Reuters correspondent Robin Respaut was prepared for the worst when she arrived in Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, just five hours before Hurricane Maria slammed the Caribbean island. Her suitcase was loaded with batteries, charging packs, two headlamps, collapsible camping jugs and a water purification kit.
Soon, though, her most coveted possession became a large supply of granola bars and nuts. Respaut subsisted on the stash for five days after the storm made landfall, with stores and restaurants shut and food supplies low.
”The logistical challenges are so huge to report this story. You need to figure out where you are going without internet or Google Maps. You need to figure out a way to charge your phones, find gas and feed yourself,” Respaut says.
The hurricane, which caused an estimated $30 billion in damages, crippled Puerto Rico’s electrical grid and telecommunications systems. Most of the time Respaut and the four other Reuters journalists working in Puerto Rico this week do not have access to a cell signal, electricity or water.
Being resourceful has helped. Respaut turned a colleague’s iPhone 5 into a WiFi hotspot – apparently iPhones with Mexican cellular service have better coverage than American plans in Puerto Rico. She also learned that when you switch off a phone’s LTE signal, cell coverage dramatically improves. Meanwhile, Reuters photographer Carlos Garcia Rawlins – who is based in Caracas – served up a hot meal by heating ready-to-eat meals under the hood of his car.
Long before Maria struck Puerto Rico’s dire financial situation was a priority for Reuters. Respaut spent time in Puerto Rico last year covering the island’s medical woes. Reuters correspondent Nick Brown, a bankruptcy expert, moved to the U.S territory in August 2015 to report on the Puerto Rico’s looming $72 billion debt crisis. It filed the biggest government bankruptcy in U.S. history this year.
Their deep knowledge of the island’s infrastructure and economy will continue to shape Reuters’ coverage of the challenges Puerto Rico faces and how it recovers.
Now Brown is en route to the hurricane-ravaged island from Houston, where he was covering the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. He had hoped to hitch a ride to Puerto Rico on a relief plane Thursday, but the plane was grounded after it tilted backward under the weight of a huge amount of bottled water.
“I’m prepared for the worst,” says Brown, who broke news the day after Maria struck that a team of judges was putting Puerto Rico’s bankruptcy case on hold. “I have never done anything quite like this before, but I feel like I have to be there.”