Surviving Hurricane Maria
This is my experience at the hands of the storm that devastated Puerto Rico and left millions without lights and water.
I woke up to the sound of the wind screaming, whistling against the glass windows, beating like battering rams against the walls of our house.
My mother was pacing in the darkness, clutching her cardigan tighter around her thin shoulders, almost humming to herself in her distress. I raised my head slightly, fumbled for the cell phone on the table next to my bed, and checked the time.
It was just past two in the morning.
"We should go downstairs. Girls... girls, wake up, we should go downstairs," my mother whispered urgently.
"Ma, we're trying to sleep," I mumbled, pretending nonchalance even though my heart had started to race, my breath coming in shorter bursts. Somehow, in that groggy half-second between sleep and consciousness, I had registered the alarming sound of the wind and rain, which was falling in hard and fast sheets, and had since calculated the time—a disturbing realization. The hurricane wasn't even set to make landfall until five-thirty. If the storm was already this bad...
I tried to lie still, closing my eyes, but my mother was insistent. She wanted us to come downstairs. It was so loud in my room and my brothers were in the dining room. We could sit with them, she told us.
Finally, wanting to placate her—and my erratic heartbeat, though I wouldn't admit it—I wearily got to my feet and dragged my pillow and a blanket with me as my sisters and I trailed my mother downstairs and made our way to our small dining room.
Within a half an hour, every member of my family (thirteen of us) was huddled on the dining room floor, some sitting, some lying down, all of us silent, watchful, pensive.
We had one candle lit—the power had gone out hours before, when the wind was just a warning whisper—and even though every window and door in our house was tightly shut, it still sputtered and wavered... the wind had managed to find entry.
The minutes crawled by. And then hours. The winds grew louder; the sound of crashing, of raging wails, increased. The windows of one of the bedrooms had already broken; the door banged open and shut with each gust of wind. I asked my sister to pray aloud, wanting to drown out the sound. She did. But the winds were so loud eventually she had to yell to be heard. My mother's face was hidden in her arms; I could hear her praying, too.
By four in the morning, we were all praying. Loudly. Brokenly. Fearfully. My sister and I had somehow started singing. I am not a singer and I've never been brave enough to sing in front of anyone. Yet I found myself leading my sister, singing any praise or worship song I could think of. Anything to drown out those horrific sounds.
There were lulls. The winds would cease all the sudden and we could hear ourselves think again—we could breathe again. My sister's voice, ragged now, would drop to a whisper.
And then suddenly, as if angered by its own lapse, the storm would rage again, churned into a fury, screaming and railing and barreling down on us like a freight train.
I have never heard anything like it. I pray I never have to again.
I remember turning on the cell phone. Checking the time—an hour and change before Maria made landfall. Sending a message: Hurricane Maria attacking Puerto Rico. Please pray for us. Feeling my heart beat, hard, fast, and painful.
And then the signal was gone.
We were alone.
When a grayish light began to appear through the clouded, leaf-strewn glass, the breaking of the windows started.
It wasn't the shattering of glass that I had feared. It was the frames. The wind was beating so hard that the frames were bowing in, the panes lifting and slamming down with a clatter. Water started seeping in. Through the windows next to us, we could just see the trees bending and snapping in the wind, cracking wrenchingly as the bark gave way beneath the wind. Sheets of metal came flying through the air—remnants of a neighbor's roof. We crowded by the windows, shock briefly crowding out the panic.
It looked like a war zone.
There was the smashing sound of glass breaking. "What was that?" my mother called shakily. It was one of the front doors. The whole frame was bending in, and the glass panes were shattering. My father took one of the coffee tables and jammed it in between it and the wall to hold it in place.
By seven a.m., the dining room had started to flood. The windows lining the cathedral walls of our living room were clattering ferociously as the wind battered them. Water sprayed into the house: it was raining inside now. I looked across the room and saw my father standing silent next to the staircase, his head bowed over the rail.
"We're going into the bathroom, come on," my mother said, and we all clambered to our feet, the bedding we were sitting on already growing wet.
The bathroom, which only had one window, was much quieter. My mother sat against the door with one of my brothers, keeping it from blowing in. Somehow all thirteen of managed to fit in that bathroom. We sat perched on the bathtub rim, the toilet, the sink, and the floor. My youngest brother slept.
We ended up staying in the bathroom for nine hours. We ventured out a few times to get whatever valuables we could find that hadn't yet gotten wet; we also brought in bottled water and some crackers and canned food. It was stiflingly hot in the small bathroom with thirteen bodies crowded in. Sweat dripped down our faces as we took turns fanning each other with pieces of dry cardboard.
As the hours wore on, we tried to calculate how much longer before the hurricane was passed. We didn't know if the storm had entered the island where they had predicted it would; we would later learn it had made landfall only a mile from where I live, which is on the edge of Yabucoa, right outside the Palmas Del Mar resort.
At around four p.m., we finally felt safe enough to leave the bathroom. The scene that awaited us was devastating.
Two inches of water covered the tiled floors. The wind still pushed and dragged at the windows, several of which were broken, and had screens and frames hanging loose, clattering against the wall with every gust that blew through. Shattered glass was strewn across the family room, where everything had been ruined. Leaves, broken bits of branches, dead lizards, and bugs decorated the walls and floors. Books lay strewn about, wet and torn. Every piece of furniture was soaking wet.
It's ruined... everything is ruined, I remember thinking numbly.
Outside, the winds still blew. We watched as people began emerging from their houses, some shirtless, some barefoot, carrying machetes and axes. They started clearing the roads, which were impassable from fallen trees and broken wires.
We started clearing our house, getting rid of as much water as we could. We discovered that two trees next to our property fence had fallen across the front gate, blocking us in. We would be trapped for two days, unable to leave. Our neighbors came to help us, climbing over the fallen trees, ducking beneath the branches, carrying machetes. Some had lost their roofs; some had lost their houses. They worked alongside my father and brothers, chopping away at the branches, trying to clear a path. They did as much as they could and then we waited for help to come through the rural back roads of our neighborhood and do the rest.
To see the compassion and unity of my fellow islanders even in spite of the great wreckage and devastation we all experienced was a privilege. To look at the land, green and lush only hours before, and see the brown, bare ugliness that remained was a tragedy. We looked like we had been bombed. I could see for miles what trees had previously hid from view; I could count the houses on the nearby mountain and look into the top of a neighbor's destroyed roof. Stripped trees, fallen poles, strewn wreckage. No one had escaped unscathed.
Pero estamos vivo. But at least we're alive. This was the creed of everyone we met over the course of the following weeks, from the neighbors across the street to the strangers walking past our house to the people my father stood waiting on line with.
In the days that followed, we lived as if the clocks had been turned back fifty years. We ate white rice three times a day, cooked on our barbecue stove in the garage. We collected rain water for baths, flushing toilets, and washing dishes, and drove whatever distance necessary to get drinking water. We listened to the evening news on the radio in our car. We waited over seven hours in the gas line that first weekend to purchase gasoline. We learned the shelters were serving hot meals so my father drove several miles three times a day to pick it up.
My father met a woman in the Walgreens line who, unlike the rest of us, had sporadic cell service.
"Please, call my family for me and tell them we're okay... we need help, but we're okay."
Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico on September 20th, 2017, only two weeks after we were skirted—yet affected—by Irma, over 100,000 people have evacuated the island, some of my family included. There have been numerous deaths. Telecommunications are still operating at about seventy-five percent capacity and cellphone service at only sixty-five percent, and one-in-ten Puerto Ricans still lack potable water.
Only two days ago, on November 20th, two months to the day since Maria's attack, my father, who remains in Puerto Rico, got running water. It had been sixty days. Sixty days of washing dishes in a pot in the garage. Sixty days of carrying buckets of water to the bathrooms to clean and flush the toilets. Sixty days of taking bird baths with a bowl and a cup.
They are still without electricity.
I have experienced firsthand the generosity, empathy, compassion, and hospitality of Puerto Ricans, with whom I share blood. They are a humble people, used to working together and helping one another. Even those who had lost everything—and in the wake of Maria, it felt like we had lost everything, even though our damage was nothing compared to so many others—still remained thankful. They are waiting and doing so patiently, knowing they are being passed over, knowing that repairs and restoration will take months, if not years.
Estamos vivo. Eso es lo que es importante.
We are alive. That is what is important.
And so it is.