Fleeing Hurricane Maria: One Restaurant’s Story

When Hurricane Maria ravaged the island of Puerto Rico, for some it was merely the continuation of devastation left by Hurricane Irma. Many of the island’s residents weren’t able to recover quickly enough from Irma to withstand the onslaught of Maria. As a result, both disasters took a toll on the inhabitants of the island. Kevin Roth and Idalia Garcia, the owners of La Estacion in the eastern port city of Fajardo, saw their restaurant and home ravaged by electrical fire. The aftermath of what the island has left them to contend with forced them to come to the mainland where the couple, with their two children, are staying with Idalia’s family in Connecticut. Though the media has given deserved spotlight to much of the needed aid and assistance still needed in Puerto Rico, we wanted to highlight one food family’s story to continue to impress upon those reading how dire the situation is, and how much is needed to restore the many left bereft to former comfort.

For those who haven’t been to La Estacion, it’s a wondrous restaurant that reeks of love and commitment from their owners. Once a gas station that had fallen into disrepair, the Garcia-Roths created a food heaven complete with outdoor patios filled concrete tables, a home-made smoker made out of a Bronco (!!) that roasted full pigs, and massive mofongos stuffed with a variety of fillings. A cultivated following always showed up for their festive lechon dinners on Sundays. A cafe soon followed and reservations were hard to secure. All of that glorious deliciousness was wiped away a few months ago, but knowing Roth and Garcia, they will rebuild La Estacion into the inviting, convivial pork temple that it once was.

Roth’s brother created a Go Fund Me page in response to Maria which has raised $15,000 for the family. In thanks, Kevin and Idalia have shared the deeper details of their journey with those who have helped lift them up since Maria hit.

Here is their story: 

La Estacion was a labor of love, sweat and tears 11 years in the making. During these years, we have been blessed with growth and opportunities and we made many new friends along the way. Year after year, while we had many close calls, it was impossible to imagine something like this happening. When Hurricane Irma hit on September 6, we were lucky that the damages were minimal but our neighborhood — where we both live and work — was without power and running water for ten days. When the light was restored on the afternoon of September 15, we returned home to discover an electrical fire. The closed windows did not allow fuel for the fire, but it contained the damaging smoke and soot which spread throughout our home.

The following Monday we began to prepare for Hurricane Maria which was building quickly. Tuesday, we spent the night in the bathroom. It was one of the scariest nights of our lives as we listened to hours of strong winds and banging. If we only knew that the aftermath would be much scarier than the storm. It has been over 100 years since Puerto Rico experienced a hurricane that could compare to Maria. Cars were overturned and boats washed onto roads. Wooden roofs did not stand a chance, mature adult trees were uprooted and everywhere was flooded with water.

Cement electrical posts were on the ground, in pieces, and we later found out that all of the island was without electricity, many without running water. Days and weeks after the storm we found ourselves having to struggle for what we had been accustomed to as basic needs with no sign of the return of electricity or running water. No phone or internet service made communication impossible.

There were lines for everything. Six to twelve hour lines for gas (if the station had any), up to three hour lines for an ATM that functioned because cash was the only form of payment accepted anywhere, and lines outside of supermarkets only to enter and find empty shelves. Things got a little better in the weeks that followed the storm — we were able to fill our gas tanks, drive an hour away to search for cellular service and communicate with loved ones — but certain problems persisted. While stores were opening and it was easier to get into them, the shelves remained scarcely stocked and it was rare to find drinking water.

With heavy hearts, we decided it was best for all of us, especially our ten year old daughter and infant son, to leave the island until some normalcy was restored. We are very grateful, as donations made through our Go Fund Me page helped us get to Connecticut, where Idalia’s father has opened up his home to us. Your donations have allowed us to start repairs on our restaurant before leaving and repairs on our home so that it is ready for our return. Your help has allowed us to take care of some of our employees who depend on us. We are thankful for our lives and our friends and that we still have something to repair because there are many that are worse off than us. We thank everyone that donated — from the bottom of our hearts — for making a tough situation a little bit easier.

When we return we still have quite a few repairs and maintenance to deal with before re-opening. While the heavy rains have helped make Puerto Rico green again, they have been bad for our kitchen and office. Both spaces have suffered additional water damage due to repairs that have not yet been made. While the electricity is returning throughout the island, it is still spotty and we’re still unsure our computers and electronics have not failed us due to the outages and moisture. We are basically starting from scratch, restocking everything; it will be like opening the restaurant for the first time, all over again.

We are going to have to scale down our operations, starting with a soft opening manned by a fraction of our staff and a smaller menu, as we do not expect a winter high season drawn from tourism to the region. We have already lost the two busiest weeks of the year encompassing Thanksgiving and Christmas.  We rely heavily on local products and variety in markets, and since suppliers have changed drastically, we will have to adapt our menu. We will go into it day by day, depending on availability. We will have to see what kind of volume we have to be able to add more staff, eliminate the risk of spoilage, and keep afloat.

While in Connecticut, we have tried to make the best of being away from home for the holidays. Our ten year old plays the Puerto Rican cuatro and she has been sharpening up her plenas and Christmas songs. Idalia’s dad has pulled out his extensive collection of Puerto Rican Christmas music and those sounds fill the house. All of Idalia’s stateside Puerto Rican family will get together; a pastele making party is in the making, and we will be lighting the candles for Chanukah.  On Noche Buena, Kevin will be cooking a whole pig — just like he does every year — so we will not be without lechon this Christmas. But it won’t be the same. Even though it’s been great to see family over the holidays, it would have been nicer under other circumstances.

Our restaurant has not been open in three months and things have been tight, to put it mildly, as we maintain accounts and bills knowing we hope to re-open soon. Our hands are tied right now and we are relying on fate and destiny as we await the result of insurance claims, the climate of tourism, and the economy in general. We wish we could do more for our staff and ensure everyone’s employment, but only time will tell. In the meanwhile, we are looking forward to going back to our island, feeling the warmth of the sun, and firing up our smokers … while sipping on a cold Medalla.

Idalia, Kevin, Devin, Kalen and Lulu

If you’d like to contribute to the Roth Family recovery, please visit their Go Fund Me page.

If you’d like to contribute to the larger recovery effort in Puerto Rico, you can donate medical supplies via Americares or food supplies via World Central Kitchen. Every dollar helps.