it bar­reled through a Caribbean al­ready bat­tered by Hur­ri­cane Irma, trig­ger­ing storm surge warn­ings as far north as North Carolina and Vir­ginia.

The con­cept of re­silience has taken on a new mean­ing since the storm. Peo­ple hear it in the phrase end­lessly spouted by is­land of­fi­cials and fea­tured on posters and ads for beauty prod­ucts: “Puerto Rico Se Le­vanta” — Puerto Rico Rises.

Bill­boards with an­other slo­gan — “Yo no me quito,” which roughly trans­lates to “I’m not giv­ing up” — hang over the is­land’s high­ways like re­minders for res­i­dents dur­ing their com­mutes.

Tres Sire­nas was closed for 10 months. In­stead of host­ing guests, Masters and Acosta took in the fam­i­lies of staff mem­bers who didn’t have power or wa­ter. In­sur­ance paid only half of the dam­age they claimed. They had to take out a small busi­ness loan and in­vest tens of thou­sands of dol­lars of their own money.

They ap­plied for per­mits to have a con­trac­tor re­move their de­bris and hired a well-known coastal en­gi­neer who helped them re­con­struct.

The cou­ple’s re­silience and re­sources re­built their busi­ness, but it won’t re­store the beach that the waves washed away. It won’t re­move the de­bris that still re­mains a year later from other build­ings nearby that were de­stroyed and aban­doned.

And it won’t pro­tect them when the next storm hits.

“We’re well aware that we’re on the beach. You know, we don’t want to [be]. But when we pur­chased this, we had 83 feet of beach and the wall was here,” Masters said, re­fer­ring to a bor­der of rocks meant to keep the waves at bay, which were no match for Maria’s winds.

Maria’s coastal legacy

The pos­si­bil­ity of a next storm — or a worse storm — has been a

tough sell for Ru­perto Cha­parro, direc­tor of the Puerto Rico Sea Grant Pro­gram in Rincón and a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez. Res­i­dents, he said, “just be­lieve that this is some­thing that hap­pened once and isn’t go­ing to hap­pen again.”

Cha­parro lives in Rincón and has watched its beaches slowly dis­ap­pear. He and other en­vi­ron­men­tal sci­en­tists have been sound­ing the alarm on the risks of build­ing so close to the ocean.

“That was a big mis­take that the govern­ment made,” Cha­parro said. For over a decade be­fore the storm, he said the mu­nic­i­pal­ity had been build­ing con­dos and ho­tels, “us­ing the tides to mark where is pri­vate prop­erty and where pub­lic prop­erty started.”

Most of the dam­aged beach­front struc­tures off Po­gio Do­leta Street in Stella, just a few blocks from Tres Sire­nas Ho­tel, are aban­doned. Cha­parro said the res­i­dents were mostly re­tirees and el­derly cou­ples from the main­land. Some left their beds be­hind.

The town’s re­sponse to ero­sion so far has been to for­tify Rincón from the ocean with rock walls and fences, treat­ing the wa­ter more like an in­vader than a source of in­come and nat­u­ral beauty. When the walls in­evitably fail, they’re re­built.

“This de­bris is a re­sult of many years of fight­ing with the waves and with na­ture. So peo­ple are fight­ing and los­ing money,” Cha­parro said. “… The way we’re do­ing things, we’re not learn­ing. Peo­ple are fix­ing in the same place where they were.”

The wa­ter’s creep­ing en­croach­ment is omi­nous for the own­ers of Rincón’s ocean-view beach inns and fam­ily-owned res­tau­rants. Rincón proudly calls it­self the Surf­ing Cap­i­tal of Puerto Rico. Novem­ber will mark 50 years since the town’s first surf­ing tour­na­ment.

Ta­nia Vázquez, head of Puerto Rico’s Depart­ment of Nat­u­ral Re­sources, said Rincón’s coast was in the top two most eroded beaches be­fore Maria. Af­ter the storm, she said it be­came the depart­ment’s No. 1 pri­or­ity, though she said most of the re­main­ing de­bris is on pri­vate prop­erty, mak­ing it the owner’s re­spon­si­bil­ity to re­move.

López Bonilla said the town is look­ing into a multi mil­lion-dol­lar plan to re­move the con­crete and de­bris along its coast, some­thing Cha­parro be­lieves is not hap­pen­ing soon enough.

“No­body cares about the eco­nomic re­siliency of Rincón, which I think is a big mis­take be­cause we’re talk­ing about the liveli­hood of this mu­nic­i­pal­ity,” Cha­parro said. “… We can­not say, ‘This can­not be done, we don’t have money.’”

Re­sis­tance to change

Dr. Stephen Leather­man, a Florida In­ter­na­tional Univer­sity coastal ex­pert known as “Dr. Beach,” said pow­er­ful storms some­times shift the sand to other beach ar­eas — some­thing that has hap­pened to some de­gree in Rincón — but it’s not al­ways enough.

Build­ings can be re­built, but na­ture is fickle.

“That’s al­ways the in­cli­na­tion every­body has – we’re not down and we’re go­ing to build back,” he said. “But beaches are prob­lem­atic be­cause beaches don’t al­ways come back. … The sea is go­ing to keep re­veal­ing [de­bris], so you just have to clean it up,” he said.

Rincón has be­come a cau­tion­ary tale for other coastal com­mu­ni­ties, prompt­ing en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists to take pre­emp­tive mea­sures against the dis­ap­pear­ing coast­line. But their ef­forts have at times met re­sis­tance.

Over 90 miles away from the van­ish­ing beach at Rincón, in the cap­i­tal city of San Juan, res­i­dents fight to keep the sands of Ocean Park Beach at bay.

The ef­fects of ero­sion are less ob­vi­ous here. For some, the sand is so in­va­sive that they keep their storm shut­ters up year-round to keep it out of their homes. Ev­ery six months, the city uses cranes to re­move sand in front of nearby busi­nesses and re­lo­cate it near the wa­ter.

Many lo­cals pre­fer Ocean Park Beach — which runs through the af­flu­ent and tourist neigh­bor­hood of Con­dado — when it is smooth and flat, both for ap­pear­ance and vis­i­bil­ity rea­sons.

But for about three years, vol­un­teers with the San­turce Ecosys­tem Restora­tion Coali­tion (CRES in Span­ish) and the non­profit Para La Nat­u­raleza have pushed to cre­ate sand dunes to pro­tect the beach and res­i­dents from the ris­ing sea. Af­ter the hur­ri­cane, the project took on new ur­gency, and they be­gan to plant na­tive species of trees on the beaches to strengthen the for­ma­tions.

“You start see­ing crabs, you start see­ing birds that gather around, and it re­ally gives it an eco­log­i­cal ser­vice,” said Juan David Mur­cia, a marine bi­ol­o­gist with CRES.

The sand dunes aren’t pop­u­lar, but they’re im­por­tant to pre­serv­ing Ocean Park Beach from a hun­gry ocean, ex­perts say.

“There’s a fac­tor here on the beach, a so­cial as­pect that’s very ex­clu­sive,” Mur­cia said. “We’ve tried to change how peo­ple per­ceive veg­e­ta­tion, how they per­ceive a mound of beach. Maybe peo­ple don’t see that as at­trac­tive be­cause what they pic­ture is this Palm Beach sand that’s very flat and long.”

Luisa Rosado, man­ager of Para La Nat­u­raleza’s re­for­esta­tion pro­gram Hábi­tat, said all beaches in Puerto Rico are unique and dif­fer­ent, and that a flat beach does not nec­es­sar­ily mean it’s a healthy beach.

CRES “is re­turn­ing the beach to its nat­u­ral state. This is what a beach used to be… then it was flat­tened and that’s how we got Ocean Park,” Rosado said. “Sand will keep mov­ing. It’s go­ing to be con­stant.”

Cli­mate ex­perts in Florida are war­ily watch­ing Maria’s im­pact on Puerto Rico, con­cerned that the ero­sion will dis­pro­por­tion­ately harm low-in­come com­mu­ni­ties — on the is­land and the main­land.

Re­build­ing is costly, and so is re­lo­cat­ing. Those with limited fi­nan­cial re­sources will be the most bur­dened, they say.

“One of my fears is that we’ll end up pro­tect­ing the most wealthy in­di­vid­u­als,” said Mathew Hauer, a de­mog­ra­pher and as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Florida State Univer­sity who has stud­ied the im­pact of cli­mate change on com­mu­ni­ties. “Some com­mu­ni­ties are go­ing to have re­sources and there are some that aren’t.”

Leather­man said Irma — which steam­rolled across the Caribbean and Florida ear­lier last Septem­ber — had a sim­i­lar ef­fect in places like Big Pine Key in South Florida.

“There’s not much to come back to a year later,” Leather­man said. “There’s not very many houses left for low-wage-earn­ing peo­ple be­cause things are so ex­pen­sive.”

The widely crit­i­cized fed­eral re­sponse to Maria left many in Puerto Rico to con­clude the is­land, given its ter­ri­to­rial sta­tus, will never be given equal pri­or­ity when re­sources are scarce.

“We got a visit from peo­ple from Hawaii, to see what hap­pened to us. And I said, ‘Don’t you worry be­cause [the fed­eral govern­ment] won’t do to you what it did to us. You’ll be helped quickly,’” Cha­parro said.

Back in Rincón, Cha­parro dis­mounts his mo­tor­cy­cle and looks over a fence sur­round­ing the derelict homes of Stella. A “Dan­ger” sign hangs from the rail­ing, but on the beach, a fam­ily of three swims next to re­bar stick­ing out of the wa­ter, un­con­cerned by what other haz­ards might lurk in the sand. Two men ar­rive with fish­ing rods. Across the street, a beach home with a pri­vate pool sits in­tact and serene.

“The fed­eral govern­ment failed us,” he said. “… The re­sponse came from our neigh­bors, from our fam­i­lies and from the di­as­pora.”

Far­ther in­land from Stella, the lights cir­cling Rincón’s main square flicker on just as con­gre­gants of the nearby Catholic church be­gin to kneel at their pews.

Out­side the church, a woman sits on a ledge dab­bing her face and neck with white body paint in prepa­ra­tion for the Rincón Art Walk, a weekly mu­sic and art fes­ti­val that will start once Mass is over. Nearby, older men gather around a tent and gam­ble at the

pica, a game in which play­ers bet on small wooden race­horses that spin around like a carousel.

“Wait un­til you see what this place trans­forms into at night,” said Robert Ar­royo, a 49-year-old Army veteran from Cabo Rojo, about 20 miles to the south, as he set up shop with col­or­ful clutch bags and fanny packs sewn by his wife.

Af­ter teach­ing a sun­set yoga class near the Tres Sire­nas Inn, Masters strolls with Acosta by the Rincón Art Walk. There’s still a light ocean breeze. The fes­ti­val’s mu­sic has started play­ing.

“We be­lieve in this com­mu­nity. We took the gam­ble be­cause we be­lieve in the fu­ture of Puerto Rico,” Masters said. “Puerto Ri­cans were the ones who kept us alive.”

Ar­royo’s pull to Rincón is strong — he calls it a “con­nec­tion of the heart” — but so is the mem­ory of life af­ter Maria. “I lost my house. … and I re­built it on my own,” he said. “That was re­ally in­tense, man. I get emo­tional and ev­ery­thing. We slept for about 70 days on wet mat­tresses.”

A year af­ter Maria, his re­silience is wa­ver­ing. “I re­ally just want to leave, man. We had a ter­ri­ble time here.”

RI­CARDO RAMIREZ BUXEDA/OR­LANDO SEN­TINEL

Dam­age to homes and con­dos off Calle Po­gio Do­leta and Calle 10 in Rincón, Puerto Rico, caused by beach ero­sion by last year’s hur­ri­canes.

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