A little over a year ago, Omar Z. Robles went to Puerto Rico, where he paid homage to his roots. This time, the dance photographer is back to show the island in a completely different state. Six months after Hurricane Maria ripped across the island, Puerto Rico is still in a state of devastation. And through his photographs, Robles brings to light an eye-opening vision of how far Puerto Rico has to go, and how resilient its people are.
Traveling across his homeland, from underserved areas of San Juan to small ghost towns sprouting up across the island, Robles was stunned by what he saw. “It was an incredibly emotional and difficult trip. I found myself fighting the tears more times than I can recall,” Robles writes. “Months after the hurricane and my island, my people, my family still carry open wounds from that horrendous day.”
Debris still clogs sewers, causing rampant flooding with even light rain, while thousands of families who lost their roofs find themselves using blue tarps—if they're lucky—while waiting for assistance for a new permanent structure to arrive. In other areas, continued power outages signify an eerie darkness—and safety issue—at nightfall.
Robles describes the sensation of visiting Humacao (where Maria made landfall) in heartbreaking detail. This once vibrant town on the eastern coast lays in ruin. “I’ve never seen such a level of destruction in my lifetime. Bare bones only remain where the beautiful Punta Santiago pier once was. On one side of the road, where there used to be a magnificent barrier of palm trees now looks like a monumental graveyard of trees. Many of them completely on the ground while the rest stand with barely a few branches left. On the other side, slanted electrical posts menace drivers as they pass under fearing that one might fall down at any given moment. An iron basketball roof was completely brought down to the ground as if it had melted.”
Throughout this emotional journey, Robles continued to do what he does best, photographing local ballet dancers as they twist and turn through the city streets. This time, with every stretch of a leg or point of a finger, the emotional intensity is palpable. Wrapping themselves in the rubble of their home, they remind us not to turn our backs on what has happened here and, at the same time, demonstrate a strength and determination that is emblematic of Puerto Ricans in this moment.
For while Robles notes that over 200,000 Puerto Ricans have left the island post-Hurricane Maria, both those that remain and that left are grateful for what they still have. “In all the stories I heard, there was one constant phrase from everyone, like a mantra ‘pero al menos estamos vivos y eso es lo importante' (at least we are alive, which is what really matters).”
If you are interested in helping families obtain permanent roofs for their homes in the Caño Martín Peña community that Robles visited in San Juan, a local non-profit has started a fundraiser on Global Giving.