Nothing short of a miracle would save Janet and Victor Morales.
The couple’s life was turned upside down after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last September. Their beachfront restaurant El K’rajo, once a popular neighbourhood staple of the Piñones region of Loiza, was entirely destroyed. Most of the roof was gone. Six feet of sand got inside the building. And all appliances and furniture? Those were entirely damaged by the saltwater.
“Maria devastated the island and our personal life,” Janet told me during an interview in the spring. “When it hit the restaurant and destroyed it, it was like losing everything.”
Trying to rebuild was a nightmare: Filing insurance claims in an island with no electricity or internet service was damn near impossible and companies took a long time to pay the couple back; construction materials were either hard to find or got more expensive as everyone tried to fix the wreckage; and with no business, they saw their savings disappear.
It also didn’t help that the first floor of their house in the eastern town of Fajardo flooded after the storm and that they spent nearly five months without power, barely finding food in the supermarket.
We all know what happened next: hundreds of thousands were without water or electricity for months, some even to this day; people in the island faced food shortages and a lack of medical resources, a mental health crisis brewed, and there were thousands of storm-related deaths. And that’s without taking into account the massive exodus of Puerto Ricans who were forced to leave their homes in search of a better life.
The Morales, who have been married for 10 years, decided to stay despite having family stateside. They were holding on tightly to the Puerto Rican notion of echar pa’lante – move forward — despite all the challenges.
“It was a dark chapter,” Victor said. “Nevertheless, we slowly took matters into our own hands. We lost the restaurant’s signs? Janet painted one in a wall. I googled how to fix refrigeration systems and I did it myself.”
Janet added: “Everything we could save up, we would. Our children Cynthia and Naldo came to help us. And sometimes our family would send us money to help out, too.”
But all the couple had built came crashing down when la marejada came. As a massive northeaster pummeled the East Coast, large swells made their way down to Puerto Rico on March 5. Most parts of Piñones were washed out — including El K’rajo.
“Four feet of saltwater, five feet of sand. All the equipment was damaged once again,” Victor said. “It was like, What are we going to do now?” It was back to square one for the Morales. But this time, they had absolutely no cash and were about to lose their house, too. Then, the phone rang.
A representative of Paramount Network's Bar Rescue called Victor earlier this year to tell him the show could feature El K'rajo in an episode and that host Jon Taffer was interested in helping the family. The Morales were understandably shocked. (Laughing, Janet told me she asked Victor if he had "smoked" anything.) In late April, the Bar Rescue crew flew down to Puerto Rico to commence the rebuilding of El K'rajo. A few days after, I followed.
Taffer, who lived in Puerto Rico as a child, told me he felt it was his duty to help the family. "I didn't speak Spanish so my memories of Puerto Rico weren't words. They were feelings," he said. "These people have struggled so much. With this family and community, I think we can make a difference. They had all the qualities we want to rescue."
This time around, there was no yelling on set. At least, not the kind Taffer engages in when owners are not listening to him during the filming of his show, which brings viewers the staple fixer-upper drama mixed with tough love reality shows are known for. The special, airing Sunday, will be different.
The coastal town of Loiza, where El K'rajo is located, has historically been low-income and was one of the hardest hit during Hurricane Maria. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, Loizeños were among the residents with the most needs. Months after Maria, recovery has still been slow.
Part of the Bar Rescue endeavour in the island included rebuilding a community centre, a basketball court, and a Little League baseball field in the neighbourhood that sits about half-a-mile from the restaurant. The show went all out bringing stars to collaborate with their efforts: the Real Housewives of New York's Bethenny Frankel, Puerto Rican athletes J.J. Barea and Bernie Williams, actor Luis Guzmán, and even entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
"People are still suffering, people are losing their homes, people don't have jobs. So it's important for me as a person who has a following and is a public figure to continue to create awareness," Frankel, who assisted the initial hurricane relief efforts in Puerto Rico and has continued her work since, told me.
For Guzmán, who was born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York City, the visit was deeply personal. Like many other boricuas in the diaspora, it took Guzmán weeks to be able to communicate with his father and brother in the island.
"This type of phenomenon is one that happens once in a lifetime. It impacted people spiritually, emotionally — it was something really hard for our people," he said.
Guzmán added: "We need to be here to show our support for these communities. There's still so much more help needed in the island. Even though this might feel like a small thing, it's still valuable."
The first thing Janet did when we sat down for an interview and I introduced myself as a Puerto Rican journalist was to ask if my loved ones were okay. Her “¿Y tu familia? ¿Están bien?” would have been polite in most cases. In post-Maria Puerto Rico, however, the question is a charged one.
After catching them up — my parents were without power until December, we were blessed that the house is fine, everything is okay gracias a Dios — Janet let out a sigh of relief and her face lit up with gratitude. I would quickly discover she is the type of person who would try to help others in need even when on the verge of losing everything.
We were all standing under the sweltering Puerto Rican sun when it was time to show the big reveal of the community centre and the surrounding areas. As the blindfolds came down, the entire Morales family had tears in their eyes.
For Janet, it was an "out of this world" feeling. She beamed as she listed all the repairs the crew did: the painting jobs in each place, the new swings for the community centre's backyard, the baseball field's new kitchen so the teams can sell frituras or Puerto Rican street food.
"That the community is blessed through us fills our hearts," she said.
Community leader Juan París Clemente told me that the spaces renovated by the Bar Rescue crew are among the most important for the residents. "These are places para congregarse," he told me, referring to the act of assembly and community that is so deeply entrenched in Puerto Rican culture.
As we left the neighbourhood, two Little League teams started to play.
I will not spoil the Morales' reaction to finally seeing their renovated restaurant, but know that there were a lot of tears. Victor told me than the place looked even better than he imagined, saying he felt as if he had won the lottery.
The couple emphasised over and over how lucky they felt than their journey to recover the family business had included the community they love so much.
But they also recognised that Puerto Rico is still a long way from recovering fully from the impact of Maria. Still, they had the same pa'lante attitude that had gotten them through perhaps one of the darkest periods in their lives.
"Puerto Ricans, we're not quitters," Janet said. "We won't give up."
Bar Rescue: Operation Puerto Rico premieres on Sunday, July 22 at 10pm ET/PT on Paramount Network in the US (UK release TBC).
Travel for the author was provided by BACARDÍ Rum and Paramount Network for the purpose of writing this story.