Hurricane Maria, a story of resilience

My family, and about 3 million others are not going anywhere

I have been living in South Africa since December 2012. This beautiful country has its share of natural disasters, including the devastating drought many are experiencing. Recently, however, I shared with a friend how lucky South Africans are that hurricanes are not a part of their everyday lives.

Growing up in the small Caribbean island of Puerto Rico, with a hurricane season that goes from June to November every year, storms were common. I remember the darkening of the clouds, the heaviness of the air, the oppressiveness of the heat, and the deafening howling of the wind accompanying the heavy downpours. Less clear in my childhood memories is the messy aftermath, with fallen trees, mudslides, lack of electricity, water and phone service, and the loss of life.

During those storms, as we gathered in our home by the light of a candle, with all the windows tightly shut and the world as we knew it falling apart outside, my grandparents would tell us stories of hurricanes past, which devastated the island during their childhood.

My grandparents lived through Saint Ciprian (1932) and Saint Clara (1956). These were catastrophic hurricanes that ironically enough were named after saints. In those times, people relied on their connection to nature to protect themselves since satellite services to track hurricanes did not exist. My grandfather knew when a storm was approaching and like many in his village, moved his family to a “tormentera,” storm shelters built barely above the ground, where people would gather to pass the brunt of the storm. In those days, the tormenteras were necessary because the houses were all made of wood, unable to stand the battering of 200 km an hour winds.

I left Puerto Rico more than 35 years ago to study and work in the United States of America. I have also lived in Chile, Singapore and now in South Africa. During that time, I have stayed in touch with my family on a regular basis. If I were to receive back all the money I have spent on phone calls over the past 35 years, I have no doubt I would be a millionaire. I usually talk to my mother and text my brother five to six times a week. Dad is not into phones, so I catch him once a week when mom goes to church.

My ability to communicate with my family, however, came to an abrupt halt when Hurricane Maria destroyed the island in September of 2017. Hurricane Maria hit the island directly with sustained winds of more than 240 km per hour, causing billions of dollars in damage destroying homes, businesses, eviscerating the electric and telephone grids; in other words, crushing the island’s economy and its until then modern way of life. Of more than 1, 600 cellular towers, less than 300 remained standing; almost 100% of the island lost electric power.

I was unable to hear from my family for two weeks. This was the first time in my 35 years as a globetrotter that I couldn’t contact someone at home. Not knowing how my family was dealing with the messy aftermath was a devastating experience. I read every newspaper I could find and the news was heart-breaking. People could not find food or water and had to queue for as long as 10 hours to buy diesel or petrol to run their electric generators under the guard of armed military personnel. The entire island had to go back to cash only transactions—no money, no food or water. With no electricity, there was no access to banks or hospitals. The devastation was so widespread that rescue efforts could not be coordinated—there was no way to communicate by phone and most roads were impassable or simply destroyed. Outside of the metropolitan area, people were literally on their own.

Online newspapers in the USA and the only operating newspaper in Puerto Rico showed pictures of hundreds of people driving around, trying to find a cellular phone signal so they could tell their loved ones in the USA or overseas that they were well. I knew my brother was among them.

Those were the hardest two weeks of my life. I had to continue doing my job with little sleep. As I rested at home at night, I wondered if my parents had food, water or access to medicines. Then, I got a six-word text from my brother: “Everyone is fine; please don’t worry.” I had to wait two more weeks to hear my mother’s voice. She spoke for exactly 40 seconds and rushed through “Please don’t worry; we are fine.” I never managed to get a single word out because the call ended abruptly. About three weeks after the hurricane, I began to hear from friends and relatives who lived in the USA. Some had managed to talk to neighbours or other relatives, who knew someone, who knew about my family. We communicated via Facebook, Whatsapp, and phone calls. That became my only source of news about home.

In the 21st century, where everyone can access anyone, anywhere, I had to settle for information relayed through a network of friends all over the USA to get any news about my family. They themselves had no idea of how bad the situation was. The radio and TV stations on the island were all off air. Not that it mattered. There was not a single battery anyone could buy to keep radios working and since the postal service was not working, there was no way to send my family anything to make their lives easier.

I bought a plane ticket a few days after the hurricane, but the airport was closed for almost one month, so I had to reschedule the flight. I was only able to see my family in mid-November 2017—two months after the hurricane.

Puerto Rico is a tropical island; everything everywhere is green–there are literally millions of trees as far as the eye can see. As a taxi driver took me home, all I saw were stumps, some with a few daring leaves starting to grow back.

Over the three decades I have been away from Puerto Rico, there have been countless hurricanes and storms and the island and its residents always bounce back relatively quickly. Of course, within this seemingly simple statement are countless stories of loss, death, and suffering; but also of generosity, compassion and resilience.

My brother says that in our island people experience storms differently. Those in the cities usually depend on the government to restart electricity, water and phone services quickly so they can go on with their lives. But in rural areas the story is different. These villages are usually the last ones to have basic services restored. So rural people have learned to be self-reliant and have petrol or diesel-powered electricity generators, tanks for water, and tools to remove the messy debris of fallen trees that usually blocks country roads after a strong storm.

My family lives in such a rural area; and after every storm, everyone walks out of their homes with chainsaws and brooms, ready to clear their own driveways and, if necessary, their neighbours’. In our village, neighbours still check on each other, commiserate together, find humour wherever they can, and share food, water and ice—the latter a precious commodity when power is lost.

 

It’s now been five months since Maria changed the lives of millions of Puerto Ricans. The figures vary, but if you ask the average person on the street they will tell you that less than 40% of the islanders have electric service. The worst news is that there is simply no telling when electricity will be restored; some people estimate that rural communities will not have it for years to come. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of people have moved to the USA, seeking jobs after losing everything. There, the Spanish speaking community struggle in a foreign country where English is the main language.

My family, and about 3 million others are not going anywhere, though. No matter how difficult things are, they will stay exactly where they are and find a way to cope. When the next hurricane season starts in June 2018 and another hurricane threatens to destroy everything again, my mom will cry for her lost orchids and ravaged trees, my dad will feed batteries to his tiny radio and search for news, and my brother will oil his chainsaw and start clearing the roads and driveways all over again. And they won’t be the only ones; this ritual will be repeated throughout the entire Caribbean region, where residents of hundreds of islands in “hurricane alley” have learned to hide when the deadly winds touch down and surface when the sun shines again, picking up the pieces and finding ways to restore order amidst the destruction. That’s what I call resilience.

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