During one of our interviews in Puerto Rico, we switch the recorder off, look across the table at the plant leaders we are interviewing and say, point blank, “I don’t think we should be denying the fact that the government failed this island in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.”
Silence. Everyone looks uncomfortable. We just brought up politics at the Thanksgiving dinner table.
This is the story we thought we wanted, but not the story anyone wanted to tell.
Even prior to Maria, the narrative of the pharma industry in Puerto Rico has been sitting in my brain, writing and re-writing itself over the years. It took a lot to finally make this story happen — a fortuitous connection made during a training course, an extreme amount of pitching to our publisher, joining forces with a senior editor who was relentless in scheduling these interviews.
In late spring, as we neared the anniversary of Hurricane Maria, the media coverage was still accumulating, still offering nothing definitive. Articles about drastically miscalculated death tolls, the war of words between President Trump and the San Juan mayor, the slow and inadequate repairs to the already weakened electrical grid, the inability to get supplies to people who need them, prevailed.
Now considered the worst natural disaster in Puerto Rico’s history, Maria caused months of costly disruption to electrical, fuel and water supplies — all things that manufacturing plants rely on, all things facilitated by government — so surely, the industry that drives one-third of the island’s GDP would be justified if they wanted to do some complaining.
But here we are in Puerto Rico, navigating the eastern coastline, one daunting pothole at a time, getting lost more times than we anticipated, mostly because so many of the road signs blown down by Maria have yet to be replaced. And we are waiting to hear someone tell us how much this storm sucked.
Instead, the pharma industry can’t stop applauding its workforce. Even in the face of tremendous personal chaos, people showed up, just days after Maria, ready to work. We are hearing stories about how employees worked together to patch leaks, sweep water from hallways, source supplies and clear debris from facility properties.
In the absence of adequate government assistance, people — and pharma companies — stepped up to help each other and the surrounding communities. Pharma manufacturers used their robust supply chains, strong leadership and powerful influences for humanitarian purposes.
If self-reliance wasn’t typical of the pharma industry previously, it is now.
Our goal was to travel to Puerto Rico to bring our readers “the truth” about the state of pharma. What we found is that sometimes there is truth in how people decide to tell their stories — what people choose to focus on is just as relevant as what they choose to omit. The island’s political and economic struggles are still very real. And there is still a lot of rebuilding that needs to be done. But most everyone agrees that even Maria’s 155-mph winds were not enough to keep a 50-year-old industry from rising back up.