Loyola grad tells Puerto Rico’s story in wake of Hurricane Maria

Nicholas Brown, '07, reports on Puerto Rico's economic and humanitarian crises for Thomson Reuters

By Claire Hoffman, '07

Nicholas Brown always knew he wanted to be a professional writer—but the path his career followed is one he never expected.

Nick Brown, 2007 graduate and journalist, poses in front of blurred out storefront.

Photo of Nick Brown, ’07, by Jeni Magaña.

The 2007 graduate writes about Puerto Rico’s humanitarian and economic crises for media giant Thomson Reuters; he lived on the island in 2015 and 2016, during which time he served as the company’s San Juan Bureau Chief. He and his team won a Reuters Journalists of the Year award for their reporting.

Brown’s job faced unexpected upheaval last fall when Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory, causing $90 billion in damages and leaving virtually the entire island without power. He has returned to Puerto Rico several times since then to report on the developing humanitarian crisis.

“Having lived and developed roots there before the storm, reporting on post-Maria Puerto Rico was the most defining experience of my professional life,” says Brown. “To see this place I had lived and loved so deeply changed, suffering so greatly in the dark, was gut-wrenching.”

Brown credits his Loyola education and time studying abroad in Rome for teaching him to leave his comfort zone and develop empathy for those less fortunate—qualities that are essential to his current career.

The Boston native says he was drawn to Loyola after a recommendation from his stepfather, who holds a graduate degree in business from Loyola.

“Loyola seemed like a place with compassionate people who would nurture [me] and help me adjust,” says Brown, who majored in communication with a writing specialization and minored in political science. “That’s really just a long way of saying I majored in learning to write and think, which is what a journalist needs to do,” he explains. As a student, he was involved with The Greyhound newspaper, serving as the Opinions Editor his junior and senior years.

Brown recently spoke with Loyola magazine about his time living in and reporting on Puerto Rico, how his Loyola education prepared him to cover Hurricane Maria, his experience with the Zika virus, and more.

Can you describe your path after graduation?

I got my first job at the Queens Courier, a small weekly paper in Bayside, Queens, with the help of fellow Greyhound alumnus, Pete Davis, ’05. I hated it. I left completely jaded, thinking I was not strong enough to make it in New York. I moved back in with my parents in Massachusetts and got a job at a daily paper.

In hindsight I realized that, as much as I’d loathed my experience in Queens, it had toughened me up. It had given me a harsh understanding of what it took to be a journalist, which at times can be a very lonely profession.

Fast-forward to 2009, my then-girlfriend/now-wife Julianne Tinari [a 2007 graduate who received her B.A. in English from Loyola] was starting law school in New York. I knew that long distance plus law school equals doom. Long story short, I took the first job I could get, at an online, niche publication covering legal industry news, and moved back to New York.

In 2011, Reuters was developing a new legal news product and reached out to me. I jumped to Reuters, and spent three years covering bankruptcy and restructuring law there, going to court for the bankruptcy hearings of America’s biggest failed companies in the aftermath of the Great Recession: Lehman Brothers, MF Global, American Airlines, Hostess, the estate of Bernie Madoff, the City of Detroit. Then in 2014, Puerto Rico’s finances started to go south. As the island’s bondholders started to demand repayment, the situation began to have a lot of crossover with a typical corporate bankruptcy. I was asked to start covering it.

How did that lead to you living in Puerto Rico for a year?

As time went on, we got some good scoops, and one of my editors said he would be interested in having someone stationed on the island and covering it full-time. I jumped at the chance.

Because fate doesn’t care about your timing, my position in Puerto Rico was to begin just six weeks after I married Julie [in 2015]. We talked endlessly about the pros and cons of my going; Julie had a life and a career at a literary agency in New York and couldn’t come with me. But we both understood it had the potential to be a really good career move, so we decided that I would go—but I would come back after a year, full stop. And that’s what happened.

Bride and groom walking arm in arm with a seascape in the backdrop.

Brown moved to Puerto Rico six weeks after marrying Loyola classmate Julianne Tinari in June 2015. Photo by Ciro Photography.

The experience was hard; it’s no fun living away from your partner. But I have to admit, there was also an incredible rush that came from the autonomy of being stationed in a remote place. It was almost exactly the vision I’d had as a younger person imagining what it would be like to be a journalist. That boots-on-the-ground image—Hunter Thompson driving along a seaside highway in a convertible, smoking a cigar with a fedora on his head, jotting on his notepad—it’s not that exaggerated.

Of course it wasn’t all fun and games. This was before the hurricane, but the island was battling a severe economic crisis. My job was to be exposed to the worst of that, to make it a story of people and not just bond prices. The means on which people manage to live in Puerto Rico is jarring when you realize that this is a U.S. territory, a part of the wealthiest country in the world.

You contracted the Zika virus while you were living there. How has that affected your life?

I got Zika around June of 2016, shortly before my one-year post was to come to an end. I found out because I’d been having health problems—rashes, eye pain, a couple days of severe flu-like symptoms—so I got tested. I was actually relieved to have tested positive, because, having studied and written about Zika, I knew there were many worse things to have.

From a marital perspective, though, it was quite complicated. It meant Julie and I had to have a lot of frank and difficult discussions about our timeline [for starting a family] and about whether it was prudent for her to keep visiting me in Puerto Rico. It was imperative that she not be exposed to Zika, either by me or a mosquito, because doctors weren’t sure how long it stays in the system.

I am fine now, physically. I participated in a study by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to test if Zika was still in my system. I tested clear of Zika in a matter of weeks, though the study lasted six months. But even now, as Julie and I get closer to thinking about children, the concerns are there, especially regarding where we can travel.

One very interesting takeaway from the experience was the cultural differences between how the Zika narrative played out in the mainland U.S. versus in Puerto Rico. Many of the Puerto Ricans I spoke to, by and large, felt that Zika was being overhyped, very much at the expense of the island’s already-hamstrung economy. At a time when the island needed tourism revenue more than ever, it began to lose it, due to a Zika panic that was in some ways reasonable, but in other ways not so much.

To people in Puerto Rico, which had been susceptible for many years to far more serious illnesses like Chikungunya and Dengue, the feeling was that the U.S. government and media only cared about Zika because of its potential to impact U.S. children.

What has it been like returning to and reporting on Puerto Rico after the hurricanes?

Some macroeconomic context: Hurricane Maria took what was already the largest government bankruptcy in U.S. history and compounded it exponentially. It added tens of billions of dollars to the debt, through economic and physical destruction that won’t all be paid for by the federal government. It compounded the humanitarian crisis by killing dozens and perhaps hundreds of people, further straining an already depleted public health system, and causing billions of dollars in wreckage to homes that were already substandard and illegally-built. It took what was already a demographic crisis—the island was hemorrhaging population before the storm, leaving it disproportionately skewed toward the elderly, poor, and vulnerable—and exacerbated that, with hundreds of thousands more people fleeing for the shores of Florida and elsewhere. It took an already weak, fragile energy grid and nearly destroyed it.

A home in Puerto Rico has had its roof blown away and is covered with debris including fallen trees and limbs and a pieces of neighboring homes.

A destroyed home in Salinas, Puerto Rico, on September 29.

In short, if Puerto Rico was teetering on the fence between the first and third worlds, an argument can be made that Maria pushed it firmly into the third. The island had been poor and debt-laden before the storm, yes. But as a U.S. territory, it had access to U.S. federal protections, and the wealthiest investors in the world. A lot of money had been invested in the idea that Puerto Rico could be turned around through good old-fashioned capitalism. It’s much less clear now whether that’s still the case.

What we’re left with, nearly six months after the storm, is a U.S. jurisdiction in which tens (if not hundreds) of thousands are still without power, and have to rely on outside aid for food and water. This is the U.S. we’re talking about—these are U.S. citizens.

Looking out the airplane window as I flew in [after the hurricane], the island looked like rotted lettuce, the green all turned to brown. The streets looked like a frat house the morning after a party. We spent a couple of days following town mayors and seeing how, in the absence of federal aid in those early post-storm days, the mayors were de facto first responders. They (and their staffs) were going door to door making sure people had food, water, and medications.

Another day we interviewed people whose lives had turned to daily exercises in waiting on line—the first day for gas, the second for cash at ATMs, the third at Walmart, where you’d wait four hours for the right to enter for 15 minutes.

Another day, we embedded with a group of doctors and saw the sheer chaos of their attempts to reach people in the island’s most remote areas. They would set out from San Juan with a plan, but without cell service and a host of obstacles along the way, they would inevitably wind up having to deal with something else. For example, what started as a mission to take prescription orders at nursing homes got sidetracked when we stumbled upon a shelter that had run out of oxygen tanks. The doctors had to arrange for the delivery of new tanks, and I remember helping haul them inside, to the detriment of my shoulder.

Nick Brown carries a giant oxygen tank atop his shoulders through a medical center with the help of another man, walking behind him, carrying the other half of the tank.

During one reporting trip to Orocovis, Puerto Rico, in October, Brown stepped in to help. “I was helping a group of volunteer doctors carry oxygen tanks to elderly patients in a senior center-turned-makeshift hospital, after the generator had died and their oxygen machines had stopped working. This was a common occurrence in the days and weeks after the storm, when almost the entire island was without power.”

This was hard, and sad. But from a professional standpoint, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t rewarding, despite this.

Without cell service, our editors trusted me and my reporting partner to just go out and find stuff, spend all day out of cellular range, then come back and write at night. That was liberating. We’d work 17-hour days on average, but it was all adrenaline, so we didn’t really feel it.

Our hotel was generator-powered, but had WiFi only in the lobby, so that’s where we’d write. It was the same hotel where many of the first responders were based, so they would come down to the bar at night, and a DJ would blast house music. So you have to imagine us sitting there in this dark, discotech-y lobby at night like nerds, with headlamps on our heads, typing on our laptops, while a deafening rave played out around us. And of course outside the hotel everything was pitch-black, so it was quite dystopian, something out of Mad Max.

You’ve said your Jesuit education helped prepare you to respond to and report on a humanitarian crisis.

Loyola did a great job of encouraging me to get out of my comfort zone. Professors and administrators constantly reminded us, in true Jesuit spirit, that we were privileged, and that there was a whole world out there that it was our mission to interact with and make better. We even had that catchphrase “the Loyola Bubble,” a kind of lighthearted reminder that the world was much bigger than we were and than our lives on campus were.

All you can ask of a college is that it be self-aware, that it push its students to be self-reflective and observant and teach them to have the courage and the appetite go to the far reaches of the world and develop a compassion for their fellow human. Loyola encouraged that. I never felt a sense of elitism on campus. I felt a humility in the face of a great big world, and I have tried to take that worldview with me—or weltanschauung, as Loyola history professor Jane Edwards would say.

Debris from a supermarket stands in piles covering the street, including metal and glass and an overturned ice cream freezer and boxes of old produce.

A supermarket in Guayama, Puerto Rico, that had caved in on itself.

In what other ways did Loyola ready you for your career as a journalist?

The desire to make my living as a writer long predated my college career, but Loyola confirmed it, and it was at Loyola that I finally had a chance to start building that life. My work for The Greyhound gave me a great sense of working in a newsroom—not just the deadline pressure and the technical skill, but also the wry, cynical, jaded humor of the typical journalist.

One of the many mentors that really stands out is [professor] Kevin Atticks. He thought like a journalist and taught me to do the same. Even today, I’m in awe of his journalistic intuition. He also was instrumental in getting me my first internship at the Baltimore Sun.

In my job today, three-fourths of my colleagues went to graduate school at a prestigious journalism program and then got drafted straight into a big behemoth like Reuters. I didn’t go to grad school; I built my career organically, and the support I received at Loyola was instrumental in my ability to do that. I learned to think like a journalist from people like Kevin Atticks; I learned to apply that thinking to current events through my political science minor, leaning heavily on Professor James Quirk; I exercised those skills through a batch of really good internships that all started at the Baltimore Sun.

I’m also grateful to Genevieve Rafferty, the long-time administrative assistant in the English department. I became her work-study my freshman year—and never left. I got paid to come to a couch-lined, candy-infested department surrounded by great literature, and wax nostalgic with Loyola’s grandma-in-residence. She made me so happy, she made Loyola an enjoyable place for me, which could only help my chances of doing well there. She passed away in July, and I went back to Baltimore for the funeral.

What would you tell a student considering Loyola?

Develop strong relationships with your professors—the kind [of relationships] where you can go into their office and just talk about life. Work study is a great way to get there. Professors at Loyola are smart, warm people. I may have learned more just talking to them than I did in their classes (not that I didn’t learn plenty in their classes, too).

Get to know Baltimore. I mean really learn it—don’t just go out in Fell’s Point, the Inner Harbor, and Federal Hill. Baltimore is a cross-section of America, racially, culturally, and socioeconomically, at a time when our nation is undergoing radical changes in the way we think about race and class. Be a Baltimorean, even if it’s just for four years. It’s a really important and wonderful city to become an adult in.

Explore the Humanities building. It’s one of the coolest buildings in the game.

What’s next for you in life, in your career?

I hope to keep telling Puerto Rico’s story for awhile longer—both in news reporting and book form. There’s more to say. The island’s recovery is only getting started, and it needs all the help it can get.

Follow Nick Brown’s reporting at twitter.com/NickPBrown and https://www.reuters.com/journalists/nick-brown.

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