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'We move forward': Despite devastation, Puerto Ricans are celebrating Thanksgiving

"We're very resilient people...We don't give up," says a resident who has been cooking Thanksgiving meals to distribute.
Image: A woman looks as her husband climbs down a ladder at a partially destroyed bridge, after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado
A woman looks as her husband climbs down a ladder at a partially destroyed bridge, after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado, Puerto Rico November 9, 2017.ALVIN BAEZ / Reuters

Two months after a devastating storm nearly flattened Puerto Rico, leaving the the island to struggle to regain its footing — with nearly 60 percent of residents still without electricity — one thing residents tell NBC News that Hurricane Maria failed to knocked down was their wish to get together for the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday.

“Honestly, at first I wasn’t going to do anything because I felt like I didn’t have the spirit in me to do it, but you know how Puerto Ricans are. We are fiesteros (partiers) no matter what,” said Elba Longo, a former police detective in Washington, D.C. who recently retired to her native Puerto Rico.

Longo lives on the outskirts of Comerío, a mountainous region about 20 miles southwest of San Juan. While her home survived the storm, she’s been without power and running water ever since.

“I’m going to my cousin’s (near San Juan) for Thanksgiving but we’re going to do it early so we can head back before it gets dark," she explained.

People use a ladder to climb up a partially destroyed bridge after Hurricane Maria hit the area in September, in Utuado, Puerto Rico November 9, 2017. Picture taken November 9, 2017.ALVIN BAEZ / Reuters

Like so many residents of small towns, Longo heads to the center of town to catch up on the news and follow holiday preparations.

“I went into town to the nail salon and everyone is getting ready for Thanksgiving no matter what. One of the things we all agreed on is that we’re going to make the best of it," she said.

"Everybody is kind of sad because of what’s going on; so many of us have no electricity, and people here in the mountains also still have no water," Longo said.

She also brought up the separations wrought by the most powerful storm in over a century.

"A lot of people are going to be without their loved ones because they’ve left the island, even temporarily after the storm. But we’re not going to stop getting together," she said.

Charlyn Gaztambide Janer, a communications specialist in San Juan, echoes Longo’s sentiment.

“We’re not going to stop celebrating Thanksgiving,” she tells NBC News. "I’m going to my sister’s house and she doesn’t have electricity but we’re going to be in the backyard, on the porch, hanging out."

"But it’s a bit sad, though, because of those who have left. My own brother and his family went to Austin, Texas and we’re going to miss being all together," said Gaztambide Janer. "He wanted to come back for Thanksgiving but he just started a job, and for many of us it’s going to be the first time that we’re not going to be all together.”

Recent reports put the exodus of Puerto Ricans leaving the island since the hurricane at almost 170,000 and expecting to rise if the massive power outage continues.

“It’s very frustrating that we are going through this in Puerto Rico but I’m optimistic that Puerto Rico will rise above all this current crisis because of who we are as a people,” she said.

Whitefish Energy Holdings, a small Montana energy firm that had been Puerto Rico rebuild, said on Thursday that had resumed "critical work" on a transmission line after Puerto Rico's power authority released a payment to the company.

The payment by Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) was enough to show the authority's "good faith intent to pay Whitefish Energy and its subcontractors for services rendered," Whitefish said in a statement.

Diane Morales Busquets, an artist living in the suburban city of Guaynabo, tries to keep a sense of humor about the ordeal of no electricity for 60+ days.

“I’m going to a cousin’s house who just got electricity and we’re cooking at her house, but she’s vegetarian so they’re having a tofu turkey. I couldn’t cook a turkey even if I wanted to because my cousin would kill me,” Morales Busquets chuckles, adding that she usually heads to her brother’s home in Atlanta for Thanksgiving, but this year will be different.

“We just got back from being there for almost a month after the hurricane hit, so here we are. People are going to celebrate even without electricity. Under the circumstances we make do. Getting together is part of what we’re about.”

An employee of the New York company Con Edison works to restore electricity cables damaged by Hurricane Maria, in San Juan Puerto Rico, 16 November 2017. The generation of electricity in Puerto Rico, which reached 40% today, fell again due to a new breakdown that occurred in unit 8 of San Juan, which caused several sectors of the metropolitan area of the capital to lose power again.Thais Llorca / EPA

Joanne Bauzá considers herself one of the lucky ones. Living a stone’s throw from two hospitals in the San Juan suburbs means she’s had electricity since early November. It has come and gone, and those fluctuations ruined her oven, so she won’t be cooking this Thanksgiving.

“I’m getting together with family members and we’re cooking side dishes and ordering a turkey. And I know people that even if they have electricity aren’t going to chance it to try to cook a turkey for hours on end because the power may go out," explained Bauzá.

"But the way we are in Puerto Rico, any excuse to get together we’re going to take it, even if just to have some salad," she said. "That’s how we are. We like to be together. It’s a cultural thing, very family oriented and parties.”

Bauzá says that because she felt “blessed” to have water and power, “I felt like I couldn’t just sit around and do nothing when people needed help,” so she’s been volunteering at Fundación El Plato Caliente (The Hot Dish Foundation), an organization founded five days after the hurricane by Rafael Rodríguez Torres, a bar owner and manager with 30 years of restaurant experience.

“Part of my mission is help out the small businesses. Small businesses are very important to Puerto Rico’s success," said Rodríguez Torres. "Many closed after the storm, and if they don’t open back up many more people are going to leave and that would make the disaster worse."

With volunteers and donations — including donated kitchens from closed establishments — Rodríguez Torres has been cooking about 2,000 free hot meals daily — about 100,000 so far. “After the hurricane I thought, what can I do to help? To me a hot meal is like giving someone a hug. It helps you feel better. For that moment, all your worries go away.”

For Rodríguez, it’s no different for Thanksgiving. In the days before the holiday, volunteer chefs and cooks have been cooking a typical Thanksgiving dinner, along with some Puerto Rican touches like rice and beans, to distribute on Thanksgiving Eve.

“People here love to get together, to party, to dance, to be with each other, even if they don’t have electricity," said Rodríguez. "We’re very resilient people. We can’t be complaining all day. We move forward. There’s a lot left to do but we don’t give up.”

Meanwhile, celebrity chef José Andrés said this week that he and his team were preparing to serve Thanksgiving meals to 40,000 people in Puerto Rico.

On Thursday morning he tweeted that his team of chefs has been working since 4 a.m. "to cook Thanksgiving for the people of Puerto Rico."


Daniella Silva contributed.