*Please excuse the length of this post. I’ll edit it into sections some day and also include pictures but with communications currently so difficult I wanted to get an accurate picture of the situation out there ASAP.
I’m not sure where to even start. I’m pretty sure it’s still September but I no longer have a concept of the day or date.
The drama all started about three weeks ago when we heard the first reports of hurricane Irma forming in the Atlantic. There was coverage that she was to be one of the biggest hurricanes in a century that it was likely to impact Puerto Rico. I was pretty calm about it all. There have been tropical storm and hurricane warnings in the past two years but all moved and came to nothing and I was sure that Irma would do the same.
A few days passed and I watched the locals start to prepare and get ready and I knew it was time that we did the same. Non perishable food, water, gas for BBQ grills, gas for your car, cash, batteries, candles etc. We don’t have a generator at our house and there was news reports that the power could be gone for months and I was a little panicky but I didn’t know what to expect so I concentrated on securing the house. We had the roof checked for leaks and made sure the pipes were clean of leaves, brought in the patio furniture, taped down all our mosquito screens to make them as secure as possible and taped our windows with big X’s in case of glass shatter. We were ready. We watched and waited and Irma started to move north so we knew that Puerto Rico would be spared the worst of this one but still expected sustained winds of 100mph. Lots of our friends, particularly those from the US left. Afraid of horror stories of looting post hurricane, the potential damage to homes and the lack of utilities and supplies on the other side. We were going to stick it out. I felt confident that we lived in a concreate house with a secure roof and that we would be totally fine.
She was due to hit on a Wednesday and we waited for her arrival. We were a bit jumpy and each time the winds picked up we watched outside and were prepared for the worst. Irma thankfully spared our little island without too much damage. There was a lot of trees down, but all in all we were pretty lucky. We had utilities back in 2-5 days in most places across the island and things were so much better than anticipated. Her winds while strong, felt like a very bad and windy day in Ireland and it didn’t really feel like a hurricane. In hindsight, she was just preparing us and we had only experience a category 1 hurricane.
We started to turn our attention to the other islands and those that weren’t so lucky. The British Virgin Isles, The US Virgin Isles and other were badly effected. We gave away all our hurricane supplies, organised collections for essential items to be distributed and Puerto Rico became a hub for aid and refugees who needed medical assistance or to evacuate. Shelters were set up, donations purchased and we all wanted to help those that had lost. Puerto Rico gave away a third of its emergency supplies. We watched the devastation on the other islands and felt so grateful that Puerto Rico had been spared the worst. 80 people lost their homes on the island and 3 people died. On an island of almost 4 million people that didn’t seem like bad statistics. We had been very lucky and appreciated what we had.
Life started to return to normal. School continued, restaurants re opened and everything went back to how it should be. People started to come back from the US.
Then came what was being discussed as topical depression 15. A storm forming in the Atlantic that once again we were being told to prepare for. I joked with my family that she was predicted to be called hurricane Maria and we were about to be hit again. Predictions of her path started to come in and it seemed likely that Maria would make landfall in Puerto Rico. We started to prepare again. We were expecting her strength to be approximately a category 3.
Supplies were running short right across the island. Water was scarce and difficult to source. We couldn’t purchase ice anywhere and started to freeze zip lock bags of water in the freezer. We filled our cars again luckily just before gas ran out. ATMs were putting limits on cash withdrawal and I struggled to withdraw $400 in total. Hurricane Maria got stronger to a category 4 and on Monday people from our neighbourhood and community once again started to evacuate to the US. Lots of flights were cancelled, they were hiring private jets and paying astronomical amounts of money to get off the island.
All I wanted was water and ice. A generator would have been a god send.
Hurricane Maria was strengthened to a category 5 and devastated the island of Dominica to our right. We heard the first reports coming from the island before she was due to hit us. At this point of writing this I don’t know any more than those first reports.
The hurricane was predicted to start about 2am so we went to bed at about 9 in the hope of sleep before impact. We had prepared as best as we could but I was definitely a lot more scared about this one. I woke about midnight and the house felt like it was shaking. I got up and waited in the living area listening to the sounds of the winds picking up. About 1.30 am I knew it was going to be bad. I could see that she was still miles away from the coast of Puerto Rico but yet what we were feeling was really strong. It was at this time that we lost power and water.
I tried to sleep but it was sporadic. The wind was so loud and the darkness outside was not helping. I was counting the minutes to daylight. I knew from the force that this was shaking our house with that all across the island people were going to lose their homes. I knew there would be a loss of life. I was upset worrying about those not in as secure a place as us and how devastating this was going to be for the island that we have grown to love and call home over the past two and a half years. I prayed to my mother to keep us safe and protect those in vulnerable situations. I prayed for daylight so that maybe the noise outside would frighten me less if I could see what was happening.
Daylight brought an eerie scene from our windows. We could see the force of the winds in the trees all around us and see each of them fall one by one. We started to have some water leaks in the house and we dealt with them as best as we could. Around 7.30 am we lost cell network and all communication with the outside world. All we could do is sit and wait – not knowing which direction the eye would take at the last minute or how slowly the hurricane would move. We had no idea if the worst was over or yet to come.
It wasn’t until 4pm that afternoon that the winds and rain started to die down. We could see from the windows that our usually green, suburban style neighbourhood full of landscaped palm and oak trees was an usual colour of brown. No leaves were left on any tree that was left standing but most trees were gone. We could see houses right at the back of neighbourhood that we had never seen before. We decided it was safe to venture outside to access the damage. Most of the streets were impassable with either flooding or trees. I seen a heavy metal sign from a roundabout in our neighbourhood in our garden, a huge satellite dish at the back of the house and roof tiles everywhere. Parts of air conditioning units and debris were strewn across the grass. But we were safe. We still had a roof over our heads and really did feel lucky to be in a secure home. People were emerging from their homes shell shocked and in awe at the damage. Rob managed to get one bar of signal and let our families know that we were ok.
It’s now been five days and we are still in the dark. Communications are down and we have no idea of the impact across the island except what we hear by word of mouth. We can see how many people have lost their homes, the small businesses that have been devastated and that are under water or no longer have four walls around them. We have no idea of the death toll. There was extensive damage to the town. There is power lines and traffic lights overturned on the streets, huge blocks of concrete just lifted off the roads and so many homes destroyed. It is shocking to see the strip mall car park completely flooded, a huge 50 foot Burger King metal sign floating in the water. Cars under trees.
From what we have heard the power network is decimated. It will probably take months to rebuild. The roof is partially gone at the school. Life can’t continue as normal this time. It’s going to take this island a long time to build again from this.
Those that didn’t leave are now leaving. The prospect of no power and potentially no water isn’t appealing. But we are staying. I refuse to let this dictate my life here and where I will live. I’m determined to do my part in getting Puerto Rico back on it’s feet. I want to support local businesses and those that lost everything here. I want to make a difference. As soon as we can make communication with the outside world that is what I’m going to do. I want to give birth to my child here in a couple of months and tell them about this experience and how they can make a different with their lives by helping others.
The plant that Rob works at has received extensive damage. He hasn’t been able to account for all the staff or their families. People have to be the priority here. Not our own comforts. We will survive and are lucky to have everything that we have.
We are currently trying to source a generator and once we have that we will be able to function a lot better. At the moment there is predicted civil unrest on the island due to the lack of supplies and gas. There is a curfew in place and we have been told to stay in our neighbourhoods were possible. We believe aid is on the way and with each day things will improve. More water and food will hopefully become available. Hopefully communication networks will be restored and we can start to contact our family and friends and those that need help on the island. Hopefully banks will re open and we can get access to money to buy what’s needed for those that have lost everything. I’ve no doubt that it will be challenging at times and we will have discomfort but we are so fortunate at the same time.
We will be part of the rebuild of Puerto Rico and it’s people.
Communications started to open yesterday and we began to pick up all of the messages from family and friends. It was far more emotional than I had anticipated. I didn’t expect to see our names on a local group for missing people – it just seems all too dramatic. We were never missing. Everyone in our neighbourhood and lots in the town knew we were here. Its concern from those that left that when they couldn’t make contact.
I don’t know why this upset me so much. I don’t know why it upset me to read Facebook statuses of those that had initially stayed for the hurricane post begging for a way off the island. Surely the prospect of no power for a while wasn’t quite that bad that the first thing your mind turns to after this is getting out of here?
Rob sat me down and told me it straight. It’s ok to leave. It’s ok to not want to be in the middle of this place right now. Lives are being turned upside down and people need power and internet connections to work. That’s their livelihoods. Not everyone needs to be part of a recovery or feel the need to do something. Nobody wants to be trying to deal with kids and the potential illnesses that comes from a lack of air circulation and stagnant water. Maybe those that have left will donate money to get things back up and running. Maybe they will be back by Christmas. I can’t allow myself to be upset by their decisions. I realised I’m upset that everything is just different now rather than the fact that people have left. I’ve now to accept that this little community I’ve known of expats over the past two years is altered. It’s not going to be the same. Some people won’t return and that’s the decision that they have made for their families. Just like I’ve made the decision to stay.
There’s some basics that I need to try and stay comfortable. Like a generator for power. But that’s long term and probably not something that I can get quickly. I need ice on a daily basis to keep food cool. I need food to be able to cook with. Propane for the camping stove. Gas for our cars. D batteries for our fans to try and stay cool. This morning I’ve realised that the fan in Michael’s room has stopped working, it’s out of batteries. Ours stopped working a couple of days ago but I’m not worried about us. We need drinking water for the entire island. Trust me there are times in the middle of the night when I’m stuck to a pillow in the heat and I’m questioning everything and wondering what in gods name I’m doing here at 30 weeks pregnant. How am I going to have a baby and keep them cool and not worry about them overheating? How can I even contemplate giving birth here right now?
I’m holding on to the thought that when we can get mobile with gas in our cars and better communication lines that things will be better. That we can help in some way. That we will have more of a purpose than sitting around in our neighbourhood thinking about the outside world and how nice it would be if we had some AC.
There’s definitely going to be an adjustment period to our new sense of normality. Time to toughen up and put on my big girl pants and figure that out. It’s 5.30 am and almost daylight. Everything seems better in the daylight.
4.30am and pregnancy insomnia strikes again. We have been blessed that two different people have brought us D batteries so that we can keep our fans going. Especially for Michael, I had such worries that he would overheat and end up sick.
I had a little meltdown last night. One in which I sobbed in the shower of cold water for about 30 minutes. People keep telling me that I need to leave and offering me ways off the island. But I don’t want to go. I don’t want to risk flying at this stage of pregnancy and I don’t want to leave Rob or take Michael away from him. He’s committed to his job and getting things back up and running. He isn’t going to just leave and I’m not either. But I need to be able to take care of my family. I need to have a purpose and an ability to help others who have lost everything and without cash, gas and transport outside of Sabanera it’s difficult to do anything.
So I had my tears. Hot, angry ones where I tried to work out some of my frustration at being in this position at this stage of pregnancy and that I’m drained of being the positive one and telling everyone else that things are going to get better when so far nothing seems to be improving for anyone outside the gates of this community. I can’t get out to know what’s happening and how bad the situation out there is but I’m hearing it’s not good. Of course immediately I am annoyed at myself for having these meltdowns when I know so many are in a much worse position than us. It’s a mix of cabin fever, heat, exhaustion and stress I’m guessing.
A few days ago I managed to get a call out to some friends in the US that we were in need of a generator. I have also spoken to the owner of the house and I believe we now have some leads and we will hopefully be up and running at some power level in the next week. That was a huge positive step for me last night. I feel if I can just get that and know that I can take care of the basics at home that I can then start to think a bit more positively.
We have been trying to get items that are badly needed for the children’s home that I volunteer at, Hogar Mis Primeros Pasos. They lost part of their roof in the hurricane and long term they will really need a lot of repair work to the property but for the moment it’s basics. Food, water, diapers etc. It’s given me somewhat of a purpose and it is located not too far from the highway for Rob that he can go to them on his way from work and not use too much gas.
Giane, Michael’s nanny managed to get some text messages through to me last night and her uncle has set up a shelter and distribution centre for those that have lost everything. She has been helping there for the past week. I was lying in bed thinking about how I can help and I’m going to ask someone to post online that for the moment I can be a drop off point for items for donation for this particular cause and hopefully in a day or two when I can get out I can go to a store and purchase things for them. I’ve been awake during the night thinking about what toys and what food we don’t need in the pantry that I can give. We are at no risk of starving here so I know we can spare some even if the shops don’t open for another week. The catering company at the school have started doing dinners for the residents here each evening for $6 pp. We went yesterday and if nothing else it’s good to get out of the house and have a change of scenery for the mind.
Reports of aid being at the ports and unable to be distributed or military forces not being able to land at the airports etc. are really upsetting. I’m really hoping that in the next few days that things will start to open up and we can be more productive. I can’t imagine for those that have lost everything what it’s like to not have access to any supplies. Apparently this is partly political – Trump will come and visit on Tuesday next and that they need him to see just how bad things are here so that progress can be made on aid packages. It’s difficult to see people suffering. These are US citizens. It’s going to be a scary, transitional time for Puerto Rico while they get back up and running and I really do want to do everything I can to support it.
Friday October 6th
It’s two weeks and three days since hurricane Maria crossed Puerto Rico. It’s not only been a tragic experience but it’s also been an emotional battle. Living circumstances have improved and we have since Wednesday a generator at our house so that we can run lights and some AC. I’ve mainly been doing laundry as that was something that was beginning to stink and there’s only so much hand washing that you can do. The first thing I did when the generator turned on was to throw everything in the fridge/freezer away. That day in particular I was really struggling with bug and flies in the house. Michael had a heat rash and some really bad mosquito bites and I was really questioning what I was doing here. I may want to help here but I have to be able to keep my kid free from disease and keep him cool. I cant put him as risk of the serious mosquito diseases because of my want to help. Anyway, generator on. Bug zapper plugged in and a new sense of normality.
We are trying to run it as efficiently as possible so we just plugged in fans for myself and Rob instead of AC and we have been sleeping fine so it’s a definite improvement.
Communications are slowly improving but it’s a long process. I’ve no idea when I’ll actually have internet access to post this.
Trump’s visit only increased my anger so I’ll say little on the topic. He compared the situation here to hurricane Catriona which he called a “real,” tragedy because apparently “only,” 34 people have died on the island. Let me tell you. Almost 4 million people without power, running water and a lack of resources, communications and basics will result in a lot more deaths. Hospitals at maximum capacity running on generator power. This isn’t good enough. These are US citizens and they deserve better than a leader who throws out kitchen towels and dismisses their tragedy.
I’ve spent this week running around buying aid supplies when I can. Shops are beginning to open and people have been so kind and thoughtful giving me donations through PayPal. I will never forget those that have donated. Because they’re making a real difference… Because of their donations I have been able to go to Costco, Walgreens and Walmart and buy hand sanitizers, toothbrushes, sheets, pillows, towels, water, formula, diapers, canned foods, underwear for every age and gender, socks, clothing, nutritional drinks, propane cooking stoves, batteries, shelf milk, fans, fresh food and juices, rice and so much more. Already we have raised and spent in the region of $2,500 and with lots more to do I’ll continue with this project and buy products to be distributed on the ground as they’re needed. We have been supporting a local shelter in Naranjito and also the children’s home that I’ve been working with this year – Hogar Mis Primeros Pasos. If anyone would like to donate to either of these projects you can through PayPal – firstname.lastname@example.org . By way of transparency I have been sending individual donors copies of the receipts and pictures of the items that I have purchased with their donations.
I’m saddened to drive around Puerto Rico and see the destruction. It’s physically plain to see. Houses torn apart, trees and power lines mangled and so much more. But it’s the emotional hurt that is more distressing. The barista in Starbucks that was so happy and cheery when I entered and as we got to talking about the hurricane her eyes filled with tears as she told me that they had lost everything and she had a small baby at home. It’s the mom at Costco trying to appease her toddler who’s crying for water and there’s none available. And this isn’t the poor of Puerto Rico. Over 40% of the country prior to the hurricane was below the poverty line and living on food stamps. What about those people? They’re not working in Starbucks or shopping in Costco. Stamps can’t be used to purchase pre cooked food which are the only places open right now. How are they surviving? It’s so difficult to see how they will recover from this. I know all we can do right now is focus on the short term and getting urgent supplies out to those that need them. But I can’t help think about the long term and the effects that this hurricane will have on the island for years. And the many more deaths that we will see as a direct result of it.