Reporting from the edge of paradise

Julio “Gaby” Acevedo. Courtesy WNBC/WNJU.

If there’s one person who knows Puerto Rico — its resilient, independent spirit, its recent fiscal challenges and even more recent physical ones as a result of Hurricanes Irma and Maria — it’s Julio “Gaby” Acevedo.

Not only is he a lifelong resident who played center for the Puerto Rico Men’s Volleyball National Team, but he leads the San Juan bureau of NBC 4 New York and Telemundo 47, which serve the metro area.

So who better to update us on the state of the island — where tourism/hospitality is the number one industry — 10 months after Maria took some 4,600 lives?

When WAG caught up with him over Memorial Day weekend, Acevedo said that there were still 14,000 clients of the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority without power. (A client may be a building so that the number of individuals without power is actually larger, he added.) Most of these consumers are in nine municipalities on the southeast coast, the Eastern Valley and the Central Mountain corridor.

“The roads are severely damaged, also the infrastructure,” he said. “Thousands of people still have blue tarps on their roofs.”

But there is good news. There are no food shortages and 98 percent of the island has clean drinking water. “In the rural areas, you have to keep an eye on the water sources,” Acevedo said, adding that this was true before the recent hurricanes.

As for the hospitality industry, he said: “It has been tough. It is the most important industry on the island, and it took a beating. But it is back.”

Not only are the boutique hotels and the Hyatt, Intercontinental, Marriott and Sheraton hotels in San Juan fully operational, but others are coming back on line over the next six months. The San Juan Hotel & Casino; Dorado Beach, A Ritz Reserve; and The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort are expected to be back in September-October, while The Condado Plaza Hilton and the Meliá Coco Beach hotel are set to return in November-December.  The Ritz-Carlton, San Juan; El Conquistador, A Waldorf Astoria Resort; and the Caribe Hilton are expected to follow in December-January.

When Maria hit, these hotels had a vital role to play. “Every hotel during the crisis in the metro and coastal areas had generators,” Acevedo said. These places were lifelines for the journalists and emergency workers who flooded the island. They in turn contributed to the economy by staying and eating at the hotels.

But Acevedo was far from this relative comfort zone in Morovis, a municipality in the Central Mountain corridor, where 155-mile-an-hour winds were more like 200-mile-an-hour gusts. Acevedo and his experienced camerawoman, Tania Dumas, arrived on Sept. 19 then hunkered down as the storm hit on Sept. 20 and cut them off from the world until they could return to San Juan three days later. But Acevedo had Plan B — record everything they could for when they could get the story out to the world. 

“There was a lot of suffering,” Acevedo said. “People got on the ground and were praying.”

But then they got up and went about the business of survival. “On Sept. 21 to see people grabbing machetes — elderly women and men — to clear the land, that was something,” Acevedo said. “It was time to live up to our history and our ancestors and reclaim our land.”

Acevedo included. “We had to help not only others but to ensure our survival.

“Our story was capturing the reactions of the people there and what they had lost. But while I was covering it, I had to wonder:  Have I lost everything, too?”

He needn’t have worried. Wife Mariana Thon, neighbors later told Acevedo, was like “G.I. Jane,” up on the roof of their San Juan home, clearing debris. (A professional volleyball player for Puerto Rico, she is the daughter of former Major League Baseball player Dickie Thon, who survived a beaning to return to play pro ball.) 

Before leaving for his assignment, Acevedo had told the couple’s then 5-year-old, Liam, to look after his mother. The boy was shaken by the storm, coming so close after Irma’s punch, as were many of the island’s children. In all, Acevedo and his family were without power for almost three months, a challenge for children in the digital age, Acevedo said. But he and his wife did what they had to do to survive and thrive.

That rugged individualism that is seen as quintessentially American — and on the island as quintessentially Puerto Rican as well — makes the gentlemanly, humble, dignified Acevedo loathe to blame the federal government’s response to the crisis, which has been characterized as treating Puerto Ricans like second-class Americans.

He is grateful for the work of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the countless volunteers from the mainland.

“Mistakes were made,” he said. “Puerto Rico was severely in debt, historically in debt. We were living at the edge, and Maria pushed us over. But Puerto Ricans have to take responsibility for themselves. We can’t wait for Washington. That’s not going to move the ship ahead. This is an opportunity to remodel the island’s ancient structures.”

That disciplined attitude was born of an athlete who played volleyball at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and professionally for 15 years. Soon he was covering games on radio — “a match made in heaven” — and then the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. (Today he is the chief press correspondent for the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee.)

“Playing center in volleyball is a pressure-packed position,” he said. “It takes stamina and spirit.”

All of which have served him well in covering his troubled homeland, which nonetheless lives up to its nickname, “the Pearl of the Caribbean.”

“Come down and visit,” he said, encouraging those who want to help. “I guarantee, it will capture your imagination. It will capture your soul.”

For more, visit nbcnewyork.com.

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