The day before I was scheduled to arrive in Puerto Rico, the power went out. Again.
This late-April blackout was island-wide, an eerie echo of when Hurricane Maria roared through Puerto Rico last September leaving the entire country without electricity, much of it for months on end. There were still households that hadn't recovered service since the storm made landfall when the lights went out for everyone again.
While I wondered at home about how my trip would be affected, on the island it was business as usual — the new normal, at least. Those who can afford them have generators. The overall outage, though island-wide and understandably frustrating, was blessedly short. The Major League Baseball game went off as scheduled that evening. When I landed the next afternoon in San Juan’s Luis Muñoz Marín Airport, the only hint that anything had been remiss was an announcement from the pilot that we’d need an extra 10 minutes to land because the radar was out — maybe that was related to the power issues, maybe not.
Locals I spoke to on my trip had a sanguine attitude about the blackouts, which comes across as both genuine and born from the stress of life under emergency conditions. When you’ve survived anywhere from four to seven months without electricity, you learn to roll with the improvisational state of mind that kicks in when things outside of your control go awry. It’s that or go crazy, I suppose. On my first full day on the island, remnants of the earlier power outage still crop up; a traffic backup on the way from the Condado district of San Juan to Cataño, where Casa Bacardí is located, reveals a failed stoplight and a single police officer directing a busy four-way intersection.
“The day after the hurricane you’d see people with their machetes and their chainsaws cutting [downed] trees themselves, not waiting for the municipalities or the government,” Christian Frontanés, a brand specialist at Casa Bacardí and native of Orlando, tells us. “They’re like, I have to go to work! Even though there was no work, but we didn’t know [immediately] because there was no communication. It literally changed me, seeing how we picked ourselves up. It really changed my view of Puerto Rico. I am so proud to say I live here, and I went through this.”
The distillery steeled itself for major damage from Maria; after all, as general manager Wesley Cullen points out, “you can’t move half a million barrels of rum” out of harm’s way, so they had no recourse other than to stay put and let the storm do what it would do. But they got lucky. A bit of damage to an unused building, but nothing major; production closed down for two weeks, and the distillery, a popular tourist destination, reopened to the public in November. While they were closed to the public, the company ran a relief station in one of its buildings for its residential neighbors that was supplied with food and water, plus games and movies to keep the kids busy — anything to help out. “It’s our home,” Christian says.
Everyone who lives here has their Maria story, and Christian, who exudes that infectious blend of excitable sophistication that all higher-end booze brand reps seem to possess, tells us his while he takes our group on a tour of the campus, where the air in the barrelhouses is thick with molasses and spice. True to form, Christian had amused himself in the darkened aftermath of the hurricane, which he rode out hunkered down in his bathroom, by creating a signature cocktail for the occasion using Bacardí Legacy, a top-shelf bottle blended from rums aged up to 16 years that you can only buy here at the Rum Cathedral.
“I had sesame oil that I was going to use for a special dinner, but I couldn’t, because my food was damaged from the hurricane [power outage] so I used it for the cocktail,” he told us. “I grabbed two ounces of Bacardí Legacy, just one tiny drop of sesame oil for some nuttiness, a teaspoon of brown sugar simple syrup for some sweetness, a little tiny splash of ginger beer to get that ginger spice.”
The coup de grâce? “I grabbed an orange peel, and I had a little torch, so I torched the orange peel to bring out more of the aroma of the orange. I called it the Maria," he finished with a smile.
Of course he did. I want one right now. This is the dark magic of the brand specialist at work.
Drinks later. We're here to peek in on David Cid, Bacardí’s master of rums, who is leading bartender training in the mixology lab for the staff of El K’rajo, a beachfront bar located about half an hour’s drive east of the airport in the opposite direction from San Juan, down highway 187. El K’rajo, which has been closed since Maria, has been selected for a special episode Bacardí is sponsoring of “Bar Rescue,” an unscripted makeover series on Paramount hosted by hospitality and nightlife consultant and entrepreneur Jon Taffer, and they’re pulling out all the stops — including flying in a handful of reporters like me — to give this locals' bar in the struggling, overlooked town of Loiza a new life. After seven months of rebuilding setbacks, and teetering on financial ruin, owners Victor and Janet Morales look ready for some good news. Someone’s shaking a cocktail under Cid’s tutelage; Victor finds the salsa beat and sweeps Janet up in his arms for a quick dance.
Victor and Janet are both Puerto Rican natives, but they met on Kandahar Air Base in Afghanistan, where they worked for contractors — Victor’s with NATO; Janet’s the State Department. They’ve been married for 10 years. They tell me their story the next day in a hotel meeting room: Victor’s a chef with 40 years of experience, and when he and Janet decided to move home, they opened a popular full-service restaurant in El Yunque, the rain forest, called Barbakoa. Sixteen plates, 14 employees, the whole nine yards. (TripAdvisor users still mourn its closing.) After a while they were looking to the future and found themselves wanting to scale down. They spotted a place for sale on the beach in Loiza, a small town in the Piñones region — a meandering strip of family beaches that feels farther than it is from the resort districts of Isla Verde and Condado, dotted with roadside shacks serving delectable Puerto Rican street food where two can eat more than is advisable for $10, where kids blast hip-hop and reggaeton from open car windows as they cruise through town up the 187. It needed a lot of work but was perfect for the simplified concept they imagined, and they invested all of their money in renovations. El K’rajo, their perfect laid-back beachfront neighborhood bar, opened in 2016.
“A year and a half later, we have a beautiful beach bar, a fun beach bar — neat, clean, people love it. Good ambience. We were doing good business,” says Victor. “Until the hurricane.”
Back up, though. Before Maria, there was Irma, considered one of the strongest storms ever recorded in the Atlantic Ocean. Irma devastated parts of the Caribbean, including the island Barbuda, which was “leveled,” according to the New York Times, before moving on to Puerto Rico on Sept. 6. Irma didn’t bring nearly as much damage to Puerto Rico as the country had feared, but it didn’t spare El K’rajo, either: There was roof damage to repair, and mounds of sand to shovel back onto the beach. The island’s now notoriously fragile power grid was down. Victor and Janet didn’t realize how long it would be before they could just flip the lights on again.
“We opened with a small generator on Sept. 17, 2017. It was Sunday,” said Victor. That was his birthday. “The next day, we received the news that we have to prepare because it was going to be big, so we started preparing the bar again. And welcome Maria,” he said with a rueful laugh.
The first floor of their house near Fajardo flooded. They went five months without power. The road out of town was closed. The supermarket was empty. And they were among the lucky ones — physically OK, just stuck, hot, bewildered, frustrated. And yet they can still find things to laugh about when they remember that time, like the absurd frustration of a veteran chef having nothing but canned goods to prepare on a propane stove.
“Vienna sausages and canned salmon,” says Victor. “Tuna! If someone mentions tuna to me again I’m gonna kill him. I started creating recipes with tuna and salmon. Tuna with garbanzo — that’s 'Spanish tuna'! Salmon with pigeon peas! And a lot of white rice. But we handled it,” he added with a shrug.
They laugh now, but the aftereffects linger. They don’t keep perishable food in the house for long these days — they’re buying just enough for the meal. No sense in setting yourself up for more good food going to waste.
Loiza itself, where their bar is located, suffered immensely in the aftermath of Maria. Just 20 minutes from the airport, the working-class community of 29,000 was left in dire straits during initial relief. According to a report by the Independent, Loiza had one city truck to collect and distribute necessities like bottled water. The mayor had no satellite phone, therefore no means of communicating with relief coordinators. Residents were asked to file repair requests digitally in a town with no electricity, where few have computers, and nobody could get online.
It took Victor and Janet two weeks to even get through to Highway 187, which was riddled in downed wires and submerged in massive amounts of sand, to make the drive to see the damage at El K’rajo for the first time.
“It was really devastating when we got there. The kitchen roof was gone, the terrace was gone, the rolling doors were gone,” says Janet.
“Six to 8 feet of sand inside the building,” says Victor.
Filing insurance claims became a larger than usual challenge when electricity and internet access were down across the island. Insurance companies want photos, but how do you even get prints in the mail until the drugstores reopen? Victor and Janet set about repairing as they could. They were making progress toward being able to reopen when the wave hit.
On March 5, large swells from the massive northeaster that battered the east coast of the U.S. barreled onto that section of Puerto Rico, washing out parts of the Piñones area. Once again, El K’rajo was right in the path. More than 4 feet of salt water flooded the bar, wiping out the refrigeration equipment, all of their kitchen repairs. Again with the sand — 2 feet washed up inside the bar area, inside the kitchen, with 8 to 9 feet banked up outside the door. All of the work they had put into the bar since Maria was destroyed.
El K’rajo needed a miracle to reopen for business, for Victor and Janet to start earning money again so they could get caught up on their home mortgage, to begin to feel like they were building something again, not simply waiting for the next disaster to hit. Enter “Bar Rescue.”
For the uninitiated, “Bar Rescue” is like “Kitchen Nightmares” for pubs, swooping in for a few days to rehab family establishments that run the gamut from “Cheers, but a little down on its luck” to “Charlie Kelly is the bartender”: the venues are messy, the staffs messier, the owners frequently the messiest. A quintessential episode of “Bar Rescue” is one part fixer-upper drama and three parts family therapy; if host Jon Taffer doesn’t yell at the owners and bring them to tears over their failure to get their acts together for the sake of their family, their staff and/or their own souls by the end of the episode, the catharsis for the viewer isn’t quite complete.
But the tone of this episode, which will air later in the summer, is different.
“They’re not failing owners,” Taffer explained to me on set in Loiza, where the show’s crew had taken over the town’s tiny community center building, playground, basketball court and Little League field for renovations, to be unveiled alongside the bar’s makeover as a treat for an entire community that had been through so much.
He’s speaking to me very softly, gently, as one might to a kitten, the very opposite of the guy who’s known in part for delivering blunt truths in a big voice on TV.
“These are good people, and Irma and Maria just wham-wham double-knocked them. They lost their car, they lost their business. They haven’t been able to pay their mortgage, and none of it is by their doing.”
At most bars he works with, Taffer tells me, he’s “fighting with them against themselves.” In post-Maria Puerto Rico, even now when the island business leaders want everyone to know “we’re open for business,” there are major external challenges. Building materials have to be shipped in, and there’s so much demand across the entire island. Everybody’s waiting for lumber. Getting labor is an issue. In the spring, it rains once a day, which can delay construction (and the shooting schedule follows). And, of course, the power’s been out again this week while they worked. “I had to call every friend I know,” Taffer says.
The friends of “Bar Rescue” and Puerto Rico showed up. Native son and retired New York Yankee Bernie Williams is here. We’ve just missed Mark Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks. But we are just in time to see Bravo star Bethenny Frankel of “Real Housewives of New York” and sundry spinoffs, who started her own disaster relief initiative B Strong in the wake of the devastation in Houston from Hurricane Ike and the earthquake in Mexico last year, who is in Loiza on her fifth trip to Puerto Rico since chartering four planes full of 20,000 pounds of immediate disaster relief materials — water, diapers, medication, and tens of thousands of dollars in Costco gift cards and cash cards — in early October.
“We were here nine days in. We were here before the president,” she told me during a break in the shoot. “We came when people were saying you can’t go, it’s too dangerous, there’s no water, there’s no electricity.
“That’s when you have to go,” she said matter-of-factly. “When we got here [people] were standing on their roofs still waiting for water, rationing little droplets of water. Ankle-deep in mud. That’s when we’d pull a truck onto a street and without anything planned, obviously nobody had phones [that worked], and people would just stand in line for hours just to get a diaper or some water. That was when people really needed it.”
Frankel's been helping get the Little League baseball field, a tentpole of daily life in small-town Puerto Rico, in tip-top shape for Williams to throw out the first pitch at the unveiling the next day.
Since she’s been in and out of the country over the last several months, Frankel has seen improvements, which happen at different rates for different areas.
“Since the beginning, San Juan got its act together. It’s the main city. So it’s a little deceiving if people are judging this whole place by that. When you get a little further out, now, you still see it’s still a wreck in some neighborhoods. And that’s the scary part,” she said. “But judging from the city, it’s still way busier than right after the hurricane.”
There’s a line of conventional wisdom that says reality TV personalities must be playing a character for the cameras. Those familiar with Frankel’s intensity on-screen might be tempted to believe it. In between her shoots, though, Frankel has been in contact with several veterinarians and rescue groups over the plight of a street dog and her puppies that have posted up in the shade of the talent trailers. It’s become a thing, these dogs. The cameras captured none of this as far as I saw, but there was Bethenny anyway, cleaning off a puppy with a wet wipe out of the back of an SUV while asking if anyone could Google the nearest Petco for supplies. All of this is to say that up close, Bethenny Frankel is exactly as she seems on TV, and her drive to be useful doesn’t seem to be something she can turn on and off. Reality TV gets a bad rap at times for its disconnect with actual reality, but on set for this episode of “Bar Rescue,” at least, the enthusiasm is palpable and authentic. Everyone here just wants to make this happen for Victor and Janet, and for the community.
For veteran character actor Luis Guzmán, who has been working on a fence surrounding the playground outside the community center, rebuilding in Puerto Rico is personal. He’s a native, and his parents and brother were at home in Aguadilla on the northwestern coast when Maria hit. Guzman tells me he’s concerned that the country’s leadership isn’t taking preventative measures seriously enough to mitigate the effects of future Maria-level disasters. (“Not to get political, but . . .” he says.) Everyone is aware that another hurricane season is around the corner. A large-scale plan to install solar panels, he thinks, could be a place to start.
“Because it’s going to happen again. Weather around the world is changing. Weather is becoming much more intense,” he tells me. “The ocean is coming in like never before.
“You’re in the middle of the ocean and you get hit by these storms, and what have you done to upgrade the system? What is your plan, what is your backup?” he adds.
In the meantime, repairs continue up the street at El K’rajo and throughout the community center grounds. All of the trappings of a normal “Bar Rescue” are going down — it's a down-to-the-wire scramble to pull it all together for the reveal party, where the new menu will also debut. (Shredded pork-smothered mofongo fries, conch ceviche? Yes, please.) The trick for El K’rajo, however, Taffer tells me, is for the team to make the makeover special while being respectful of the culture — “I didn’t want to come in here and do anything too cutesy or too American” — and the bar’s identity as a locals' hangout, not a juiced-up tourist joint. (The mixology experts are working up well-balanced mojitos to enjoy beachside instead of top-shelf bespoke cocktails with sesame oil.)
The physical task of rebuilding is the easy part, Taffer says, for a project that’s more about reenergizing traumatized owners who have been living one day at a time for months.
“I have to get Maria behind them,” he said. “How do I get them reinspired and get that wound healed? The only way I can do it is with a positive energy.”
The positive energy builds all day Sunday when the reveal kicks in, as Victor and Janet are led scene by scene first through the Loiza community center improvements: the small building that’s been painted and refurnished with new foosball and ping-pong tables and shelves of board games and tables and chairs, the cleaned-up basketball court, the lovely playground, the baseball field, where Williams throws out the first pitch to some very excited local kids all decked out in new matching uniforms.
Then we all walk about three minutes up the road to cross the 187 and see El K’rajo for the first time. I watch from a monitor as Janet and Victor gasp over the new mural honoring different parts of Puerto Rican culture, and the revamped interior — casual, beachy, the kind of place you go not to see and be seen but to feel at peace — and especially the rooftop terrace, which they didn’t have before the hurricane, with its perfect view of today's gentle waves.
During the reveal, Taffer tells the couple that the network is also giving them a $12,000 check to get caught up on the bills that have gone unpaid during the time the bar was closed. In the monitor room set up next door, I am not the only one feeling emotional over this detail.
“The last time we were here we were shoveling sand,” Victor tells me after the shoot breaks for dinner. “And now my knees are shaking, because I’m so excited.”
“A lot of people have lost their homes, lost their businesses, have left their homes,” says Janet. “I pray for the people who are not as lucky as us.”
There is still a significant need in Puerto Rico, especially in poorer communities, to rebuild and to reclaim that which was lost. Hurricane season begins next week, and the ordeal of Maria, or worse, could hit again. But today, one more business is open again in Loiza at least, and the Little League field has Bernie Williams' own footprints mixed in with those of the neighborhood kids.