After Hurricane Maria – Puerto Rico in Crisis

It’s surreal to read where I left off last week- a week that seems like a year- a clock that is both spinning faster than the storm that hit us and frozen on September 20th- the day we emerged and were hit by a reality far scarier than the one we had just endured. So I’ll to begin there- the beginning of the end…

I’ll need to fill this story in with pieces of information that my mind has not yet totally processed, so please bare with me.

The first thing I remember is us jumping in Broc’s tank (87’ Land Cruiser) and driving the wrong way down oneway streets that were flooded with water and cut off by trees, traffic lights and other undecipherable debris. Every tree that wasn’t uprooted was leafless, as if winter had hit overnight and stripped everything bare. Winter or a nuclear explosion. Our only thought was to get to Palmas Del Mar as soon as we could, as we knew it had taken the first & hardest hit. All of our friends that hadn’t left before the storm were there and no one had heard from them. It was a race we would never finish- a location we would never be able to reach- a garden of eden we will likely never see again.

About 10 minutes out of the city my phone pinged off maybe the one working cell tower on the island and I immediately posted this message on Facebook that I knew my friends and family in the states were praying to see.

“We’re safe. It’s bad”.

I then called Melanie Eiler, Broc’s boss and best friend’s wife who had escaped with her three kids the night before Maria hit.

“Have you heard from Ben?”
“No. No one has heard from anyone” she said, much calmer than I could have managed, but Melanie is amazing like that…
“We’re headed there now- we’re going to find him”

That plan was quickly derailed by the tangle of power lines and flooded highways that were becoming harder and harder to maneuver. We made it only 30 miles, to Caguas, the center of the island and only route to the southeastern cities of Puerto Rico. Not only was it growing dark much earlier than it should have, it was still very windy and rainy and the destruction was completely impassable. We were forced to turn around and head back to our condo, still in shock but filled with adrenaline and, to some extent, raw hope. For many days after we held on to that hope that things were going to be okay, that no one had died and that we were going to stay and help rebuild just like we had with Irma. It was the next day that I started my first post and as you can read, it was all about our own experience as we had no other information to share. All hope began to fade very quickly after that…

Miraculously our generator lasted until Friday the 21st, a full 2 days after the storm. We are thankful we had that time to think & pray & cry; to recharge our batteries & bodies; to cook the last of our food; to talk to our loved ones- at least the ones we could reach… The damage to our condo, vehicles and furniture were minimal compared to what we saw elsewhere and even without windows we still felt somewhat safe. Broc’s office had power so we spent most of the day there, uploading what few pictures I had taken on my phone and scouring the internet for information about the rest of Puerto Rico. We also had communication with our neighbors and learned that while there was plenty of fuel, water and supplies at the ports, there was no way to transport it and the few trucks that could were (rightfully!) prioritizing the hospitals and government offices that were reachable. We also learned that the airport had been badly damaged and only a few flights were coming on and off the island. While the information was upsetting, I was able to talk to several people at both American and Delta airlines and booked myself and my dogs the last available seat I could find, scheduled to leave on Sunday at 2 pm. I didn’t want to leave without Broc but we both felt confident he could get out a few days later without any problems…

Another miracle that added fuel to our fire (excuse the pun, as fuel was the last thing anyone had) was Ben Eiler walking into Broc’s office about a quarter to 3 that afternoon.

He was haggard and hungry but we were overcome with joy that he was okay and had made it to the city! His news of Palmas was that most of the homes were destroyed, there was no signal past Caguas but everyone was alive! We left the office with renewed hope that good news would continue to come in as more people made their way out of the rubble and into the more civilized areas of the island… We had no idea that this would actually become a bigger threat than the storm itself. We were ignorant- too sheltered, too naive. Nothing bad had ever happened to us before & God had spared us, and our friends, AGAIN, and help was on the way!

Survival is a word I’ve only ever used in reference to a reality television show at this point- I didn’t really understand, even at 36 years old, the enormity of life vs death- how fragile that line can be. Even in the dark, still heat of the San Juan shadows, we felt like things were going to be okay.

On Saturday, we woke super early to the sound of chainsaws and traffic, which to us was better than music pouring through our broken windows. The sun was shining and the ocean had never looked more beautiful.

(Here’s a short clip of us in what you can tell is a pretty good mood…)

We even had a little pep in our steps down the 7 flights of stairs to our tattered vehicle, smiles on our faces as we drove through the broken city towards areas with better cell service. I almost wish time had stopped right then. When all we knew we didn’t have was power and gas and that our only danger was the still flooded streets and downed power lines. I think for me this next hour was when time actually did stop, or perhaps when hope was shattered and reality was finally realized.

The first text that came through was not a good one: my flight on Sunday had been canceled and after clicking on the link to rebook I was shocked to see that there were no flights available. None at all- not until the 29th of September- a full week away. I thought this was odd but not really scary at this point and started calling different airlines to see what the problem was. We arrived at Broc’s office to find it too had lost all fuel and no one was inside except for a kind but worried security guard who said he wasn’t to leave his post and that we weren’t safe there. Strange, but not impossible to understand, as everyone was in conservation mode. I kept my eye on Broc’s quarter tank of gas as we sat on hold with the airlines, knowing there had to be system glitch or their websites were simply crashing from the poor signals.

At 9 am the next text that came thru literally stopped my heart.
But I should back up a little bit.

Thru the Zellos and WhatsApp apps we knew from people in the states that the situation in Puerto Rico was not at all improving and was actually much worse than anyone knew. Dams had flooded or cracked in both northern Isabella and southern Guanica, putting thousands of homes and lives in more danger. My brother works for the Army Corp of Engineers & our 7th floor neighbor, Jennifer, is an Air Force commander who had been forced to leave before the storm to keep her 2 small kids safe: both sources were able to transmit the gravity of the situation. We were told we should be stockpiling as much food and water as we could (which was impossible at that point b/c no stores were open) and to stay off the streets because looting had begun. Apparently none of the supplies were getting delivered and the government of Puerto Rico was only in contact with FIVE of the island’s 70 cities. Our 4th floor neighbor is the State Prosecutor and from her and some of her agents we learned the death toll was up to 9 but they expected that to double every day as they worked to gain access to the areas hardest hit. One agent even told us if we were able to leave we should, and as as fast as possible.

While these pieces of information were startling, they hadn’t formed a full enough picture for my mind to feel actual fear. Not until this text that was forwarded from Melanie in the states:

Cuidado! Gangas con machetes entraron al Gallery Plaza! Condominios en alerta!!!!!

It doesn’t take much to translate what was being said, but the shock left me without words to respond. Her followup was that this was from a group text of mom’s with kids in the prestigious Robinson school in San Juan, that it was credible and that we should get to safety immediately.
I slowly handed my phone to Broc and we both stared at each other with eyes as big as the island itself. Could this really be happening here in Puerto Rico- a U.S. territory- our HOME?

After Irma ravished the Caribbean island of Barbuda and St. Martin we heard rumors of this kind of thing happening and it made total sense. If people had no food, water or resources to take care of their families, they weren’t going to just let them die. So who better to target than the 5% of the island who did have access to these necessities? The vast majority of Puerto Ricans have lived in poverty worse than the most impoverished cities in America. We’ve known this but have never felt afraid, in fact are friends with many people outside the gates of Palmas Del Mar, where the poor people of Humacao live with no AC or television every day. These people are not bad people, they’re desperate people, and desperate people do desperate things. Well-to-do Americans and Puerto Ricans were basically sitting ducks and for the first time since this all happened, I knew that my life was truly in danger.

To be continued…