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In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, Shopkeepers Forge Ahead Despite Hurricane's Aftermath

In Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, shop owners and restaurant owners were managing their businesses as they grappled with damage and fewer visitors.
Two men carry equipment and bottles to fill up with water down a usually busy street in the Old San Juan neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Two men carry equipment and bottles to fill up with water down a usually busy street in the Old San Juan neighborhood on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Elaine Cromie

OLD SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — On a recent afternoon on Fortaleza Street, Peter Schintler and his staff were working to remodel Marmalade, a restaurant where Schintler is chef and owner. It suffered severe flooding and developed mold in the days after Hurricane Maria, a disaster unlike anything he had experienced in the 13 years since he opened the restaurant.

Schintler’s menu, which is mostly vegetarian, was impacted too. He depends on produce from local sustainable farmers, and an estimated 80 percent of the island’s agriculture was destroyed.

Wearing his white chef’s jacket, Schintler said he puts on his uniform every day to achieve a sense of normalcy until his restaurant can reopen, hopefully within two weeks. “It makes you feel like you’re a day closer,” he said.

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When his family and friends abroad offer to send supplies, including dinnerware, he encourages them to visit instead, he said. “The china is fine — the china didn’t break. We can grow food and we will not run out of rum or wine. But we need people to come visit and to share stories and to leave money.”

Marmalade Chef, Peter Schintler, sits outside his restaurant in the neighborhood of Old San Juan on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Businesses and restaurants in tourist areas of San Juan are operating on generators and are struggling nearly a month after hurricane Maria ravaged the Island of Puerto Rico.Elaine Cromie

Down the street, Michael Walstrom, the owner of Punto de Vista Restaurant, a rooftop bar and restaurant, had been working to get a generator installed. He said one of the most challenging aspects of operating a business in Puerto Rico now is not knowing what the future will hold.

“The economy is changing, and we’re entering into the unknown,” he said.

Walstrom's comments reflected the worries of many shopkeepers throughout San Juan who are struggling to stay open in the aftermath of the hurricane, which tore through Puerto Rico on Sept. 20. Much of the island including parts of San Juan are without electricity or have it intermittently. Many municipalities still lack running water.

As of Monday, the government said it had restored 18 percent of the island's electricity, according to El Nuevo Día.

The total contribution of Travel & Tourism (including wider effects on investments and supply chain) contributed more than $8 million, about 8 percent, to Puerto Rico’s GDP in 2016, according to a report by the World Travel and Tourism Council. Those figures had been forecasted to rise 3.7 percent in 2017.

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A month after the hurricane, the cobblestone streets of San Juan’s historic district, typically bustling with tourists and locals alike, were mostly empty. Broken light poles hang precariously overhead. Many of the gem stone-colored historic buildings are still boarded up, and businesses remain shuttered.

But there are signs — including a handful of noisy generators parked on sidewalks and a jeweler making transactions by flashlight — of the resiliency of local businesses determined to survive in a post-Maria world.

Some of the major cruise lines announced their return a couple of weeks ago to Old San Juan, which was welcome news to the vendors who have been trying to stay afloat amid few visitors.

Idalys Torres, works on the inside of her food stand flipping various treats in a fryer in the Old San Juan neighborhood on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Elaine Cromie

Idalys Torres, an employee of a local food stand, was busy cooking Puerto Rican codfish fritters known as bacalaítos and meat-filled plantain turnovers known as alcapurrias along Calle Comercio, a hot spot for street vendors selling local food to visitors debarking from cruise ships docked nearby. There were no cruise ships that day, and it had been slow following the hurricane.

“There are sales, but it’s not like the way it was before,” Torres, 25, said. “It’s worse than the low season.”

San Juan was a ghost town immediately after Hurricane Maria, said Elaine Shehab-Cortés, the owner of the Casa Cortés ChocoBar in San Francisco street. The chocolate-themed restaurant is owned by the Cortés family, an institution in Puerto Rico with a history of farming cacao and selling chocolate going back to 1929.

A young boy and woman enjoy a treat from one of the couple of food vendors in the Old San Juan neighborhood on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017 in San Juan, Puerto Rico.Elaine Cromie

Within a few days, the family had reopened the restaurant and was offering a limited menu to locals in need of food. They were also providing drinking water and meals to its employees and upstairs, at the Fundación Casa Cortés, the family was running Escuela Educa Cortés, a camp for children still out of school since María.

Weeks later, they were operating on limited hours, but they were open. “We’re not making money,” said Shehab-Cortés, "but we just want to keep our customers and our employees afloat.”

Shehab-Cortes noted that a year ago, there would have been lines of people waiting to get into ChocoBar during the weekends.

“There’s no comparison,” she said. “It’s a different Puerto Rico.”

On Tanca Street, Nitza Zapata was sitting inside an unlit Casa de las Guayaberas, a shop that sells the iconic men's linen shirt used by generations across the Caribbean and Latin America. She’s seen only a handful of customers since the storm hit.

An employee of La Casa De Las Guayaberas, Nitza Zapata, sits in the doorway of the clothing shop on Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. La Casa De Las Guayaberas is operating off of a generator, like many businesses in Old San Juan, nearly a month after hurricane Maria ravaged the island.Elaine Cromie

“My boss, the owner, called me and said, ‘I need you to open the store and just wait,’” she said. “And I need the money too.”

Back at Punto de Vista restaurant, Walstrom said businesses were changing their business models, with new menus, lower profit margins and re-created jobs for their employees.

“We’ll be OK in four months,” Walstrom said. “But four months is a long time.”

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