I was born in Puerto Rico and have a story to tell.
In 1974 my parents, siblings and I moved to Chicago to seek a better life. My mom had accepted a job with the Chicago Board of Education and my dad would soon be working for the State of Illinois. It was August, and I remember taking off on a Pan Am 747, looking out the window on a perfectly sunny day and watching the island disappear into the horizon; and then seeing nothing but blue ocean and fluffy cotton ball-like clouds. I was befuddled. I knew then, as I know now, that Puerto Rico is an island surrounded by "water, big water, ocean water" as someone recently said on national news. But it was only at that moment, in 1974, when I saw my 90 by 30 miles island disappear from sight that the physical separation of Puerto Rico from the rest of the world became clear to me.
This week I flew to Puerto Rico to retrieve my parents from the island so that they could have a better life. Almost 6 weeks ago Puerto Rico was hit by a category 5 hurricane, devastating the island's already fragile infrastructure and causing a humanitarian crisis. After almost 6 weeks, 70% of the island residents, like my parents, still have no electricity or clean running water. For 5 days after the hurricane, my parents, in their 70s and 80s, were shut into their house by a fallen tree on the driveway that would not let them leave their hill top property. For that time they had no access to telephone, internet, water or electricity and with no way out. They could have been in serious trouble. The roof came off their bedroom while they were sleeping and drenched everything. My father still gets emotional talking about going through the worst time of his life wondering what was happening on the rest of the island and to the rest of his family while they were trapped in their home. Days must have seemed like months, marooned on top of a hill, with no outside connection. At the time I was in Egypt, escorting a Zoom Vacations group, knowing that we had not heard from our parents, and was hoping for the best.
We eventually did get a hold of our parents through relatives and friends and found out they were ok. My parents put a positive spin on the situation, as they always do, but we knew from the national news that they were not getting all the facts about the brewing humanitarian crisis and that electricity and water (which relies on electrical pumps to reach many homes) would not be restored for months. During a short conversation from a land line of a friend's house in town that was still working my mother asked me if the rumors were true that our president was throwing paper towels from a helicopter. I corrected the version of the story to "no mom, he flew in on a helicopter to a certain part of the island and at a meeting of people in a building threw paper towels into the crowd." Calls were choppy as if we were talking through two Campbell soup cans connected by a string. It was then that I knew they needed to get out. Everything seemed unpredictable.
So, my siblings and I decided I should fly to Puerto Rico to assess the damage to their house which was substantial. Calls from family and friends asking how they could help my family came from every direction. So, my sister set up a gofundme account to assist my parents in the rebuilding of their home in a more sustainable way. We all know that the electrical grid repair will only be a Band Aid, and as more hurricanes develop over the next years, a more permanent solution to their living conditions needs to be implemented.
This weekend I flew to Puerto Rico not knowing what to expect. As I flew over the island's north coast on approach to San Juan airport, I could not help but notice the brown, dead, fallen trees where green tropical forests once stood. Then as communities come into view I got the sense I was flying over the old section of the blue city of Jodhpur. In Puerto Rico blue tarps cover a great number of roofs that were damaged by the hurricane and are visible from the air like blue squares amidst the other white or brown rooftops. Unfortunately, there are many more houses that are still damaged but did not have access to the limited number of available tarps. So, it's hard to say how many more are damaged. My parents spent thousands of dollars having their roof patched while a more permanent solution is decided.
I landed with suitcases full of C batteries, solar lights, flashlights, and other relief provisions. I headed to the car rental company to pick up a reserved SUV and was told they only had small Corollas available, which was way too small for the amount of luggage I would be traveling back to the airport with and my parents. I was told car rental reservations are not dependable because people are not returning cars when they are supposed to, some are extending their car rentals indefinitely and in one case a car rental has just gone AWOL. So, I headed to another car rental agency where after 3 hours I was able to get a suitable car rented to make the usual 2.5 hour trek to my parents. However, because of the heavy traffic and continued flooding the drive from San Juan to my parents house took 6 hours instead of 2.5.
Leaving the airport I made my way to the highway through dark streets with no working traffic lights. At intersections cars inch across from one side to the other. Surprisingly, everyone was calm and I did not hear a horn honk. I guess people are getting used to the situation and are dealing with it as best they can. But to me, it was surreal and felt like a lawless state, like something out of a Hollywood film. It was as if an electromagnetic pulse weapon had descended on the island knocking out the electrical grid but leaving people standing.
When I finally arrived at my parents' neighborhood everything was pitch black. I pulled up to the house and found my parents huddled around a single lit candle.
This is where the journey takes a turn for me and what is going on in Puerto Rico. While there is physical devastation to the island flora and fauna, utilities, and other infrastructure, the real impact goes well beyond that. Puerto Ricans on the island, US Citizens for over 100 years, feel abandoned, are in severe discomfort, and the humanitarian crisis that is still brewing has not reached its peak. After an emotional welcome, my mom led me to a guest room. I was so tired after an 18 hour journey from Chicago to Sabana Grande, I forgot about the heat in the bedroom and the swirling mosquitoes and fell asleep, not knowing what I would find when I woke up in the morning and could see the state of things in daylight.
More next month on My Personal Hurricane Maria Relief Journey to Puerto Rico. Day 2: