Letter to the Editor: From the Mainland: a Puerto Rican’s experience of Hurricane María

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Some of the aftermath of Hurricane María. Photo courtesy of spokesman.com.

By Adriana Colom Cruz
Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology

The NOAA NWS National Hurricane Center gives weather updates every three hours. I checked them religiously: 5 a.m., 8 a.m., 11 a.m., 2 p.m., 5 p.m., 8 p.m. Hurricane María was predicted to hit Puerto Rico as a Category 2 storm. On September 18, 2017, I remember receiving the push notification on my phone that read: “Hurricane María, now a powerful Category 5.” The pit in my stomach grew. How was this even possible?!

Within only 24 hours, Hurricane María had gone from a Category 1 to a Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. At its peak, María had maximum sustained winds of 175 mph. And every single model predicted Puerto Rico would be directly in its path. The nightmare was about to begin.

I was lucky. At the time, I was in Florida for graduate school. My mother was able to catch a flight and stay with me to escape the storm. Although she tried convincing my father to come along, her attempts failed. He decided to stay. He had to “take care of the house.” Whatever that meant.

On September 20, Hurricane María made landfall on Puerto Rico. I cried myself to sleep that night. And the following. And the following. For four long days after the hurricane hit, we still hadn’t heard from my father. From my grandmother. My aunts. From anyone. Most of the island was off the grid. There had been an island-wide blackout (it would later come to be known as the second largest blackout in modern history). It was a struggle to get any updates on the island’s current status.

Most national media outlets failed to cover anything regarding the immediate aftermath of the storm. At the time, they were covering the NFL anthem controversy. I can’t tell you how frustrating this was. Over three million U.S. citizens (yes, we are U.S. citizens) off the grid and all we really had were social media posts and rumors to go by. By “we,” I mean the five million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland.

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Adriana Colom Cruz, Visiting Assistant Professor of Psychology. Photo courtesy of Sewanee.edu

It was hard not to think the worst had happened. Had the rain caused a mudslide on the hill behind my house? Had my grandmother’s house gotten flooded? In the last conversation, my mom was able to have over the phone, she had mentioned that water had begun seeping in through the side door. Facebook didn’t help calm my nerves. Videos and pictures began trickling in the following days after landfall. The kind of pictures no one should ever have to see of their hometown.

By the fifth day, we were going crazy. Still no news. Literally, no news (I’m looking at you, CNN, MSNBC, and FOX). It’s hard to express the desperation and frustration I, and I’m assuming most Puerto Ricans on the mainland, felt. Did we not matter? Why wasn’t the crisis being reported on? When compared to coverage on Hurricane Harvey in Texas and Hurricane Irma in Florida, the coverage on María was dismal.

“We need to take matters into our own hands and go do something. Where can we go to donate food and supplies?” my mom asked.

A quick Publix stop and Google search later, we were on our way to West Palm Beach to drop off our donations. My mother, who had heard that some landlines were working, was calling our home phone nonstop. As I drove, she called. And called. And called.

Until finally, five long days later, Papi answered. I drove/swerved on I-95 as we spoke to him through the speakerphone (don’t try this at home, kids). To say we were fortunate is an understatement. My father had one of the only working landlines in the area. I have friends who weren’t able to speak to their parents or siblings for months. Months!

During the aftermath, as he was trying to assess the damage, my father missed a step and fell backwards. He had fractured his elbow and sprained his ankle. He tried playing it down by joking that it was the best thing to have happened to him. The neighbors were now bringing him free food.

His tone grew serious when he spoke of the storm though. It. Was. Scary. Probably one of the scariest things he’d ever experienced. My heart ached as he recounted what had happened. He had shut himself in the bathroom and played music to try drowning out the sounds of howling winds and falling branches.

The days post-María had also been difficult, to say the least. There was no power or water (we didn’t know it back then, but a full year later and there are still a number of customers without power). There were rumors of looting as people grew desperate. No traffic lights meant driving was chaotic. Fallen trees and downed power lines scattered the streets. The line for gas was at least six hours long (in other towns, it was much longer). Essentially, my dad should have stayed put; it would have been the smart thing to do. He, however, had other plans.

Regardless (and against our many pleas), he would visit local shelters and hand out cash to strangers since ATMs weren’t working. Knowing he had one of the few landlines in the area that was working, he would gather names and phone numbers of the many international students who were completely alone (I can’t begin to imagine how scared they must have felt). He would then call me, recite the list, and have me call complete strangers to let them know their sons/daughters were okay.

He also visited my aunt to make sure she was okay. And stopped at my friend’s house. And another friend’s house. And another. He would be gone for hours checking up on people and leave the front door open to allow others from the community (some of them strangers) come in to use the landline.  

“Does your sprain hurt when you drive?” I asked during one of our conversations.

“Yeah, a bit,” he admitted.

“Then, don’t! It’s dangerous out there anyways.”

“I can’t not help, Adri…” I finally understood what “take care of the house” truly meant. He was taking care of the community in the little ways he could. And I could not have been prouder to be my father’s daughter.

There are still feelings of guilt and betrayal that I (and probably many of the Puerto Rican diaspora) deal with on a daily basis. I should have been there. I should be helping there now. Did I abandon my people? I am selfish… These thoughts still keep me up at night.

Professionals and students have been leaving by the thousands, myself included. Doctors, teachers, engineers. There are no jobs. No opportunities. Schools and hospitals are closing by the hundreds. An economic crisis had already been crippling the island before María, causing a Puerto Rican exodus to the mainland. María accelerated both the crisis and the exodus.

There are times where it feels hopeless. What will become of my country? Yet my story is one of privilege. Those that have the resources to leave the island are privileged. We can start over and build our lives elsewhere. Not everyone has that same luxury. Last July, it was reported that Puerto Rico had the lowest unemployment rate it’s seen in 50 years.

Last week marked the first anniversary of Hurricane María and there’s still so much that needs to be done. That is why I am urging you (yes, you!) to travel to Puerto Rico. The $1.8 billion tourism industry has been hurting. Regardless of your political views and whether you think the government response was adequate or not, please consider the beautiful Caribbean island for your next vacation destination. Stay at an Airbnb, eat at local restaurants, shop at local businesses.

We. Need. Your. Help.

If there’s anything my dad taught me during last year’s devastating ordeal, it is this: Use the platform you have, no matter how small. As a newly appointed Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of the South, I have decided to do just that. As vulnerable and uncomfortable it feels to put my story into words for the first time, I can’t turn a blind eye. I haven’t been here long, but I’ve already noticed that the Sewanee community is one that cares. So I’m hoping you’ll consider helping Puerto Rico in any little way you can. You can make a difference.

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