Entrepreneurs

What self-made millionaire Marcus Lemonis learned when he visited crisis-ridden Puerto Rico

When Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, the U.S. territory suffered a nearly complete loss of running water, electricity and access to food or healthcare.

Despite the handful of relief efforts by different organizations, the lack of government support amid the disaster has further delayed the island's recovery.

American self-made millionaire and philanthropist Marcus Lemonis typically showcases small businesses he helps turn around on CNBC's "The Profit," but he follows a different approach on this week's special episode, "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis."

Six weeks after the natural disaster, Lemonis visited the hurricane-ravaged island to see the damage for himself and get his friends out of there. He expected he would see recovery on the island, but what he saw instead left him "stunned."

Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"
CNBC
Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"

"For the 3.5 million people here — American citizens — this is nothing less than a humanitarian crisis," Lemonis said.

After exploring Puerto Rico's capital and the centrally based municipality Utuado, Lemonis encountered these three facets of life in Puerto Rico that led him to declare Puerto Rico a "war zone."

Persistent medical professionals

Lemonis visited the Puerto Rico National Guard base in Utuado, where members are working to help some of the hardest hit regions of the island.

Volunteering with the National Guard are three medical workers — a psychologist, nurse and doctor — who travel for more than half a day at a time to reach only a handful of sickly patients who are stranded at their homes.

"They started as strangers; now they call themselves the three musketeers united by [Hurricane] Maria," Lemonis said.

The illnesses the medical workers said they have seen the most include respiratory issues, hypertension, diabetes and post-traumatic stress disorder.

"As the days without power wear on, some people are losing hope," Lemonis said, while "depression, anxiety and suicides are on the rise."

After watching the doctors treat an elderly woman who suffers from high blood pressure and needs surgery, Lemonis admitted he had difficulty watching.

"Someone like [her] could be our grandmother, or our mother, our neighbor, how do you mentally — I mean, honestly I couldn't — like, it was hard for me to be there. Honestly, how do you do it?" Lemonis said.

"How do you not break down? Is there hope?" Lemonis later asked.

Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"
CNBC
Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"

"There's always hope," one said. "Help needs to continue. What is important is to show [that] really this is the other side. many people have seen the devastation. But few people have seen that we are really working."

Struggling business owners

Most businesses were still closed in both Old San Juan (usually the most popular tourist destination on the island) and other commercial areas Lemonis visited. The few small businesses that were open were using power generators, but they still saw significantly lower foot traffic.

"Old San Juan is on life support, hemorrhaging money," Lemonis said, noting that each closed business in the area could be forgoing almost $7 million a month.

Lemonis met Peter Schintler, a local restaurant owner who grew up in Iowa but had been running his business in Puerto Rico for 13 years. Schintler invested $2.5 million into his business, which was destroyed after the hurricane. Though he had enough operating cash for his restaurant to open up again, Schintler told Lemonis he was willing to sell his home and his car to really restore his restaurant to what it once was.

"My home doesn't define me. My business does more so than my home," Schintler said. "I spent 13 years of my life here. My friends don't visit me in my house. They visit me in my restaurant."

Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"
Marcus Lemonis in "The Profit in Puerto Rico: An American Crisis"

Lemonis promised to return to the restaurant and told Schintler he should be proud of himself.

"You really should. Not a lot of business owners stick with it like you are," Lemonis said.

Locals leaving the island

Today, there are more Puerto Ricans on the mainland U.S. than in Puerto Rico itself, Lemonis said, so he set out to discover why.

He visited a shipping company that migrating Puerto Ricans were using to ship their personal items to different states — Florida, Mississippi, New York, Kentucky and South Dakota.

When Lemonis took a look at the cars in the shipping company parking lot, he noted the higher-end cars these migrating citizens were driving. About 47 percent of Puerto Rico is under the poverty level, Lemonis noted, meaning the Puerto Ricans fleeing the island were part of the 53 percent over the poverty level.

One couple leaving the island was headed to Chicago, where they were born and raised, but felt like they were betraying Puerto Rico, their home of 23 years. They were the last family remaining in their town of Lares, but six weeks without water, power or phones had worn them down.

When Lemonis further investigated the unrestored electrical grid, a member of the Army Corps of Engineers said they were working as hard as they could on repairs.

"This would never happen on the mainland," Lemonis said. "No water, no food, no medical, no power. It's a war zone."

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