Six months after Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, 7% of island residents still have no power, hundreds of thousands have fled — possibly for good — while others wait patiently for slow-to-come federal relief funds.
While the public's attention has largely shifted from the situation in Puerto Rico toward various man-made crises in Washington, Samantha Bee and her team at "Full Frontal" decided to travel to the Caribbean territory for a one-hour special, "The Great American Puerto Rico," airing Wednesday night on TBS.
"One of our mandates in the show is shining a light on things that don't get a ton of attention," Bee said recently by phone, explaining that "there's a really keen interest in Puerto Rico among the people on our staff, including myself. It's just a story that has never left our attention span."
In the wake of the disaster, "Full Frontal" produced a primer on Puerto Rican history and its fraught ties with the United States that featured "Hamilton" star Javier Munoz. Around November, Bee and her colleagues, who've filmed remote pieces in Scotland and Jordan, began toying with the idea of going to Puerto Rico and maybe even broadcasting live from the island. Although that proved too ambitious, they decided to produce an entire hour on location.
"We started doing research, and there were just so many issues that were really ripe for the taking, things that needed to be talked about," Bee said. "When this happened, an amazing amount of people did not understand that Puerto Ricans are American citizens."
The special covers an array of stories, from the ongoing efforts to restore power and reforest the island's wetlands, to a comedy troupe providing much-needed laughs to locals and a punk club that provided temporary shelter after the storm. Bee also visited with displaced Puerto Ricans in Orlando who face an uncertain future but have gained the right to vote.
"The focus is very much on the people and their experiences with the hurricane and actually how they're attempting to rebuild the island," she said.
Bee spent nine days in Puerto Rico last month with a team of producers and correspondents. Home base was a hotel in San Juan, where they were joined by "hundreds of mustachioed men in Con Ed outfits from upstate New York and Long Island" who were there to rebuild the power grid.
But the "Full Frontal" team crisscrossed the island, traveling to smaller communities outside San Juan that still lacked power, where residents washed their dirty clothes in a mobile laundry bus and had to buy perishable food everyday since they didn't have refrigerators.
"You have to reinvent how your whole life works," said Bee, 48, who observed that the mood among Puerto Ricans "was of sadness and disappointment more than anger. There's a definite sense of feeling like second-class citizens and a really gut-wrenching feeling of sadness."
Filming the special was "a very special experience," said the comedian, even if she'd never worked that hard before. The production faced such challenges as a massive blackout that struck while Bee was on her hotel balcony looking at the San Juan skyline. "Everything started to cascade on and off, like Christmas tree lights. Then they all went dark," she recalled.
To unwind, Bee spent her downtime looking at local real estate on Zillow and imagining how she could move her three kids and husband, Jason Jones, into a two-bedroom apartment in Condado, an area of San Juan. She also discovered that she is a snowbird: "I enjoyed leaving the cold weather on such a deep DNA level. There were rainbows every day."
"The Great American Puerto Rico" is the second remote special from the "Full Frontal" team, following last spring's Emmy-winning "Not the White House Correspondents' Dinner."
Although "it's not like we have a mandate that every spring we have to do a special," Bee said, "what it did teach us is that we always want to find a way to do things that are fresh for us and that we feel passionately about."
'Full Frontal With Samantha Bee'
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-MA-L (may be unsuitable for children younger than 17, with an advisory for coarse language)