What Happened When Hurricane Maria Battered Our Puerto Rican Neighborhood

What Happened When Hurricane Maria Battered Our Puerto Rican Neighborhood

An island already exhausted and resource-depleted from rendering aid to neighboring islands was now the target of a catastrophic storm, the likes of which hadn’t been seen there since 1928.
Anne Welty
By

On September 20, 2017, just two weeks after a frightening brush with Hurricane Irma, Puerto Rico took the full brunt of category-four Hurricane Maria. An island already exhausted and resource-depleted from rendering aid to neighboring islands hit by Irma was now the target of a catastrophic storm, the likes of which hadn’t been seen there since 1928.

My husband took a job in San Juan, Puerto Rico in August 2016, and our family settled in the small town of Dorado along the northern coast. We spent our first several months exploring all the Enchanted Isle had to offer; we couldn’t get enough of the vast beaches, lush rainforests, and beautiful mountain views. Our relaxed homeschooling schedule meant we could take spontaneous day trips and enjoy plenty of family and friends visiting from the mainland. We had hit the jackpot, or so it seemed.

Our dry run of hurricane preparedness came in the form of Hurricane Irma. She was supposed to pass right over us, and the outlook was grim. We stocked our home with drinking water, prepared foods, propane for our stove, and plenty of flashlights and batteries. Everyone was prepared. At the eleventh hour, Irma took a sharp right turn and only glanced the northeast corner of Puerto Rico. A collective sigh of relief went up, and it was mostly back to business as usual within a week.

The Calm Before the Storm

The following week, radar images showed Hurricane Maria headed straight for us. The reaction was mixed: some said Irma wasn’t that bad and this would be a repeat; others warned that Maria was a different kind of storm. Our stock of supplies was still relatively undepleted, but we bolstered it and made plans to stay with friends farther inland in case of storm surge. As expected, our neighborhood was forcibly evacuated the day before Maria hit.

In the early morning hours of September 20, with our kids soundly sleeping, the first big gusts of wind arrived. The windows rattled and the palm trees closest to the house whipped and lashed the outer walls. By 2 a.m., we had lost power and water. The darkness enveloped us fully, and the wait for daylight seemed to stretch on indefinitely.

First light showed that the large tree in our friends’ backyard was pulling up at the roots. Two palms across the street were down. The gusts were so loud that it was hard to hear each other over the din as we made our final plans for how to keep the kids safe from breaking glass and flying debris. We set up camp in a large closet and brought food and water to last the day.

At 7 a.m., the worst arrived. Water started pouring in through windows on all sides of the house, and we worked tirelessly to keep the flooding at bay. Shortly afterward, we lost cell phone service. The storm seemed endless, and with no communication available, we had no way of knowing what to expect.

By dinner time, the winds finally died down. Our tense and stir-crazy children begged to come downstairs, and we felt it was safe to venture out and take stock. This was our entrance into the new Puerto Rico.

El Nuevo Puerto Rico

Day 1: We emerged from the closet that had been our shelter for more than nine hours, and initially thought, “Maybe it wasn’t that bad.” We left the house and realized it was bad. Glass shards were everywhere; palm trees had been snapped in half or uprooted altogether.

We looked to the left toward the mountains and saw what appeared to be nuclear winter: a place we didn’t recognize. We talked to neighbors, assessing the general situation in our immediate area. Everyone seemed to be okay.

Two houses on the street had front doors blown in, and neighbors worked together to clean up both houses. Water was swept out, glass swept up, furniture righted, and debris collected and bagged, like a machine. We were an island, cut off. But we had each other.

Day 2: Neighbor Corey stopped by to see our pastor, in whose home we were staying. I was the only adult there, so we chatted about our experiences with the storm: his place had flooded pretty badly. He told me his neighbor had satellite television through most of the storm and was able to track it as it moved over the island.

Now we had some idea of where it went. The eyewall had brushed us. Corey also said he heard about a playground across from the pharmacy where you could climb to the top of the play equipment, holding your phone high enough to get a weak cell signal. He planned to try, and promised to drive my husband as close to our house as possible, so we could check on our car and home.

Day 3: As we finally ventured beyond our friends’ neighborhood, the whole world seemed upside down—a scarecrow version of the place we used to know. I drove around downed trees and steered clear of power lines that were strewn everywhere. I’m not sure why I bothered, since there wasn’t a bolt of electricity left on the island.

As I headed toward my side of town, two cars pulled off the road. Three men jumped out with chainsaws and started cutting up the large palms that blocked two of the three lanes. These weren’t government employees, just Puerto Ricans who knew that waiting for officials to clear the roads meant waiting forever.

I wove around and lost my bearings, not sure how to find the entrance to my neighborhood. I looked for that playground with the promise of a cell connection. When I got there, it was crowded with people at the top tier, holding phones high. Some were joyful at getting a call to connect, only to find that the loved one on the other end couldn’t hear them. Some were crying as they desperately searched for a way to get word to family, from family, anything at all.

I finally got a turn on the playground platform. My first three calls failed, but my fourth got me a ringing tone. My mom answered, and all I could do was cry. The call dropped, but we managed to reconnect for a short conversation. I also got through to my sister and two dear friends. With the crowd on the platform getting bigger, I reluctantly jumped down to make room for others who needed a chance to make calls. It felt bizarre, this new reality.

Then We Visited Our Devastated Home

Day 4: Our neighborhood was finally accessible, and we picked our way to our house. Initial assessment brought relief: our car in the garage was fine. While water had gotten in, nothing flooded in the house. Dead cockroaches lay everywhere, and live frogs jumped around in my living room.

I checked on our neighbors’ house and found their back windows blown in. We taped up the hole and did our best to secure their property. Another neighbor told us his property had already been vandalized. Sure enough, there was a trail of blood leading away from his broken back windows. He also shared with us that his sister has cancer and needed medical evacuation, but even if she could make it to the United States, they have no family or friends there to care for her. He cried for a moment then set back to work, cleaning up this side of the neighborhood.

As we set up camp in our living room (the coolest place to sleep), there was a knock at the door. Drop-in visitors had become a part of the new norm, but we were all on edge. I opened the door to find my friend Pam standing there. I’ve never been so relieved to see someone. I hugged her, and she lamented that it was bad up at her place in the mountains. She and four dogs had huddled in a tiny bathroom for 15 hours.

Her home didn’t weather the storm well. She said she planned to fly home to the mainland. We hugged again, and she left to check in with other friends. Another local pastor, Jules, stopped by with his wife and sons. They had connected with most of their family but had to wait several days for news about his mother-in-law and father. They still hadn’t heard from his sister-in-law. Jules got in a gas line at 4 a.m. that morning and waited six hours for gas. In a matter of days, that line would grow to eight hours or more. Folks ran out of gas while waiting for their turn and ended up pushing their cars as the line inched forward.

We Reverted to Pre-Electric Civilization

So it went. News no longer arrived on a cell phone or with a Wi-Fi connection: we carried it with us, traded for tidbits with neighbors and friends. I heard scandal was brewing at the power plants on the south side of the island, which meant months or even a year without power. Others told us that no contact had been made with the people in Vieques. Rumors swirled that it was destroyed completely.

Every day our pastor took his car out, using precious gasoline, and distributed food and water to the places unreached by government aid.

Every day our pastor took his car out, using precious gasoline, and distributed food and water to the places unreached by government aid. He would return with new fragments of information we hadn’t yet heard. Our playground cell signal dried up, and we drove out toward San Juan to find clusters of cars pulled over at random spots on the highway; we knew we’d found another signal. My husband jumped out and up onto the guardrail in hopes of a data connection. We had to hurry, because the cops didn’t tolerate idling cars on the highway shoulder. Calls that didn’t go through meant more gasoline wasted. Resources were dwindling everywhere.

The days passed slowly, and the nights even more so. The air was still, hot, and humid. Mosquitoes feasted on us all night; bug spray seemed ineffective. By first light, we’d given up on sleep and started moving around the house to figure out food and water rations for the day.

The cycle of sweat never stopped. We had no way to wash anything, and basic hygiene involved baby wipes and hand sanitizer. But our greatest joy was seeing the depth of compassion and care that those around us had. Community effort ensured that no need was unmet. The media would probably never show this to the rest of the world, but here we learned again that human decency was very much alive and well.

Friends and Family Get Us Out

Day 10: Through the tireless and selfless efforts of my parents, siblings, and friends, my family and I made it back to the mainland. We were dogged with grief over leaving our home and overwhelmed with gratitude to be safe and comfortable again.

The flood of information brought politicization of getting aid to 3.5 million people an ocean away from the government that rules them.

From this side, I was able to get a clearer picture of what happened and the extent of damage done to Puerto Rico. The flood of information brought politicization of getting aid to 3.5 million people an ocean away from the government that rules them. Frustration at bureaucracy and red tape boiled over when we heard that supplies were sitting at the port of San Juan, with no immediate plan for distribution.

But for every story like this, there were two or three amazing reports of local churches or charities delivering food, water, gas, and other necessary supplies to the people most in need. My friend Joseph, founder of Love The Nations, organized daily flights that carried goods from Florida to San Juan, and partnered with Calvary Chapel PR to distribute the goods. On return flights, he filled the planes with sick and elderly who needed medical attention no longer available on the island.

He and his wife, Daisy, are missionaries to Puerto Rico and operate the first crisis pregnancy center on the island. The pastor of Trinity Church PR, Bruce Clark, purchased and delivered $3,000 of food, water, and supplies to the under-resourced Dorado community every day. He sometimes stands in line at Costco for hours just to restock, then spends the rest of the day on his feet ministering to his community. Ronnie Garcia and Jules Martinez, pastors of Iglesia La Travesia, are doing the same in the greater San Juan area.

It is tempting to see the devastation in Puerto Rico and feel hopeless and helpless; the job is so big, the needs so great. But these are our fellow citizens, and they are crying for help. Let’s band together and make sure they’re not forgotten. If you would like to partner with local churches or charities on the island, please consider donating to these organizations.

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