When The Tourists Stopped Coming, This Puerto Rican Town's Nightmare Began

“We’re holding on with our claws to our whole life now.”
02/18/2018 09:36 am ET Updated Feb 20, 2018

RINCÓN, Puerto Rico ― The morning after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico in September, Lisa Brown Masters waded through the flooded streets of the small beachside town of Rincón to check on the hotel she founded ― only to find it crumbling into the ocean.

The concrete porch of the Tres Sirenas Beach Inn was cracked in two, and waves crashed against the foundation of the two-story building. The ocean had eaten up the 30 feet of pristine beach that used to stretch out in front of it. There was no power, and no running water.

As reports about the hurricane’s devastation spread around the world in the days that followed, Masters received one call after another: Guests were canceling their reservations and they wanted their money back.

They haven’t returned.

Without the usual influx of tourists in the high-season winter months, the inn has rapidly fallen into debt. The collapse of the business has thrown Masters’ life in disarray. Her struggles have trickled out into the community. She had to lay off Carmen Bonilla Ramos, the inn’s housekeeper, Benita Cardona, the cook, and Jasson Vincenty Ruiz, the maintenance man. Vivienne Miranda Rodriguez, a masseuse who used to serve the hotel’s clients, was left without customers. Like countless other business owners and workers in the beachside town, they don’t know how they’ll get by until the tourists come back.

These are their stories.

Carmen Bonilla Ramos sits at her home in the mountains of Rincón, Puerto Rico
Erika P. Rodriguez for HuffPost
Carmen Bonilla Ramos sits at her home in the mountains of Rincón, Puerto Rico

CARMEN

By late January, four months after she had lost her job, Carmen Bonilla Ramos would wake up inside her small house far up into the mountains of Rincón and debate whether to get out of bed. She had nowhere to go.

Ramos had worked at Tres Sirenas for over a decade ― sweeping the floors, making the beds, doing the laundry. Now her days were markedly different.

At dawn, she would get up to turn off the generator that had been providing electricity to the house ever since the storm swept through. While power to the businesses in the heart of Rincón had been restored, her small house in the hills was still in the dark. Ramos could only afford to turn on the generator for a few hours each day to run the fridge and power the fan needed to stop mosquitos from keeping her, her husband and her niece up at night.

She would count her cash. Some days she had to choose between buying food or keeping the lights on. Running the generator cost $100 a week — $7 more than her weekly unemployment check. And her husband, a construction worker, was getting far less work than before the storm. But recently, their sons in Minnesota and Long Island had sent some funds to help them get by. 

From her home’s porch, Ramos would scan the valley beneath, dotted with blue from the makeshift tarps that covered roofs still broken from the storm. Finally, she would do what she had done every day since the hurricane hit: She stared down the road, willing a truck to round the bend. Maybe the electricians would finally come to her neighborhood.

A tree branch ensnarled with electrical wires in the mountains of Rincón, Puerto Rico
Erika P. Rodriguez for HuffPost
A tree branch ensnarled with electrical wires in the mountains of Rincón, Puerto Rico

JASSON AND BENITA

While life in downtown Rincón four months after the storm had largely returned to normal ― the majority of the town’s surf shops, farm stands and beachside restaurants were up and running ― the tourists still hadn’t returned. A staffer at the local tourism office estimated Rincón had seen less than half ― and perhaps even less than a third ― of its usual visitors for this time of year. Their absence had set off a domino effect. Without tourists, businesses had to let go of their staff. Without steady jobs, workers stopped frequenting other shops. Staring at mounting debts, small business owners debated whether to borrow more, or just close up shop on their dreams.

For the first time in their life, Jasson Vincenty Ruiz and Benita Cardona found themselves out of work. The husband and wife had been steadily employed for decades, including a year-and-a-half as handyman and cook at Tres Sirenas. Now they found themselves scrambling for odd jobs.

That morning, Cardona had jumped out of bed to go clean a house, afraid someone else would claim the job before she could. Vincenty stayed behind, trying to work up the courage to do what he would never have imagined just a few short months ago: Going door to door, asking strangers if they needed any help around the house, or if perhaps they knew of someone who might. It wasn’t the same getting up every day anymore. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could keep this up.

A house on the outskirts of Rincón covered in blue tarps, a temporary solution for roofs battered by Hurricane Ma
Erika P. Rodriguez for HuffPost
A house on the outskirts of Rincón covered in blue tarps, a temporary solution for roofs battered by Hurricane Maria.

VIVIENNE

It had been four months since the storm passed and Vivienne Miranda Rodriguez, the owner of La Paz Wellness Center in Rincón, still hadn’t gotten used to the silence.

Her back rooms, once staffed by aestheticians and therapists giving tourists facials and other treatments, were empty. The white shelves of the center were stacked with oils and yoga mats, untouched. The attendance at her yoga classes had plummeted, her appointments to give massages at nearby hotels reduced to a trickle.

The owner of Tres Sirenas, who used to have her come in four or five times a week, no longer called. Nor did most of her other regulars. Without steady clients, the therapists renting her rooms had all left, taking their rent money with them.

When the telephone rang, all-too-often it was the bank.

“I would love to pay you, I’ll pay when I can,” she would plead. “I’m working hard at it. What else can I say?”

The front porch of the Tres Sirenas Beach Inn, destroyed by Hurricane Maria.
Erika P. Rodriguez for HuffPost
The front porch of the Tres Sirenas Beach Inn, destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

LISA

At Tres Sirenas Beach Inn, four months after the storm, the power and water were back, but nothing else was the same. A tiny puddle of murky water stood at the bottom of the empty pool. With five of the hotel’s seven rooms nestled above the broken end of the porch, much of the building was too dangerous to occupy. But even the other two rooms, perfectly safe, stood empty. Of about 70 visitors that had booked through the winter season, all but three had cancelled.

On a warm, sunny day late last month, Masters and her life partner, Wanda Acosta, jumped when the waves splashed onto the inn’s front porch, still not used to the ocean being quite so close. Now when the phone rang, Masters didn’t pick up. It was probably American Express again, calling about the credit card bills.

Masters and Acosta had spent weeks debating what to do. Masters had opened the inn 16 years ago, after leaving behind her life as an artist in New York. It was one of the first bed and breakfasts in the then-quiet Puerto Rican town. In the years since, Rincón had grown into a bustling tourist destination, attracting droves of people, many of them surfers, from the mainland each winter. But Rincón still had its small-town vibe ― there were no massive malls or brand-name hotels. Its coast was dotted with palm trees, and the occasional condo rental or bed and breakfast.  

At her hotel, Masters was trapped in a nightmare chicken-and-egg dilemma. She couldn’t attract any guests if she didn’t rebuild. But if she rebuilt, and guests didn’t come in the foreseeable future, how would she repay the costs? The insurance company had offered $39,000 to cover damages. But an engineer had estimated the cost of repairs at well over six times that.

Unable to sleep at night thinking of all the guests whose deposits she couldn’t pay back, she wondered if it made more sense to close up shop and walk away. The hurricane had washed away her dream.

“We’re holding on with our claws to our whole life now,” Masters said.

Lisa Brown Masters, owner of Tres Sirenas Beach Inn, sits on her hotel's front porch, broken by the hurricane
Erika P. Rodriguez for HuffPost
Lisa Brown Masters, owner of Tres Sirenas Beach Inn, sits on her hotel's front porch, broken by the hurricane
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