Living Through Hurricane Maria’s Devastation in Puerto Rico

It’s been almost three full weeks since Hurricane Maria carved a trail of destruction in Puerto Rico. Three weeks of cries for help for thousands of people who still haven’t received any aid to date. This storm has been the worst disaster to hit Puerto Rico in almost a century; an event that no one who lived through it will never forget.

I happened to fly to Puerto Rico just four days before Maria struck the island, on what was supposed to be another regular visit to see family and friends. Since the moment I got home and saw the news that a then Tropical Storm Maria had developed, and its forecasted path was laid right over Puerto Rico, I knew I would see some stormy action in the coming days.

Hurricane Maria Trajectory to Puerto Rico

This was not my first hurricane “rodeo.” I had already lived through Hurricane Hugo in 1989 (Category 3) and Hurricane Georges in 1998 (Category 3) – the two most devastating hurricanes to make landfall in Puerto Rico since I was born – in addition to countless other hurricanes and tropical storms that barely brushed the island. But, none of those were a Category 4 hurricane with sustained winds of more than 155 mph.

During the last 48 hours before landfall, we paid close attention to the quick strengthening and development of the storm. While hurricane forecasts have a margin of error, it was pretty clear Puerto Rico would have a direct hit.

My family was already mostly prepared with food and emergency items – the supplies they gathered for Hurricane Irma that passed roughly 50 miles north of Puerto Rico and didn’t cause as much damage as expected. But, the day before Hurricane Maria’s arrival, I went out to buy extra food and water, got money from the ATM, and filled the gas tank on our cars. On that night of September 18th, I went to bed knowing that in just 18 hours I’d be reliving my hurricane experiences, and probably seeing firsthand the effects of a hurricane over Category 3.

D-Day – September 19th

I woke up a very unexpected Facebook message. The Guardian US was looking for a local journalist to dispatch news for their live blog before, during and after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. What I thought would be a relaxed day of waiting for the storm to come became a busy day of writing and interviewing.

Every few hours I updated The Guardian’s live blog for Hurricane Maria, along with other writers, sharing my perspective from Carolina (just next to San Juan). I sent constant updates with the weather conditions, how people were reacting, what they were doing last minute, current refugee status, about our potential infrastructure collapse, and other local news.

Throughout the day, as Mari neared the island, it weakened from a Category 5 with 175 mph sustained winds hurricane to a Category 4 with 155 mph. This is still a catastrophic storm.

The first tropical storm gusts began around 7:00 pm and slowly intensified throughout the night. At around 10:00 pm, we were experiencing sustained winds of a strong tropical storm –roughly 70 mph– and Category 1 hurricane gusts (74 to 95 mph).

The REAL D-Day – September 20th

It was past midnight, and I was still dispatching news from home. As I began to receive messages from friends on the east coast of the island, saying how strong were the winds there and that the power went out in their homes, I knew that soon enough I would be without power too. I prepared what I expected to be my last dispatch, and right at 1:28 am, the power went out in most of the metropolitan area.

I spent an extra hour awake, in darkness, sending texts and paying attention to the news as I listened to the wind and rain pick up strength outside our home.

That night I decided to sleep on the living room sofa. All windows in the house were closed, and with no air circulation, the rooms felt pretty hot. The living room, on the other hand, still had a comfortable temperature thanks to a slight draft that filtered through one of the windows that didn’t seal properly.

At 3:00 am, I closed my eyes to the sound of hurricane force winds and intense rainfall. I was tired and ready to sleep, or so I thought. Every few minutes I was woken up by the sound of our neighbors’ zinc roof banging against something, the noise of tree branches falling around, windows breaking, and more zinc roofing from another neighbor flying around their backyard. I zoned on and off for the rest of the night as the rain, winds, and sounds intensified.

At 6:00 am, the winds still hadn’t reached their expected peak of 155 mph, when I woke up to an unexpected smell. The air stank of mangrove. I jumped straight out of the sofa and walked to the front windows, and as I opened them slightly to peek out, I saw the source of the smell. Our street was flooded. Our neighborhood, considered a safe area, had never flooded – not even on previous hurricanes. But Hurricane Maria was a different, bigger monster.

I peeked out every few minutes to keep an eye on the water levels. I saw it slowly rising until it reached about two feet in depth in front of our house. Thankfully the water didn’t enter our house, but some of the homes and cars located down the road, at a lower elevation, got some water in. In our house, we only got the “horizontal rain,” typically seen on hurricanes, enter through the door sill – which we controlled with a few rounds of mopping and a few towels. Our backyard, on the other hand, was flooded.

But floodwater was not the only threat we were facing. As the morning hours passed and the winds increased, I saw how the front double doors of our home banged stronger and stronger as if they wanted to break open. When the winds peaked, the front doors looked almost as if it was breathing. The wind pressure pushed the door in, almost bending it, and then it sucked it out, with equal strength.

I remember my mom saying, as she saw the doors moving with this invisible force, “It’s like she’s a mad monster and wants to break in!”

For a few hours I thought those doors would break apart, so we got ready to shelter in our rooms in case it happened. To make matters worse, one of our rear windows broke its handle, so we had a flapping window threatening to fall apart too.

Within those hours I saw our front door neighbor’s pine tree split in two, and a wooden home lose its entire zinc roof.

I wanted to check up on my sisters, both living in Carolina too, but there was no phone signal. There was no power either, and our water service was also shut off (temporarily) as the hurricane winds reached their peak of 155 mph (with gusts measured up to 201 mph).

Once the climax passed and the winds began to reduce their speed, I decided it was time to take a nap for a few hours. I was really tired.

The Recognizance Drive

Around 3:00 pm, once the winds reduced to tropical depression strength, I ventured out to report on the situation. The streets were virtually empty still, though some people felt adventurous enough to take a look at the destruction around.

I was only able to drive a radius of about three miles from home as most streets were flooded or blocked by trees. Some creativity and an adventurous spirit were needed to roam around, from driving in the opposite direction on the highway (no traffic, of course), to driving over sidewalks or whatever path that seemed safe and wide enough for me to pass.

Subway destroyed after Maria
Poor Subway

Damaged gas station in Carolina, Puerto Rico

Destroyed gas station in Carolina
Another destroyed gas station
Destroyed basketball court
This used to be a basketball court.

Reaching both of my sisters was futile. One was still trapped in her flooded neighborhood, and the other was hard to reach due to fallen trees and power posts blocking the street. I saw people from several communities cutting branches and cleaning up the streets since that afternoon to allow access to their neighborhoods

65 de infanteria avenue blocked by posts
One of the main avenues in Puerto Rico, blocked entirely by fallen posts.

I tried reaching San Juan, but again, it was inaccessible. So, I was limited to Isla Verde and parts of Piñones – two touristy areas in Carolina. Piñones, which is famous for its beach shacks and seaside restaurants, was destroyed. Almost every kiosk was either ravaged or non-existent. The sand wiped out the only road leading to it and tree blocked all access to Loiza.

While taking pictures in Piñones, one man, who happened to be the owner of one of the bars, asked me if I was a FEMA employee documenting the damages done by María. I replied lightly that unfortunately, I wasn’t, that I was photographing to report in the media about the current status.

Route to Piñones covered in sand

Paseo tablado destroyed

Destroyed bar in Piñones

Courtyard Marriott damaged after Maria
The Courtyard Marriott in Isla Verde. It lost an entire wall.

The man shared with me how he would have to sleep in his car that night to protect the few things that weren’t destroyed. He didn’t want people stealing them. I felt sorry for him and wished him the best luck with any FEMA aid. Little did I know that widespread looting and FEMA aid would become controversial topics across the island in the coming days.

To my surprise, while driving across a partially flooded Isla Verde, I saw a 24-hour convenience store open. It was past 6:00 pm, and there was already a line of maybe 25 people. I decided to check it out and stood in line – even when I didn’t need to buy anything.

24 marketplace line

People were let in the store five at a time, so it took about an hour for my turn to go in. If I thought it was surprising seeing an open convenience store, it was even more astonishing asking the cashier at what time they reopened and him answering, “we never closed.” I replied with a shocked, “really?” To which he nodded. “We are open 24 hours.”

24 marketplace customer after Maria
People shopping for “way-past-last-minute-supplies” right after the hurricane.

That poor guy had already worked for more than 24 hours straight and was still there attending people, alone.

I got back home around 8:30 pm; back to a worried mom who thought something happened to me or that I was arrested. Since I was on the street, with no phone signal and no radio, I was in the unknown that the government had set a curfew from 6:00 pm to 6:00 am (threatening to arrest those who stayed out). It was day one, and I was already violating it.

The First Week after Maria – Realizing our New Normal

It took one more day for the waters to recede and for me to reach one of my sisters. My other sister also met us there, so we spent the afternoon barbequing and talking about our respective experiences.

Barbecue as my sister's home
Barbecuing at my sister’s. The day before I took this photo, this whole neighborhood was covered in up to 6 feet of water.

Since one of my sisters still had a faint phone signal, I managed to send a post-hurricane dispatch to The Guardian. That phone signal only lasted a few hours. More than 80% of the cellphone towers were destroyed, and the ones still standing just worked for a long as their diesel generators lasted.

Our only means of information was one AM radio station (WAPA Radio) that still worked with an analog signal. Every other form of communication was mostly dead.

In lighter news, an article on Buzzle covering the hurricane used one of my pieces on The Guardian as their source, but they mistakenly named me “Puerto Rican president Norbert Figueroa.” Oh, well, thank you!

Norbert - Puerto Rican President

I’m sure they wanted to write “resident” but added a “p” by mistake. Oh well, reading that made my day, so I had to screenshot it!

This first week was rough. The government and communities alike did a pretty good effort cleaning up the streets and opening access (wherever possible). These efforts were evident in the metropolitan area and around San Juan, but in the interior and pretty much anywhere else outside of the metro area, people were mostly uncommunicated.

Neighbors cutting branches after Hurricane Maria
Neighbors clearing the street.

It took us days – and even more than a week in some cases – to reach or hear any news from some towns up in the mountains and the interior – the places most affected by the hurricane. The island was in way worse shape than anyone expected or imagined.

The island, 100% of it, had no power, leaving its 3.5 million residents in darkness. Anything powered up was through diesel or gas generators.

Power Outage after Hurricane Maria

Now, fuel is king. It is expected to take six months to get the entire power grid up and running.

Every day I drove around a bit to access the situation in the city, but being frank, I was also interested in discovering a spot where I could get some phone signal to get online. That magical moment happened four days after the hurricane, as I drove over the Teodoro Moscoso bridge. Somehow, that bridge –over the lagoon– received some phone signal, so I immediately stopped the car in the middle of the bridge and stuck there for hours using the shittiest internet ever, but the only internet I had available. I began to violate curfew again.

At my office on the Teodoro Moscoso
At my post-hurricane office.

Soon, this bridge became “My Office,” and soon enough I gained dozens of “coworkers” looking for that precious signal. We would all sit in our cars; baking under the sun –sometimes for hours– just so we could contact family, friends, or stay updated with what was happening on the island. But hey, the view was not bad at all!!

People at the Teodoro Moscoso Bridge
My new “coworkers” on the bridge.
The view from Teodoro Moscoso Bridge
Office with a view, anyone?!

We now had a new normal. To get gas, we would stand in line under the sun with our Jerry Cans or in our car, for an average of six hours just to get $10 or $20 of gas. We would stand in line for hours to get money from one of the few ATMs working, and sometimes over an hour to enter one of the few operating restaurants and fast food. I said fuel is king, but no… It is queen. Cash is king now.

Whichever store or market opened for this week; they quickly ran out of water, soda, ice, and most food. No new supplies were reaching us.

Gas line three days after Maria
People standing in line to fill their Jerry cans with gas.
Gas line in Carolina, Puerto Rico
Or… lining up with their cars for endless hours for gar. Some of these lines had over 500 cars.

The Second Week after Maria – The FEMA Fiasco

A week had passed already, and still, 100% of the island had no power, about 40% had drinkable water, and just a few areas in the metropolitan area had cell phone communication. But, where’s the aid? Where’s the food and water for those who lost everything? It was nowhere to be seen.

Not surprising, the circus we have in the White House, led by the orange turd we have as President, Donald Trump, did or said NOTHING about Maria until five days after the hurricane. The worst was that 45 tweeted about the disaster, reminding Puerto Rico about its 72-Billion-dollar debt. He even questioned on another tweet if Puerto Rico was worth rebuilding. That’s how tone-deaf and racist he is.

(In case you’re feeling offended by my disgust towards 45, well, he deserves it, and way worse. So, let’s carry on…)

By the 10th day after the hurricane, no real FEMA aid had reached anyone – contrasting the narrative both the local government and the White House were sending. In comparison with Texas and Florida, Puerto Rico was getting barely any aid from the government, and the speed at which it was sent was slow, at best.

People at the Telegraph Building
People standing outside the old Telegraph building, where there was one of the two FEMA wifi spots set for the public.

It’s true there were logistical issues to bring the aid and supplies to our ports safely, but even after they were deemed safe, not much of it reached the communities that needed them the most. FEMA took an unnecessarily long time to approve the relief, and the typical government bureaucracy delayed things even more.

To make things worse, there’s a red tape problem in Puerto Rico, making the effort of getting relief and shipping supplies to us even harder. I wrote a bit about it here. And there’s this other excellent article about it here too.

Even when local organizations and private companies moved their resources to send aid to Puerto Rico, whenever the relief reached the island, they were held by FEMA and were kept stuck there – getting dust and rain – while people here waited impatiently for their water and food.

Trump said FEMA was doing a “GREAT job” with the relief, but he was merely praising and minimizing a complicated aid situation that was FAR from great. Even William Villafañe, the advisor to the Governor of Puerto Rico, said on the record to Metro Newspaper that FEMA was NOT ready for this massive job in Puerto Rico.

I talked to dozens of people who shared with me how hospital morgues were full of corpses, rotting there, waiting to be identified; how there were communities that still –two weeks after the storm– were inaccessible, how their backyards smelled like decomposing animals and pestilence (I smelled that myself), and how dialysis patients were forgoing their treatment because there is no diesel or water for the procedure.

Carmen Yulin in the water
San Juan’s Mayor, Carmen Yulin, aiding people after the hurricane. Photo from @CarmenYulin on Twitter.

The “official” death toll by Hurricane Maria is now 43, but that isn’t counting the dozens of people who died as a consequence of the storm, like all the ICU patients who died in the hospital after it ran out of diesel and had no power to keep their breathing machines operating.

The hurricane’s devastation was inevitable – it is part of nature. But, the humanitarian crisis was man-made, thanks to the mismanagement of the local government and the carelessness of Trump, who threw the urgency of this crisis to the backseat and didn’t even respond to it until he took his fat ass to Bedminster (one of his properties) to spend a weekend playing golf – delaying the aid Puerto Rico needed so badly since DAY ONE.

What was even worse was when he decided to throw an immature twitter tantrum (like he always does), attacking Carmen Yulín, the Mayor of San Juan, when she called things as they are and told him “we are dying, and you are killing us with the inefficiencies.”

The Third Week After Maria – The Shit Show

I’m sure you’ve seen the “relief” visit Trump made in Puerto Rico (after two full weeks of suffering on the island) that was more disaster than relief. He visited a neighborhood in Guaynabo that was minimally damaged (compared to, I don’t know, thousands of other communities, many of them closer to the base where the Air Force One landed, where he could see the REAL destruction?!). Then, he handed supplies to victims in the most careless way possible, as if playing a basketball game with paper towels.

As you would expect, most Puerto Ricans were left furious and with indignation by this asshole’s lack of empathy and racist behavior.

By now, more aid is reaching those in need via private donations and local campaigns. Companies like Royal Caribbean sent one of their cruises to deliver supplies and pick up over 1,700 people evacuees. FEMA is working hard too (no doubt about it), but they have a long way to go still. This is a gargantuan task, and it is going to take years to rebuild Puerto Rico.

I’m now out of the island, currently visiting my sister in Tennessee. My mom didn’t want to stay in Puerto Rico any longer, suffering the lack of power, heat, long lines for food, etc. So, that was my cue take her to my sister’s place (even if temporary), and continue my way, as usual.

Many Puerto Ricans are feeling this urge to leave the island, now that the living conditions are so dire. I’m sure our migration to the states will increase in the coming months, and our population on the island will continue to decrease, but I also know, that even if at a plodding pace, Puerto Rico will be rebuilt and shine again.

For You Who Wants to Help

If you want to donate something, I recommend giving to these non-profits and grassroots campaigns currently helping people and communities in need.

Mano a Mano por Puerto Rico is currently feeding thousands of people without a home, money, or a kitchen to prepare their own food. They cook thousands of meals on a daily basis and deliver them across the island.

Light and Hope for Puerto Rico is a campaign led by a 15-year-old boy from San Juan who is hoping to raise enough money to donate solar lamps and hand-powered washing machines to people in the communities of Loiza (one of the places most devastated by both Hurricane Irma and Maria).

For current news and the latest on the recovery status, I recommend checking this Medium.com Hurricane Recovery Resource page. The post also lists a few other charities where you can donate. But, if you are already feeling donor-fatigue, there’s something you can still do that will cost you nothing. Call your Congresspeople and ask for expedited assistance. The situation is so bad that, while nonprofit organizations are helpful, only the government has the capacity to help on the scale that is needed.

Living Through Hurricane Maria's Devastation in Puerto Rico

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