Posted by: SSU Lingua Franca | December 11, 2017

The Day Maria Came: Notes on the Hurricane in Puerto Rico

The Day Maria Came: Notes on the Hurricane in Puerto Rico

by Michele C. Dávila

I know what a hurricane is. I saw Hugo in 1989, a category 3 hurricane that passed through the northern part of Puerto Rico. My home is on the northern part of the island, in Bayamón, the metropolitan area. The two-story house is made out of blocks of cement, very secure. I remember being scared by the incredible sound of the wind and rain, seeing sheets of corrugated metal flying like paper, the trees without leaves or centennial trees broken, no water and telephone for a week, and no electricity for two. I also remember the candles, hurricane lamps, playing cards and table games with the family, neighbors helping each other with food and taking away the trash. Scary, but not bad.

When I learned about category 5 Irma, I called my mother and told her about the possibility of it being worse than Hugo. I also called my brother and told him to take his family to my Mom’s home because I knew that his home in the countryside was not safe. They prepared the house as we used to do when my father was alive: take away all the potted plants from outside, bring them inside, move the terrace furniture also inside, buy water and food supplies, and have the batteries, lanterns and candles ready. But Irma came and except for the eastern part of the island, it didn’t do major damage. Phew!

When Maria started roaming, another category 5, I became nervous because it seemed that she really would hit the island directly and current islanders had never confronted one so powerful. I called my mother and brother again and they were already prepared because of Irma – it was a matter of getting more potable water and putting the two trashcans for rain water outside to get them filled-up for the expected week without water. When I realized that the real thing was finally happening, I started to monitor the activity in the news and relaying the information about the hurricane’s direction through Facebook and Messenger, which did in fact become the lifeline between islanders and the diaspora. My sister’s last message was in the wee hours of the morning of Wednesday, September 20, 2017, before the eye entered the island: “Michele, this is no Hugo. It is much worse and I am afraid. The sound of the wind is terrible.” And then, silence.

There was no news for a whole day. I was waiting and waiting and waiting, unable to do anything else. When finally some news started to get out, the impact of the devastation was so immense that people really didn’t believe it. No communication, no electricity, no water. I realized I would not hear from my family for maybe a week. That is what I gave myself, a week. For past storms, many people gathered provisions for a week, so that would do. On Friday, miraculously, I received the phone call. My sister could connect through Messenger and told me that they were all well, and that it had been horrible (a friend compared the sound of the wind to being in front of the engine of a big airliner). The water of the whiplash rain came in through closed windows and everybody huddled on the second floor because they thought the first floor was going to be flooded. This terror lasted one full day.

After Maria passed and everybody started getting their wits about, they slowly realized that the life they had had before wasn’t going to return for days, months or even years. The interior of the island, which is all mountains up to 3,000 feet high, was particularly devastated. The infrastructure of the island was very old; the electrical system from the 1920s is not compatible with the new machinery, so everything has to be built from scratch. Another problem is that the power was transferred through old wooden posts, 62,000 of them, that were for the most part broken by the hurricane. That is why it has been so difficult to reconnect power on the island. Besides, the water is processed through electricity and with that gone, there is no water in many parts of the island, and the 80% who now have water is because of generators. The hospitals have been without power or dealing with generators that break down because they are supposed to be used for a limited time only. No oxygen tanks, no dialysis, no system. Doctors are doing emergency surgery with the lantern of their cell phones.

I lost an old dear friend four days after the hurricane and I know it was because of Maria. The official death toll is 51, but there are another 911 people that died of “natural causes” and were cremated before doing any autopsies. This is because the morgues, without power – no refrigeration – cannot keep accumulating the deceased that had been decomposing at an alarming rate due to the perennial heat of Puerto Rico. Some have even buried their loved ones in their patios.

My mother tells me that the worse thing is the incredible heat and humidity with no fans or air-conditioning. Maria sucked the air out of Puerto Rico, and life in the island has reverted to the nineteenth century. Good and bad things have happened: people stealing water, generators and food because they are desperate, and people really talking to each other now that they don’t have the usual gadgets, and helping one another.

The situation is multi-faceted and Maria was just the top of a compounded problem: the fact that PR is a colony with a 1917 obsolete US law that impedes the free transport of goods from other countries to the island (foreign ships have to go to Florida to transfer the cargo to American ships and then go to the island, a process that can triple the cost of goods). But there are many other problems, such as the incompetence and corruption of the local government, the stock market and hedge-fund vultures that have bought the debt of the island with sky-rocket interests, the obsolete infrastructure of Puerto Rico’s services that had never been updated, the new fiscal group overseeing the economy of Puerto Rico, and of course, the racism which permeates every governmental effort or lack thereof. FEMA’s red-tape did not help, although they are the ones now updating the old infrastructure that will support the island in the long run. Big help has come from private groups, celebrities and most important of all, from the diaspora, which is more than 5 million strong. I have sent eight packages with food, water, wipes of all kinds, clothes, batteries and solar charged light bulbs. They have all arrived, but many others have not. I have never posted so many times in Facebook with important information for my family and friends in Puerto Rico or signed more petitions than in the past two months.

My family is still without electricity and phone service (my sister keeps calling me through Messenger), but now they have everything else (the water came after two weeks, and the eight-to-three-hour line for gasoline is no more). My brother lost part of his home and FEMA finally came during the last week of October to give him a tarp to cover the roof. Both of my siblings haven’t been able to go to work because of the lack of electricity. By the same token, my nieces and nephews haven’t been able to return to university yet. My sister is talking about moving to Florida as many Puerto Ricans are doing, and my mother is coming to visit me now in November.

All this turmoil so close to home has made me think more and more about our twenty-first century need for energy and technology. Do we really want to be a generation that depends on electricity and internet for everything we do? Is it really a good thing when you can’t continue with your life or work because you don’t have power? Are our nightmares more about man-made disasters than natural ones? I wonder.

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