By Caroline Simon, USA TODAY
Before Hurricane Maria whipped through Puerto Rico last September, the Humacao Nature Reserve was a popular tourist attraction. Located on the island’s southeastern coast, the reserve was a picturesque place where visitors could hike, bird-watch, fish or kayak.
But the Category 4 storm left the reserve’s trails severely damaged, and for weeks, it stayed closed. Even after its November reopening, visitors have been slow in trickling back.
“Our numbers are starting to go up now, but it’s been very different to how it was before Maria,” said Christina Vazquez, who has worked at the nature reserve for 19 years.
A new initiative announced Friday will help small businesses on the island that, like the reserve, have suffered in the wake of the vicious storm, which caused $90 million in damage. Mercy Corps, an international humanitarian aid organization, will partner with Google and the Hispanic Federation to provide grants to small businesses, fund development training and revamp tourism.
Google will match up to $2 million in donations made by the public to fund the program, which has already snagged celebrity endorsements from Jennifer Lopez and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Economic troubles are not new to Puerto Rico. The U.S. territory had been mired in a recession even before Maria struck. Over the last decade, the island lost about 10% of its population through emigration to the mainland, deepening economic strife for those who remain. Nearly 50% of the island lives in poverty.
“It’s important for us to look not at just where people are in the aftermath of the disaster but how they got there and what the entrenched challenges were,” said Christy Delafield, a spokeswoman for Mercy Corps. “We’re not just interested in rebuilding to the pre-hurricane state; we want Puerto Rico to build back better.”
For Puerto Ricans such as Vazquez, Mercy Corps and Google’s work will supplement what they see as a sluggish federal response to the disaster. Government agencies like FEMA have been criticized for bungling contracts to rebuild the island and lagging in power restoration efforts. Nearly nine months after the storm — which caused more than 4,600 deaths, according to a recent Harvard study — about 5% of the island is still without power.
“It’s rare for Mercy Corps to respond in a U.S.-based disaster, and that speaks to the scale of this disaster,” Delafield said.
For now, Vazquez hoping that Mercy Corps and Google can help put the businesses like Humacao Nature Reserve back on the map so customers will return.