Vieques Still Finding Its Footing After Hurricane Destruction The problems facing the mainland in the aftermath of hurricanes Irma and Maria didn't skip this remote Puerto Rican island. But tourists still come and houses continue to sell.

Vieques Still Finding Its Footing After Hurricane Destruction

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The Island of Vieques is part of Puerto Rico, but it is set apart, too, a short distance off the big island's eastern coast. Vieques is an isolated place known for its remote beaches and for the decades during which the U.S. Navy used those beaches for bombing runs and training exercises. It's an island that has long been a hard place to stay for locals but a good place for visitors. Now, nine months after Hurricane Maria, as Connecticut Public Radio's Jeff Cohen reports, that dynamic is even more at play.

JEFF COHEN, BYLINE: In the windy shade near the ferry terminal is a small square with a tower in the middle. It's called Plaza Hijos Ausentes - the plaza for absent children. It's a place to honor those who were born in Vieques but who chose to leave or who had to.

ELDA GUADALUPE CARRASQUILLO: It's always been an issue in Vieques.

COHEN: That's Elda Guadalupe Carrasquillo. She's a municipal legislator, a middle school science teacher, and she's lived here since she was a child.

CARRASQUILLO: Normally, our kids - right? - we have our children here and then they go out to study and it's very few that, can come back and work here. So they did this monument to honor that they lived in Vieques and they are called sons and daughters of Vieques although they're not here now. They're absent.

COHEN: Puerto Ricans have left their main island for decades in search of opportunity. Vieques is no different, but it's more remote than its bigger neighbor. In good times, it isn't always easy living here. Now, it's worse. Take, for instance, electricity. The underwater power connection that used to bring power from Puerto Rico may be out of service for four years. Robert Rabin isn't from here, but he's lived here for 40 years and runs, among other things, the island's community radio station. He says Vieques' history also distinguishes it from mainland Puerto Rico.

ROBERT RABIN: We're still suffering the impact of over half a century of military control that blocked natural, normal development, leaving the people of Vieques, you know, years behind in terms of economic capacity, economic development, social development.

COHEN: So tourism is what there is, and when it hurts, the whole island hurts. But he also knows that he, a guy who came here to write a college thesis and stayed, could be seen as part of the problem. It's a contradiction, he says, he lives with. Lin Wetherby is a real estate agent here. She's fended off her share of speculators, one offering $50,000 in cash for five houses. What's important to her and to homeowners is that the properties she's working with, often at the higher end of the island's market, hold their value after the storm. And based on her evidence, it appears they may be.

LIN WETHERBY: I had four contracts at the time Maria hit us and pretty much figured maybe I'd get two of them to close. And we're actually going to close all four.

COHEN: Wanda Bermudez is a Vieques native. I met her on the back patio of her mother's downtown home surrounded by wind chimes. She likes tourism but not necessarily the kind that leads to a land grab.

WANDA BERMUDEZ: OK, yeah, we need tourists, but we don't need them to stay.

COHEN: Bermudez says the real estate market skyrocketed after the Navy left. Fifteen years later, she was hoping Maria would have provided a correction to the recently hot market, making it more affordable for locals. None of her cousins can own their Vieques homes. That all said, if the island's complicated history has created some unavoidable tensions, she feels them, too. She fears locals will get pushed out by market forces. And even with all of that, she just sold a beachfront home to an island outsider who could buy it - almost top dollar.

BERMUDEZ: I'm guilty as charged. Here I am. I sold to an outsider.

COHEN: Bermudez says the whole situation is emotionally hard, even more so because the things she loves most about Vieques are still in recovery. There are no ripe mangoes here. The shade trees at the beach are stripped of their leaves. And at least for her, it feels like it's going to take a long time for the island to grow new fruit. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Cohen.

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