Erika P. Rodríguez for NPR
LAJAS, Puerto Rico — It had been almost exactly five years since Hurricane Maria tore across Puerto Rico, destroying the baseball diamond a short walk from Carlos Rodríguez Malavé’s house. But by this summer, the ballpark’s restoration was finally complete.
The infield dirt was freshly graded, a sturdy chain link fence lined the outfield, and a new metal roof over the bleachers replaced the one Maria had blown away.
Rodríguez was giddy about it. He’d been itching for years to form a free children’s league so his three young sons could learn baseball on the same diamond he’d learned on as a boy. But the park’s broken lighting system — battered by Maria’s 150-mph winds in 2017 — had made evening practices impossible. Now with repairs finished, he could finally do it.
Officials in Rodríguez’s small rural town, Lajas, asked him to be the first to turn on the newly restored lights. So on an evening in mid-August, he opened up the metal box tucked away behind the third base foul line and flipped the switches inside, bathing the ball field in golden light.
“It was the most elegant thing you’ve ever seen,” Rodríguez recalled. Neighbors whose homes face the park came out to cheer. “We had been waiting five years for that. Ever since Maria.”
Within days, he and the town’s recreation director partnered up to form the league and started coaching 40 children on the field three evenings a week. They ordered uniforms and were planning an inauguration ceremony.
But within a month, they had to shut it all down.
On Sept. 18, Hurricane Fiona – Puerto Rico’s first hurricane since Maria — made landfall on the island’s southwestern coast, just a few miles from the ballfield. Sometime overnight, the storm’s 100-mile-per-hour wind gusts knocked over one of the newly repaired light posts. It crashed down over a fence, mangling the lighting system’s wiring and knocking it out of service again. The diamond flooded too.
Rodríguez realized what had happened the next morning, when he went on a walk through the neighborhood after the worst of the storm had passed.
“I saw that fallen light post, and my heart fell to the ground,” he said on a recent evening, standing near home plate with his sons Jahxiel, 9, Ian, 7, and Isaac, 6. “So much work had gone into the field. It was finally in good shape. And we only got to use it for a month. Who knows how long we’ll have to wait again?”
Hurricane Fiona flooded homes, washed away roads, and tore off roofs in communities across the island. But in some places – like in Rodríguez’s neighborhood — heartbreak over the destruction was deepened by the fact that what Fiona destroyed had only recently been rebuilt from the damage Maria had inflicted, and often at great effort.
Erika P. Rodríguez for NPR
Erika P. Rodríguez for NPR
In the mountain town of Utuado, the raging waters of the Caonillas River swept away a temporary bridge that FEMA had put up to replace one that collapsed during Maria. In the coastal town of Loíza, a fishermen’s cooperative had finally gotten long-delayed federal reconstruction funding to repair the building its members use to process and sell their daily catch. Workers had just started removing damaged roof panels when Fiona arrived. The building flooded through the open ceiling.
Fiona was far less destructive than Maria was, but Puerto Rico officials estimate the Category 1 hurricane caused $5 billion in damage to public infrastructure. Officials have not said how much of that was infrastructure that Maria had also damaged and that — like the Lajas baseball diamond — had already been repaired or was in the process.
But in Lajas, the town’s mayor and its residents have been left to figure out how they’ll fix their baseball diamond yet again.
“It’s like we’ve gone back five years in time,” the mayor, Jayson Martínez, said. “You can’t detain Mother Nature, but seeing our park damaged again so soon after we finished it, that hurt. And the recuperation is going to be the same experience as before. Slow.”
The recent repairs were funded from the billions that Congress approved for post-Maria reconstruction almost five years ago — money only now starting to trickle into communities. FEMA is also freeing up money to fix damage caused by Fiona. But Martínez fears accessing this money, too, will take years.
“We’ll have to wait and see what process FEMA rolls out,” he said.
The ballpark’s repairs had been relatively simple, and along with fixes to an adjacent basketball court, had cost less than $100,000. But Lajas is one of Puerto Rico’s poorest municipalities, and it hadn’t had the money. It took town officials years to get it by working through the bureaucratic morass that has slowed the disbursement of post-Maria reconstruction funds all across the U.S. territory.
Which is why to Martínez, finishing the project, as small as it may have been, had felt like a triumph – a reason for his town of 23,000 people to celebrate after years of lurching from one crisis to another.
Maria had wrecked many homes in Lajas and left parts of the town without power for close to a year. Then in early 2020, destructive earthquakes centered just off its coast damaged more homes. Families all across the town, fearful their houses would collapse next, spent months sleeping in their driveways or in the street while they awaited engineering inspections. Then came the pandemic.
After all that, the restored baseball park had served as a symbol this summer that despite every setback, Lajas could, and would, continue to take steps toward normalcy.
“It’s always important to try to move forward,” the mayor said.
Willie Rivera, a retiree who lives alone in a house facing the ballfield, said that for the four weeks before Fiona that the new floodlights had illuminated the ballpark, evenings in the Lajas Arriba neighborhood had filled with a youthful energy he hadn’t felt there in years.
“Oh, yes,” Rivera said. “The kids came out and used it. It was very nice.”
Sitting on his porch plucking out traditional Puerto Rican melodies on his 10-stringed cuatro, he noticed that older neighbors also started venturing out after dark to walk laps on a small track next to the baseball diamond. He’d almost done so himself.
Normangeline Vázquez, the town’s recreation director and volunteer softball coach, said the still unrepaired damage to ballfields, basketball courts, athletic tracks and playgrounds across the island is one of many overlooked tragedies still plaguing Puerto Rico five years after Maria. Fiona has made it worse.
“Our children have been through so much,” she said. “And these parks are where they get to play, where our communities go to relieve the stress from everything we’ve gone through.”
But in the immediate aftermath of a disaster, recreational facilities fall down the list of priorities. After Fiona, Vázquez and every other municipal employee in Lajas set aside their normal duties to become an emergency responder – zipping around in golf carts to deliver food, water, ice and medicine to residents who went weeks without power. They checked on aging neighbors, patched up roofs and set up generators.
Meanwhile, the baseball diamond that the town’s maintenance workers had so meticulously been caring for before the storm, started to become unkempt, and then overgrown. Town officials closed it to residents, out of fear the floodlights that remained standing might topple next, and because the exposed wiring from the one that did collapse could be dangerous once the neighborhood’s power was restored.
Vázquez said the ball field’s lighting system will be repaired again. How long it will take, she said, is hard to predict.
“The mayor and I are going to do everything we can to get it fixed as soon as we can,” she said. “Because if you fall three times, you pick yourself up three times.”
As Carlos Rodríguez walked around the infield on a recent evening, taking in the damage, his three sons tugged on his shirt.
“Can we go get our gloves?” Ian, his 7-year-old, whispered.
Rodríguez frowned and shook his head no. He was dying to let them, but the ballpark was technically closed. The boys raced each other around the bases instead.
“Our kids enjoy themselves here and they develop their skills,” he said. “But if they don’t have places to do that, we’re making it harder for them to achieve great things in the future. These disasters have been hard for us, but they’ve also been hard for our children.”
Until he can start his league up again, Rodríguez has been driving his sons to play in one in the city of Ponce, 45 minutes away. They love it.
“Nothing makes you happier,” he said, “than to see your children have fun.”
Erika P. Rodríguez for NPR