LATE EVERY SUMMER, there's a breadfruit festival in Humacao, a Puerto Rican town not far from where Hurricane Maria made landfall on September 20, 2017. The leftist journalist Naomi Klein describes the scene when she visited, months after the storm struck: "Women who usually do the cooking for the festival came together, pooled whatever food they could find, and made hot, healthy meals for about 400 people a day. Day after day. Week after week. Month after month. They are doing it still."
Maria struck Puerto Rico with sustained 175 mph winds, damaging half a million dwellings and decimating the island's electrical grid and cellphone infrastructure. About 80 percent of the harvest was lost. After initially claiming the storm killed 64 people, the government posted a preliminary report online in July acknowledging that the death count was much higher. The official estimate is now 2,975.
In her brief book The Battle for Paradise, Klein describes several community-driven recovery efforts that sprouted after the disaster--what she calls "the miracles Puerto Ricans have been quietly pulling off while their government fails them." Humacao was hardly unique: She paints a similar scene, for example, in Casa Pueblo, a community center in the small mountain town of Adjuntas. "It would be weeks before the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] or any other agency would arrive with significant aid," she writes, "so people flocked to Casa Pueblo to collect food, water, tarps, and chainsaws--and draw on its priceless power supply to charge up their electronics," including oxygen machines that elderly locals relied on to survive.
The solar panels that powered the center mark a sharp contrast with PREPA, Puerto Rico's electric utility, which was mired in corruption and debt long before the storm. It took nearly a year to restore semiregular power to the island. When government aid finally arrived to the area, Klein notes, it was "shockingly inadequate: military-style rations and FEMA's now notorious boxes filled with Skittles, processed meats, and Cheez-It crackers."
These stories are representative of the reportage that fills The Battle for Paradise, and they will remind many readers of a post-disaster trope: The true first responders and the most steadfast rebuilders are the survivors themselves. But in documenting these organic recovery efforts across the island, Klein makes a broader argument: that "now is not the moment for reconstruction of what...