We thought it was over.
In September 2017, Irma made her grand entrance into the Caribbeans as a threatening, Category 5 Hurricane. Speechless, the first thought that came to my mind was, “What do I do?”
That week prior, I sought answers for natural disaster protocol here on the island. I asked church members, friends, neighbors, and even the hippie guy that worked in the shop across the street.
“Ah, just grab a bottle of wine and wait it out.”
(Yes, that was his exact response. And no, I didn’t take his advice.)
Everyone prepared as best they could: closed stores, boarded up windows, stocked up on water and canned foods, checked into hotels, and a few probably did grab some wine. It was hurricane season here in Puerto Rico, and the islanders were expectant. The severity of this particular hurricane was alarming, but from what I saw, no one expressed concern.
As for me, I moved to Puerto Rico alone and on my own. No family, no friends, and definitely no hurricane protocols. Luckily, a couple from my church invited me to stay with them during the storm, and I graciously took their offer.
Ah, just grab a bottle of wine and wait it out? I think not.
The following evening, me and a few other church members staying at the couples’ house shared bowls of popcorn as we sat in front of the television following the news updates:
Hurricane Irma has just touched ground in the British Virgin Islands…
St. Martin is now experiencing devastating winds and damage…
Hurricane Irma is expected to hit Puerto Rico in approximately 4 hours…
We charged our cell phones, played a few games to pass the time, and simply waited.
And by the grace of God, Irma missed us. I woke up that morning to drizzling rain and soft wind breezes. According to the news, the storm literally changed course at the last minute and missed Puerto Rico by less than 20 miles.
TALK ABOUT A MIRACLE.
We did, however, receive power outages throughout the island due to the strong winds that night before. So, for the next several days, majority of us on the island dealt extensive heat, eating canned and dry foods, and stopping by random stores or restaurants (which had generators and air-conditioning) to charge our electronics (I literally took turns sitting in Starbucks and CVS everyday, for hours). Thankfully, my electricity and water came back on after 10 days (sadly, many people across the island waited much longer.)
Just when things started to get back to normal, tragedy struck.
ANOTHER HURRICANE WAS COMING.
It was ridiculous. We just missed a category 5, and less than two weeks later, we were expected to be hit by a category 4. No one saw it coming. It was like it came out of nowhere.
We complained and groaned, but again, we prepared. Due to our previous luck with Irma, I was optimistic that this time would happen the exact same way and miss us.
And I was wrong.
With winds at a violent 155 miles an hour, Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc, slamming right through the middle of Puerto Rico as a category 4. It had already hit Dominica, another Caribbean island, as a category 5, and after leaving us, continued its path north, right into the Turks and Cacaos Islands.
So, where was I during Maria? By the grace of God again, a friend reached out and offered me to stay with her and her family at their home. Thankfully, her house, and that entire neighborhood were on high ground, and were well-constructed for hurricane impact. We were without power, but safe.
The rest of the island….well…you probably heard or read about it.
- Complete blackout. No power. . .ANYWHERE
- No cell phone signal due to fallen/damaged towers
- Majority without running water
- Flights cancelled and plane tickets skyrocketed (about $800 for a one-way off the island. It’s normally less than $200)
- Homes destroyed
- Mass floods
- Shipment imports (food & other necessities) closed
- schools and many jobs closed
- and a death toll of. . .
When I went back to my apartment two days after Hurricane Maria struck, this is what I came to:
Water and mold covered the floors, leftover storm rain dripping from my ceilings, and a semi-collapsed roof (as seen from the cover photo. My apartment was on the top floor of the building).
Thankfully, my friend offered me to stay at her house those next two weeks until I could book a flight to the U.S. Everyone, myself included, was on survival mode from that day forward.
- Lines for gasoline stations and grocery stores were at least 5 blocks long (I stood in line for bread and canned food for an estimated 3 hours one morning. And that was a “good” day.)
- People carpooled with neighbors (and even strangers) to preserve gas in their cars
- We used buckets of pool water to fill and flush the toilets
- Dozens of people (who hadn’t heard from family or friends) stood on the sides of highways in order to get cellphone signal
- We had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as lunch and dinner for several nights
- the list goes on. . .
Thankfully, my job understood my situation (I worked online) and gave me those two weeks off (unfortunately as unpaid time off). For many of the other islanders, however, were left without work and a source of income for months.
I returned to the U.S. relieved, but extremely depressed. My apartment, my friends, my church members, and many citizens of Puerto Rico, didn’t have that option. For the remained of the year (October to December), I was pretty much unstable in terms of my living situation. I decided to stay in Florida with a friend, hoping to get back to PR that following month). But as progress reports came back negatively, I rented a couple of temporary spots and AirBnBs.
I was so thankful to also have met many new acquaintances and kindhearted people who understood my situation and offered a roof over my head for free (you all know who you are. God bless you all) and to have connected with an amazing church in Tampa that helped me keep stay encouraged and maintain trust in God during the process.
The people of Puerto Rico have been truly been so strong and perseverant through the aftermath, having gone over 3 months without electricity and other vital necessities. Shoutout to amazing music artists such as Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Ricky Martin, and Jennifer Lopez (to name a few) for using their voices and finances for the Puerto Rico Se Levanta Campaign, helping bring awareness to the situation and need for help on the island (and those affected by the hurricanes).
As for me, I returned to Puerto Rico in January 2018. With all thanks to God, I was able to find and rent new apartment in an area that fortunately regained electricity, and continued my online job. These recent events have not only made me more appreciative of my life, but also encouraged me to begin volunteering with hurricane/disaster relief teams, as well as with my church, to help restore, rebuild, and reassure the people of PR that we’re here for them. The beauty of the island is still here, even post-hurricane. Soon, the world will see it too.