By Suzanne Gamboa, Patricia Guadalupe and Luisita Lopez Torregrosa
WASHINGTON -- Many Puerto Rico residents exhaled Thursday after Irma dealt it an off-center lashing, but they remained anxious over how long they’d be without electric power and whether it would worsen their economy.
Although Puerto Rico’s residents are proud of their ability to face down hurricanes, radar footage of the giant Category 5 storm churning its way to the island did make some wonder whether their practiced preparedness would hold up.
"We are grateful that it didn't hit us," said Mari Mater O'Neill, an artist, designer and educator. "Still, I'm concerned with the long-time impact predicted of lack of electricity, impact on economy and life. My heart goes out to the Caribbean islands. We're so invisible."
The government announced 1 million people were without power late Wednesday and warnings were still in place for potential flash flooding from continuing rains. Three deaths were reported in Puerto Rico.
Because the territory has been saddled with a multibillion-dollar debt it is unable to pay, there was worry that an extended period of time without power would bring further economic woe to the U.S. territory's businesses that have managed to stay afloat and its residents.
“It was bad before. It’s going to be a little bit worse now. It’s all linked to the power outage and if the businesses cannot work without power we cannot survive,” said Maritza Reyes, a district attorney in Ponce, Puerto Rico.
Reyes gathered up her father to ride out the storm at her home, situated in an upper income neighborhood on a hill. She figured they would not lose electricity or water. However, their home lost power at about 10:30 p.m. Wednesday.
She said intermittent power outages have become more common in Puerto Rico the past year or so, but people such as her husband who is a doctor would feel the effect of an extended power outage.
“We are all going to be stricken. My husband is a doctor … He’s going to lose money as well,” she said.
Deepak Lamba-Nieves, research director at the Center for a New Economy in San Juan said while the extent of damage won't be known for days, "it is quite clear that it will aggravate an already dire economic situation, especially for low income and poor families who have been struggling to make ends meet in an economic depression."
"The gargantuan task of addressing our battered economy becomes even more urgent," Lamba-Nieves said. "We need all hands on deck to get the turnaround job done."
Carlos Cobián, entrepreneur and founder of special events consulting firm Cobian Media in San Juan, was more optimistic, confident that the federal emergency declaration that Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló asked for and got before the storm hit would make a difference in recovery because it would free up federal assistance and funds.
"We were fortunate anyway that it didn't hit as bad as they said it would. And we've already been in survival mode since the economic crisis, so we already were in that mindset to do something,” Cobián said.
Jocelyn Hernandez Irizarry, a Puerto Rican real estate entrepreneur in the southwestern town of Lajas, already was seeing things returnto normal. “We lost some power through the night, but we have power now,” she said in an email.
She also manages properties in the Dominican Republic’s Punta Cana beach resort and said some properties had minor damages from water entering the lower level unit properties and some terrace covers and pergolas were damaged, but nothing major.
Puerto Ricans were awaiting word of damage to the island of Culebra, which is part of Puerto Rico and got much more of a whipping from the hurricane.
Isabel Rullán, co-founder and managing director of ConPRmetidos, a non-profit group, said her group had formed an assistance fund to help with rebuilding and recovery in Culebra at HelpPRdespacito.com. Her group has responded to the economic crisis in Puerto Rico by reaching out to Puerto Ricans in the U.S. and other countries for assistance with needs in the territory, such as doctors.
But as Irma propelled its way to Florida, she and other Puerto Ricans residents turned their worry to fellow Puerto Ricans on the mainland.
Rullán said the group would also use its fund to help Puerto Ricans in Florida if Irma makes landfall there.
Suzanne Gamboa is a national reporter for NBC Latino and NBCNews.com
Patricia Guadalupe is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Guadalupe has reported for several media outlets, including National Public Radio's Latino USA, CBS Radio and Pacifica Radio Network.
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa
Luisita Lopez Torregrosa is a reporter, columnist, book author and former editor at The New York Times.