To visitors, Vieques, the small island community off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico, looks much the way it did before Hurricanes Irma and Maria wreaked havoc in September 2017. Business is booming at the bar and hostel Stephanie Latona manages, a colorful beachside shack popular among visitors. Federal relief has mostly benefited tourist areas, and tourism has returned to pre-hurricane numbers.
To Latona, however, Vieques is meaningfully different. One of the most noticeable things that’s changed since the hurricanes, Latona says, is that there are fewer familiar faces. “The community definitely feels like it’s gotten smaller,” she said. “People who left after Maria — or even Irma — stuck around until the next storm, but eventually gave up trying to rebuild and left.”
Latona understands why some of her neighbors packed up for good. In the two years since Maria, the local hospital has yet to be rebuilt, and getting to the nearest alternative requires a sometimes hours-long commute to the Puerto Rican mainland. Many of the stores in her neighborhood have closed, leaving food supplies limited. Then there are the frequent power outages.
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