Maria, the One and Only
As climate change becomes an increasingly pressing issue, Glass takes a very personal look at Hurricane Maria’s catastrophic impact on the island of Puerto Rico
We were one of the luckier islands in the Caribbean: Hurricane Irma’s eye had crossed us about 30 miles off the north coast of Puerto Rico, though we still got severely hit by her brutal winds. Other islands hadn’t been as fortunate, ending up pulverised, as Irma – a category five hurricane and one of the most powerful storms we’ve seen on our planet – blew right through them. The tiny island of Barbuda lost 90 per cent of its entire built and natural environment. There’s no one there at this moment. For the first time in its modern history, no one lives in Barbuda.
“And they’re saying there’s another one coming on Wednesday,” someone told me. I shook my head and opened my eyes widely. There was no way we’d get hit by another hurricane within a two-week span – we’d only just managed to get back on our feet. In fact, a large percentage of the island of Puerto Rico still had no electricity or running water. Irma’s winds had knocked out chunks of our electrical infrastructure. As Hurricane Maria headed straight towards us, evolving from a category three to a category five storm in the blink of an eye, the Puerto Rican government declared a state of emergency, cancelled all operations and urged us to brace ourselves.
With modern technology we knew exactly at what speed the hurricane was moving (about 9 mph for Maria, moving at snail-like speeds, which is terrible) and we knew what its sustained winds were (175 mph). But with all the information we had, historically there was no precedent for it. Maria was the strongest hurricane that’d hit us in almost a century; every other hurricane had been categories one, two and three, and some of them were absolutely catastrophic. Now, a category five would slice the island diagonally, entering the southeast coast and exiting through the north coast, towards the west.
Our family home was as ready as it’d ever be. My mother, sisters and I were together, and our pets were safe inside the house. “What directions are the first winds coming from?” I asked my sister. She got her phone and showed me a hurricane wind simulator over the map of Puerto Rico. Northwest – the winds would blow northwest.
“The first winds are going to try to knock down the door to the house,” I told my family. “The door’s not strong enough to hold them, so if we see that things start getting bad, we’re going to have to barricade the door from the inside using the dining room table.” My mother’s face dropped, “No, it’ll be fine, the winds might not come from that direction, the door will hold…” she said in a state of denial. “Mom, the winds will come and they will knock down this door. We need to try to keep it in place or the entire house will flood and we’ll lose everything.”
That Tuesday night, September 20, Hurricane Maria made its way towards Puerto Rico. By 10 p.m., we’d lost power. In the early hours of Wednesday, it made landfall through the south-east coast, and there, as I lay on the cool tiled floor to try to do my best to sleep amid the heat and stress, I received the last series of texts from my friends abroad: “Are you and your family safe?” but I couldn’t respond by then. Puerto Rico was now entirely off the grid. There was no landline, no mobile phone, no Wi-Fi, no radio, no way to communicate with anyone outside the house and no way to know what was happening in the island.
I woke up the next morning to the winds of Maria, as the hurricane approached the west of the island. According to what the news had said, in our hometown the stronger part of Maria’s winds would start at 9 a.m., and because Maria was moving so slightly despite her high-speed winds, she’d finish pummelling the west coast an astounding twelve hours later. It didn’t take long for things to get rough, with winds that howled as if they were alive and in pain, screaming at the top of their lungs as they ripped out trees from the ground. Even though our windows were closed and secured by aluminium panels fixed against them, the winds were so strong and there was so much rain, water still managed to find its way through any and every crevice.
From under the doors and through the joints in the wood’s detailing, water started flowing into the house. Running from here to there, with a mop and two buckets to try to contain the water, but the sheer amount was overwhelming and moved so much faster than we could. As the window joints allowed water inside, it began trickling down the wall. It was as if the house was bleeding from the outside in – there was water everywhere. And we were exhausted, with 10 more hours of hurricane weather to go.
That’s when the winds shifted slightly to the north. Clang, clang. CLANG, CLANG. The noise grew stronger and I knew exactly what was happening. “Get to the door,” I told everyone. As water poured from under the door, we started moving the heavy dining room table to protect ourselves from Maria, who was quite literally, furiously knocking at our door. She wanted in, and we were refusing. For a moment we thought that our plan wouldn’t work and that Maria would blow our doors down, dining table and all, but as the afternoon came, the winds subsided. So did the water. We’d managed to contain it from coming into the bedrooms by placing towels and bedding on the floor to help absorb the water before it flowed through the hallway and into the bedrooms. All four of us collapsed, exhausted, with our individual pets by our side, comforting them as they trembled.
“I think it’s over,” my other sister said when we woke up. “It can’t be,” I replied, “the news warned that winds would last until late at night. The winds are shifting, and they’re going to come in the opposite direction.” Hurricanes are spiral-shaped, so when they approach, their winds blow in one direction, and as they depart, the winds blow in reverse. Round two of Maria indeed came, but fortunately the other side of the house had fewer windows and crevices for water to flow through. But although the flooding had subsided, the howling of the winds only got even more intense. We could hear everything – things crashing, being blown away, trees falling. By nightfall, Maria left the island, though her winds and rain remained.
When I woke up on Thursday morning, my mother and my sisters weren’t inside the house. I realised I was the last one to wake up, and as I opened the door to step outside to the balcony to see where they were, my jaw dropped. Everything that was once green was gone. The trees had collapsed, the palm trees had collapsed, the pine trees had collapsed, the light posts had collapsed, our neighbours’ roofs had been blown away – everything was either on the ground, had gone or was lifeless. From atop the countryside hill where our family home is, the entire view seemed new.
Maria had swept every tall tree to the ground, revealing hundreds of houses that we’d never seen before. Even though I felt a sense of gratitude that we were safe, the island I’d known all my life was an unrecognisable landscape. I think that’s when it truly hit me: we’re more than our homes and our belongings; the landscape is also part of us, and it’s just as valuable to our identity.
I felt an immense sense of loss along with helpless violation, and it was very personal. But added to that I also felt an enormous weight that extended beyond myself: the hard truth was that the loss of our natural environment held immensely negative implications for Puerto Rico at social and economic levels. Puerto Rico is an island that, before Maria, was $78 billion in debt due to governmental administrations that have throughout the years wagered with our economy in a series of corrupt investments and acts of theft. A territory of the US, we currently have a federal fiscal board appointed by the previous Obama administration whose sole purpose is to impose huge austerity measures so that the island can repay the debt to its Wall Street investors – cuts to education and healthcare primarily, of course.
To this day, the government refuses to tell us exactly where those $78 billion were spent and who spent them – like receiving a bill from your bank, with the bank refusing to tell you what they’re charging you for. One of our former governors during the 1990s, Pedro Rosselló, is infamous for having led the most corrupt administration in Puerto Rican history. Our current governor’s name is Ricardo Rosselló – his son. To many of us, it’s no surprise that the current government doesn’t want to hand out the receipts of who spent what – son would incriminate father, and that would be a partisan fiasco of epic proportions.
With Maria having pulverised our electrical system, the number of houses that collapsed, the roads and bridges that got swept away by the water, flood damage to civic and institutional buildings, lack of running water, a surge in sick people in hospitals, the destruction faced by small business owners and the damage to public schools and universities, a destroyed landscape meant that Puerto Rico would have to kiss agriculture and tourism goodbye. Without water and electricity, businesses of any scale can’t work. Software companies, pharmaceutical companies, the hotel industry, airports, health services, the local town bar are all paralysed: the economy was, is paralysed.
The fallen landscape was a reminder that even though Maria was gone, the real crisis was only just starting, and we had no idea of its scale. In fact, we had no idea about anything, including where the hurricane hit the hardest. We were in a total communications blackout, and judging by the state of our home town, we could only imagine how bad things were in the rest of the island. In the absence of newspapers, Wi-Fi and radio, rumour and hearsay became the new news. Lining up from anything between four to eight hours daily, there under the scorching Caribbean sun, the queue to get petrol for vehicles and generators became the new public square, where people would meet and chat – mostly about how hard they had it and what the new rumours were. It was like returning to a previous century where there was absolutely no way to confirm any facts. Word of mouth was as good as it got.
It took a week before I could get hold of anyone outside my hometown, when a relative’s landline phone started working again. I rang one of my Puerto Rican friends who now lives in Chicago to see what the media was saying and to ask him to tell my friends abroad that I was okay. “Do people know what’s happened?” I asked. “It’s all over the news, all the time. They’re saying it’s a humanitarian crisis at a global level,” he responded.
“It’s so bad, everything’s been knocked down. What’s happened to the rest of the island?” I asked him. He replied, “It looks like a war zone. Everything that’s being shown is heart-breaking, El Yunque doesn’t exist any more.” El Yunque, our national rainforest, a must-see site for tourists, the regulator of weather for the rest of the island, home to countless local animal and plant species. El Yunque, our symbol of national identity.
“And what’s Trump saying?” I asked apprehensively. “He hasn’t even visited yet. He’s been too busy tweeting about NFL players who knelt during the national anthem. He’s supposed to visit sometime next week.” I wasn’t surprised. “Is there anyone helping us?” I asked. “The Puerto Rican diaspora has rallied together, we’re organising in Facebook groups to keep each other in the know about what’s happening, raise money and send supplies. Even the celebrities are active, they’re fundraising and tweeting Trump to add pressure to the government to respond. Ellen DeGeneres, Ricky Martin, Kim Kardashian, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Rihanna, the list goes on and on. Everyone’s got their eyes on Puerto Rico. What we’re seeing from abroad,” he continued, “is a massive catastrophe.”
“How are our people in the centre of the island?” I asked him. He said, “You don’t want to know.”
The official death toll, according to the government, was 16. When President Donald Trump visited the island the week after, he reported that Puerto Rico wasn’t a disaster in the same way that Hurricane Katrina had been when it hit New Orleans because the number of deaths were so dissimilar – Governor Rosselló simply sat next to Trump and said nothing, did nothing to correct the President: the official death toll only accounted for people who died during the hurricane’s passing. It didn’t account for the number of people who subsequently died in the hospitals because there was no medication, no electricity to sustain machines and no fresh water for drinking.
The official death tolls didn’t account for the number of people stacked in the morgues because there was nowhere else they could be taken to – even if there were, there were no vehicles to take them. The official death tolls also didn’t account for the number of fatalities in the centre of the island, where bridges and roads had collapsed leaving them entirely isolated from the rest of the island, unable to get out but also unable for emergency supplies to come in from ports and airports. The official death tolls didn’t take into consideration all the people buried in their backyards by their relatives because no help was able to reach them.
At the time of writing this piece, six weeks ago today, Maria hit my island (on September 20 ). To date, only 16 per cent of the island has electrical power – I’m not one of them. Rumour has it that it’ll take six months to a year for the island to have electricity again. As uncomfortable as being without electricity or water is, the news reminds me of how fortunate I am, and that my experience during Hurricane Maria accounts for the tiniest fraction of what the storm truly did to our people.
Although a semblance of normalcy is returning to coastal towns and the bigger cities – as electricity, water and communications are restored for the upper and middle classes – the centre of the island remains in a state of constant, ongoing crisis. Animals die in lakes and rivers, and people do their washing and bathing in them, contaminating waters, while cases of leptospirosis (a bacterial disease transmitted by animals urinating in water) are beginning to be reported. Four people have died so far from that alone – not included in the official death tolls, of course.
In the meantime, our landscape is recovering faster than I thought possible: the colour green is starting to show through once again: palm trees are reborn, growing tremendously fast, a symbol of hopeful resilience that leads me to optimistically believe that we too will recover. But I confess, it’s bittersweet. My greatest fear is that as leaves grow and the flowers bloom again, the visual reminder of Maria’s catastrophic effect on Puerto Rico – etched onto our landscapes – will be forgotten, and those trapped in the centre of the island will be forgotten with it.
by Regner Ramos
Main image: Cosme Entrance to La Concha Hotel, San Juan. Photograph by Jo Cosme
Taken from Inspire – Issue 32 Glass Magazine
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