1 Fort Lauderdale
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Miguel Hernández, 82, sat inside his dark, hot jewelry store on Saturday and watched absolutely no one walk down the sidewalk or through the city’s central plaza.
At least a half-million people are still without electricity since Hurricane Irma roared past Puerto Rico Wednesday — including everyone in this mid-sized town on the island’s most eastern point.
Hernández was thankful that the island avoided a direct hit from Irma, but even so, the storm may have been too much for some of his neighbors.
The clothing store next door had its roof blown off and the merchandise — button-down, plaid shirts and beige slacks — was soaked. Hernández said the owner had come by Saturday morning, stuck his head inside the establishment that reeks of mildew and left in disgust.
“You have to be brave to open your doors again,” Hernández said. “I keep this store open because I have nothing better to do, but it hasn’t been profitable for years.”
Puerto Rico is limping through a deep economic crisis that has forced at least 446,000 people to leave the island from 2005-2015 seeking jobs and a future. While San Juan and other tourism hotspots still have pockets of prosperity, small towns across La Isla del Encanto are fighting to stay afloat.
Downtown Fajardo — like many communities here — looked like it was hit by a hurricane long before Irma. Dozens of stores are boarded up with plywood, and others have shattered, blighted windows. Sun-bleached and torn signs dangle from the front of empty shops.
Jorge Hernández, 36, who runs an army-surplus store with his grandfather, said the town had been hit by successive waves of economic pain. First the nearby U.S. Naval base, Roosevelt Roads, was shut down in 2004. Then the big box stores opened up on the freeway gutting downtown and turning a once-thriving shopping plaza into a ghost town. Amid this, a decade-long economic recession forced all but the hardiest to head to the mainland.
Hernández said the only way the store had managed to stay open was by trying to stay a step ahead of the malls.
“We try not to buy anything that the big companies bring in,” he said. “If Walmart starts to supply it, we quit offering it.”
At Cafetería Mi Antojito, a restaurant just off the central square, Araceli Laboi said that in her 11 years in business at least that many of her neighbors have shutdown.
Asked how she had been successful where so many others failed, Laboi said she didn’t have a choice.
“This is my only source of income,” she explained. “I cook, I clean, I do everything.”
As painful as Irma has been — and might remain — Hernández said there could be a silver lining. If the island receives money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help in the rebuilding, it may juice the economy.
“If FEMA money comes in, we might have a good Christmas,” he said. “If not, we’re screwed.”