My Maria Experience

Hello, everyone!

It’s been weeks since my last post, and you can imagine why. It seems my joy at having escaped Irma’s wrath was heard and noted, since Maria quickly followed. While Irma just gave Puerto Rico a glancing blow, Maria swept viciously over the entire island. It was as if a sixty-mile-wide tornado had crossed the island from corner to corner. Keep in mind, the island is approx. thirty miles wide by ninety miles long. We were inside the raging beast for hours!

What is it like, enduring a storm of Maria’s strength and size for hours? It’s not something for the weak hearted, for sure. My house is built like a bunker. Most of the houses in my neighborhood are built the same way. Mine is made entirely of steel-reinforced concrete and concrete block, including the roof. That’s right, the roof is concrete. My doors are impact-resistant metal. There are no trees around it to fall; only shrubs and small plants surround it.

I decided that only the windward sides needed shuttering since my windows are meant to withstand winds of 150 miles, and the direction of the hurricane’s approach indicated that winds would start from the north, change to the west, and finally sweep in from the south as the storm exited. The east side of the house would be relatively sheltered. Since hurricanes move in a counter- clock spin in our neck of the woods, this is the usual case with storms approaching the island from the southeast corner.

At first, I planned to weather the storm alone. My house is situated on a bluff, with no danger of flooding. I was as prepared as I could be in terms of supplies and water. My car was gassed and safely tucked away. I had dozens of candle jars (I don’t bother with batteries) and other emergency paraphernalia. What I did not have was a portable radio or a generator, but I did not expect to be out of power longer than a week if at all. I have no problem being without electricity for a few days. I consider it an adventure. I do have a small gas stove for emergencies.

At the last minute, my cousin Evelyn decided to keep me company and showed up around 8 P.M. on Tuesday night, the 19th. I was grateful for the company, but now we had the problem of where to keep her car. She decided to tuck it as close as possible to the south wall, since the east wall is lined with shrubs. I worried about the car because there is a wide, empty sweep of lawn there and no protection at all.

We watched television and talked for the next two hours; the front door was wide open and a light rain with intermittent light gusts was starting. At about eleven o’clock the gusts picked up, and we closed the door. My daughter and son, who live in Miami, were constantly messaging me. At one thirty in the morning, the electricity went out. The winds and rain were stronger now, but nothing alarming. I texted my daughter that the electricity was out. Her answer was, “So soon?” It was the last message I’d receive, as the cellular signal was lost.

I had jar candles in place. With the cell phone for light, we started lighting candles.  The wind and rain were steady, and we were not worried yet. My phone has a radio app, and we tuned in to it. Interestingly, there were few news reports coming through. We learned that already a shelter in San Juan was having problems and was being evacuated. This seemed strange as we did not perceive the winds as being that strong yet.

We decided to get a little sleep. It was just before sunrise that I woke up to the persistent sound of powerful, sustained gusts and banging on the walls and windows. It was semi-dark outside and we could see little out the east windows. We pulled up two folding chairs and waited for the light of day. We turned our radio apps back on. Only one station was broadcasting, and it was a religious music station coming through loud and clear. All others had lost signal.

At some point, the pounding on the window panels began to get worrisome. It seemed that the now powerful gusts were grabbing hold of the panels and pounding them into the windows. I became afraid that maybe the panels were not strong enough and they would themselves break the windows. We decided to move the sectional sofa and the television into the inner bathroom, which is humongous and very sheltered.

As we began moving the sofa, we saw that water was coming in under the doors at a surprising rate. There was no danger of flooding as the house sits on a high bluff, but the rain was being whipped horizontally and slipping under the doors. I ran to place heavy towels under the doors. The towels soon became soaked and water continued to flow in. Gratefully, the house is entirely floored in ceramic tile.

We kept squeezing heavy towels and trying to keep out the rain. Finally, we gave up. As the dark outside turned into day, we were able to not only hear but see the force of the storm. It seemed to get stronger with every gust, and the gusts now seemed to come back to back without pause. The pounding of the window panels against the windows had me terrified. I expected that at any moment the shuttering panels would be ripped out and the windows would go. We took all our cookies, chips, drinks, and shut ourselves in my bedroom which faced east and was not under “attack” as I perceived it.

Outside, it sounded as if the cry of babies was carried in the wind; this disturbed my cousin greatly. I remembered that during hurricane Andrew, in Cutler Ridge in 1992, my brother had described the wind as “thousands of little elves with little hammers pounding on the walls.” The sound of Maria was more eerie, more like a steady wailing. At times, you could hear the equivalent of babies wailing in high-pitched frenzies. It is easy to understand how ancient man might have imagined spirits and demons in such winds.

As daylight became stronger, we were able to see across the street where the neighbor’s shed, which had stood storms for twenty years, began to lift from the side and was swept away and thrown down the hill by a gust. Evelyn and I cheered as the shed was an eyesore and every neighbor wanted it gone. Although the wind was coming from the northwest now, our east-facing windows vibrated each time the gusts swept across.

We could see the trees, shrubs, and all kinds of debris being swept by the gusts. The smaller, more flexible palm trees were bent almost to the ground. I remembered a reporter from Miami standing in Irma’s gusts to show how strong the wind was blowing, obviously impressed. If he stood in my driveway now, he’d be found somewhere in Central America, maybe.

An interesting effect was caused by air pressure. Once in a while, I’d open the bedroom door to see the extent of the water flowing under the living room doors and to make sure the panels at the windows still held. Although every door and window was secured, the pressure against the bedroom door was substantial. I had to struggle to open my bedroom door. At one point, I tried to open the door to the guest room and was not strong enough to do so.

Outside, the gusts were now incredible. The wind was moving so fast, that lightning stroke directly across the landscape, maybe half a mile from us, but no thunder was heard.  This seemed to me very strange because one of the things that most bothered me about Andrew was the lightning and thunder. I also remember that Katrina in 2005 (or it may have been Rita) touched us in Miami, and the lightning and thunder strikes were horrendous. Maria had lightning, but the thunder seemed strangely muted. The wind speeds must have been incredibly strong to carry off the sound of thunder.

Another effect of the wind speed was the whitening of the air around us. Seconds before especially strong gusts blew, the air outside would turn milky white as if it was raining milk sideways, and everything would disappear in the paper-white landscape. My cousin and I began to fear the gusts as everything became milk white outside. It was a strange and unsettling effect.

I can’t remember the exact time, but I believe it was sometime after two o’clock that the gusts stopped and the whiteness cleared. Evelyn and I looked at each other with relief and teetered out into the now totally water-logged living room. I believed the hurricane was over; after all, it had started about eleven o’clock the night before- fifteen hours more or less. I remembered Andrew lasting much less than that. Evelyn was not so sure. She thought we were under the eye.

We opened the door to a calm, grey day. There was no bright blue sky over us. I grabbed a broom and started sweeping out the water. Both of us worked to squeeze out towels and get water out. Evelyn kept warning me that it was the eye, not to step outside. She was right. A sudden gust blew, and I grabbed the door to close it. The door caught the wind and pulled me with it. My cousin panicked and grabbed my arm to pull me back.

My wrist twisted and I let the door go which pounded against the concrete wall. I had a swollen, painful wrist for days. I was lucky it was not worst. My first hurricane injury ever! Goes to show how easily one can get hurt by a hurricane.

Now, the wind began to whip from the south, and it got stronger and more terrifying. At this point, Evelyn worried that her car would not make it. I expected that the small car would be picked up and thrown against the house. Outside, we could see that the small palm trees in my landscaping where bending totally and the absolutely rubbery, strong, Agave-like, round plants that stood low to the ground were also bending!

Interestingly, the power cables vibrated and swung perilously, but they did not fall because in our street, there were no palm trees or trees planted under them. A lesson learned was that any cables under trees or shrubs, came down. The island is a lush, green place where most electric cables are surrounded by forests; this proved disastrous for the electric grid.

Another lesson learned was that structures made of wood as well as rooftop solar heaters could survive if they were tied down properly with cabling and tensors. We watched the heavy, loaded storage shed across being lifted easily and carried off by the wind, but one neighbor’s solar heater was left intact. It had been tied down with tensors and survived the strong winds. Evelyn’s thirty-year-old wooden cottage also survived; it was tied down to its concrete foundation with cabling that went criss-cross over its metal roof and tied to the foundation with tensors.

The back end of Maria went on forever. All radio stations had gone silent hours before. We had no phone signals, no electricity, no running water. Eventually, exhausted and unable to do anything else, we fell asleep. At six in the morning (now Thursday the 21st), I awakened to intermittent gusts. The rain had stopped. We had been locked inside since Tuesday night, more or less thirty hours. We opened the door to a strange morning.

It was eerily bright but not sunny, just a strange, cold brightness like fluorescent lighting. There was a sense of emptiness in the landscape, and I could see houses and roads and streams that I had not seen before.

Miraculously, Evelyn’s car was untouched. Somehow, it was shielded by the house and survived. However, the mango tree I had on the edge of the property, one that dated back to my grandfather’s time and was huge, was not only split in pieces but ripped out by the roots. Not one of my banana trees, orange trees, or any other fruit tree survived. However, on the other hill I could see the neighbor’s two horses placidly grazing. He’d let them loose to survive because he said that they would go insane locked up during the storm.

Across the street, I could see my neighbor sweeping out water from her balcony. On most days, she would greet me cheerfully; she did not say a word. I walked over to ask if she was ok.

“I lost everything,” she said. “What’s the use of planting and slaving, just to lose it all in one sweep.” I think she was furious with God. I looked behind her house, and she was right. All her banana, avocado, orange trees, almost everything was down. Keep in mind that she has a total monthly income of maybe $200. She plants things to eat.

“You didn’t lose your house,” I remarked. “There are lots of people today can’t say the same thing.” I know that was little consolation to her, but it was the truth.

Evelyn was desperate to see if her small, wooden house had survived. We got in her car and made our way to the end of my street. At that point, it dawned on us that my street was the exception because it was not lined with trees. At the intersection, there was no way to proceed. The entire main road was a tangle of trees and electric power lines. The tangles stretched out into the distance. Looking in the other direction, we could see where a large piece of a hill had collapsed and choked off the road.

In every direction, I searched the horizon for the antennae that provided cellular and Internet communications. All had disappeared. Neighbors began to congregate in small groups. Everyone wanted to know: Where did the hurricane exit? Did it go directly over us? How is the rest of the island? Are all the roads impassable? Did the bridges survive? Is it safe to cross them? When will the electricity return? The water? Did the nursing home where my father is, survive? Is there phone service anywhere so that I can contact my children?

It was this sense of uncertainty and fear for other family members that permeated those first hours. Still, everyone expected that cell phones would come on line within hours. With the realization that all towers were gone and that neither cell phones nor Internet would be available for communications, a real sense of helplessness set in.

However, you may put a Puerto Rican down, but you can’t keep him down. By eight o’clock in the morning, every able-bodied man and many women were out with portable power saws and machetes. They sawed, hacked, and carried. A few hours later, the entire road was cleared for miles. Power lines still could be seen dangling at many spots, and the road was lined with debris so that only one line of cars could move at a time. Everyone understood that emergency crews could not move through choked roads, so the people did the clearing. This happened all over my hometown.

Just hours before the hurricane, some hapless government official had been advising the population that after the storm, the best and most efficient way to request FEMA aid was to enter their web page and apply online! Obviously, it had to be some young professional full of the knowledge of technology with little knowledge of the power of nature. There were some small pockets in major cities such as Mayaguez where some lines and towers survived, but overall, it will be months before the majority of the island sees an internet connection.

During Andrew, in 1992, I lived in Cutler Ridge, just north of Homestead, Florida. The devastation there was different. It was the destruction of houses, all of them sporting wooden roofs that caught the wind and blew off.  In my town, nestled in the mountains of the northwest of Puerto Rico, there was not the same widespread destruction of homes because we build differently. The devastation was to the infrastructure. Portions of roads collapsed, ancient bridges failed, our water dam cracked, thousands of light posts and transformers were ripped apart, and all com towers went down.

With the collapse of the infrastructure, problems we never imagined surged to the front. Portable power generators soon ran out of gasoline. People who were depending on social security checks and other deposited income were not able to access their banks. The ability to distribute gasoline was brought to a stand-still by power struggle between politicians and union leaders.

Nine days after the hurricane, things were bad. I had used my car to charge my electronics in the hope that they would come back on, to listen on the car radio hoping for news, to enjoy the car’s AC, and driving to check on family. I had not been able to speak to my daughter or my brothers in Florida. I was taking baths with small water bottles. I used a candle to heat a needle and melt tiny holes in the caps to use the bottles as a shower.

I stood on a line at the bank at 4:30 in the morning, the pitch-black early morning lit only by our cell phones. It was all they were good for. The cops showed up at mid-morning to say that the bank was not opening that day. He said to try Moca or Aguadilla, the next two towns.

Many people did not have enough gas to make it there. Some were afraid to lose precious jobs because they had no gas to drive to them. Most people that live in my town work in the bigger cities. Portable generators were kept silent because the gasoline was needed for the cars.

I went from gas station to gas station. Lines stretched endlessly in both directions. People stood in line for hours. One neighbor stood in line eleven hours and left without getting the gasoline. It must be emphasized that this was nine days after the storm.

The red light in my gas gauge came on. I drove to a cousin’s house who lives closer to town and parked the car for good. My son unexpectedly rode in on a HSI truck (rescue mission) intent on shipping his distraught mom back to Miami for a few weeks. I jumped at the chance.

He brought cases of water and boxes of MRE meals which he gave to my neighbor. I took every dollar I had, every dollar he had, all my remaining supplies, and gave them to her too. I felt awful that I had to leave her in such a mess.

My son took me back to San Juan and the hotel where his unit was lodged. My phone got its signal back as soon as we entered the Marriot. I had my first hot shower since Maria swept over the island. That evening I ate a nice churrasco. Let me tell you, I never want to see another Vienna sausage.

The next morning, I was able to access my bank account. The only working ATM gave me $500. which I quickly gave to a family member more needy than me. It seems my family in San Juan was in worse shape than the ones in the country. I figured I needed nothing since in Miami everything was at hand.  I was lucky to fly back on a flight chartered by ICE for their people and family members.

Maria crossed the island on the 20th of September. I will be flying back on Nov.17th. I love my home and have no intention of abandoning it. My neighborhood has electricity and intermittently, water now, but no cellular signal or Internet. I need the Internet because of my publishing and my blog, but I will just have to make do. In other parts of the island, people lost lives and homes to the floods. I was a lucky one.

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