After the storm
A Puerto Rico resident documents her struggles in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
I kept a diary over the past few days. Writing just helped keep me sane. The first entry was written in Rincon, Puerto Rico, on Sept. 21, the day after Hurricane Maria hit here. Please don’t look at this report as representative of what others went through. We are some of the lucky ones, and others have much more heartbreaking news to report. Those who were in a hospital when the storm hit, anywhere on the southeast coast, or in the central mountains or along the water went through unspeakable horrors that make our experience seem like a cakewalk in comparison. We all have a story to tell of how we weathered this horrible storm, and this is just mine.
Thursday, Sept. 21
These past few days have felt like a nightmare. Hurricane Maria is finally over, and we are grateful to be alive. I’ve never experienced a storm of this magnitude before, and there were moments on Wednesday when I did feel truly afraid.
At 8 a.m. on Wednesday morning, Maria began to pound Puerto Rico. The wind was raging loudly, the shutters were rattling, and the doors were banging against their hinges. My husband Markus and I didn’t feel secure in our bedroom, so we retreated to our windowless bathroom “bunker” in the center of the house with our hurricane supplies and our cats, Simon and Fiona. Inside, it was nice and quiet—at first. We put sofa cushions on the floor and in the bathtub. We settled in and we actually fell asleep because at that moment we did feel safe.
We woke up at 11 a.m. to a very different scene. The wind was so strong and loud that it sounded like a train plowing through the hallway. I looked down and saw water gushing into the bathroom from under the door, quickly soaking through the sofa cushions, pillows and supplies. We threw towels down trying to slow the flood as it continued to fill the bathroom floor. I panicked at the realization that our home was actually flooding.
The storm grew louder and louder. We heard trees crashing, broken glass and everything slamming into our house. Each time something large hit the window, I winced instinctively. I was covered in a cold sweat and struggling not to hyperventilate with the continuous sound of destruction all around.
Maria raged on, and in the afternoon, water began to trickle from the ceiling vent. It started out slow, so we caught the water in plastic cups. With each gust of wind, the leak grew worse. Eventually, water was spraying from the ceiling in bursts that actually hurt when they hit my face.
We were both drenched, so Markus ripped the shower curtain off the rod and we covered ourselves with it in an attempt to stay dry. We held each other under the hot, sticky plastic curtain, curled up on a soaked sofa cushion. Simon squeezed in between us while Fiona hid under the cabinet to get away from the chaos. I worried about the chickens in the downstairs bathroom. If the shutters ripped off the windows, they would never survive this storm. This thought kept tormenting me.
Then the bathroom door started to rattle violently followed by a massive crashing sound that shook the whole house. That was when I began to feel real terror. Markus was prepared for this. Before the hurricane, he had dragged in wooden boards, a hammer and framing nails in case we needed to keep the door from flying off the hinges. It seemed pretty excessive at the time, but now I was grateful that we had this. He jumped up and nailed a crossbeam over the door—reminiscent of those zombie apocalypse films. This curbed the rattling and calmed me down—for about five minutes.
In my mind, we were now in the Titanic, and our ship was sinking fast. I was starting to worry that the roof could actually be ripped off the house, but Markus assured me not to worry and that we would see the other side of the storm. He started repeating the same calming sentences: “We’ll get through this. This is a cement house. We will be fine.”
In the evening, the wind began to finally slow down a little, and that was such a relief. We even heard some coqui frogs. Something out there was alive, somehow. Finally, we felt like we could get some sleep.
I woke up to more raging and the bathtub was shaking at 2 a.m. Somehow, Markus was sleeping, and despite my terror, I let him rest. It sounded like a tornado, and water was pouring in angry gusts from the ceiling again. I was just praying for it to all be over at this point. I was exhausted. Naturally, we had no service on our phones. We had no idea where the hurricane was going, no window through which to see what was going on. For all I knew, the hurricane might be turning back toward us to finish the job. Eventually, numb to the chaos that raged around me, I fell back to sleep and woke at 8:30 a.m. to total calm.
Markus awoke, and we nodded at each other in relief at the silence. He then pried the nails out of the door frame, removing the boards from the bathroom doors. It felt like opening a coffin from the inside. We had been locked up in this tiny space for over 24 hours at that point.
We stepped out and found water everywhere. Both floors of our home had flooded. With the windows nailed shut, the house was eerily dark. Daylight that struggled through the tight cracks was the only indication that the night had already passed.
We tried the front door, but it would not open. Markus threw his body against it to dislodge it. We sloshed through the inches of rain and mud to the back door, but the lock would not turn, no matter how much force we used. Markus found the sledge hammer and considered. He did not want to break the door, as in the days ahead, it seemed crucial to be able to lock the house.
We tried the front door again, since it at least unlocked, and shoved our bodies against it with all of our might until it finally came open with a cracking groan.
Once we opened the door, we were confronted with the sheer devastation this storm caused. A massive jobo tree had fallen across our driveway, smashing the fence and retaining wall and blocking our access to the street. It took the power line with it as well. All about us were broken trees strewn about like matches spilled from their box. We looked out at the jungle and found it reduced to sticks. Every leaf was blown from every beautiful tree. It was a surreal, heartbreaking sight.
At that moment, our neighbors came out of their home and cheered “You’re alive! We are all alive! Thank God! We are all so blessed!” That put things in perspective. I started crying, because I was so happy to see they were OK.
Then I remembered the little ladies. I ran downstairs and opened the bathroom door. It was a complete mess, but there were our five sweet chickens lined up in a row, safe and sound. I was grateful that our little family weathered this catastrophic storm. Our home was flooded, doors broken, shutters damaged but intact—minimal damage considering the sheer strength of Maria. We are so thankful to still have a roof over our heads.
Friday, Sept. 22
Yesterday we experienced a beautiful outpouring of support and love from our neighbors. It moved me to tears. A gigantic tree had smashed down on our driveway during Hurricane Maria, taking down the power lines and our fence with it. It was so massive that it blocked our access to the road. We were trapped. We couldn’t move our car out of the driveway or even climb over it to reach the street. The branches were too thick for a machete, and we didn’t have a chainsaw.
I stood there on the balcony feeling helpless.
That’s when I noticed the man I had only known as “my plumber” smiling over the gate on the other side of the tree. A large group of neighbors from further down the hill, all carrying machetes and one with a chainsaw, suddenly appeared behind him. I knew most of them spoke little to no English and were as shy as myself when it came to communicating in a second language.
The tallest of them, wearing a red windbreaker, yelled, “We help you now!” I felt a rush of intense gratitude, and my eyes welled up with tears. Markus cheered, and the group responded with a chorus of “Wepa!”
They started cutting a path under the tree for us to get out. It took over an hour, and they worked tirelessly without stopping. I offered them water and eggs. They were so kind, warmhearted and had great senses of humor. They saw I was distressed and tried to lift my spirits. They cracked jokes that had me laughing, and in these moments I felt like everything was going to be OK.
They cleared enough for us to drive our car under the tree and out of the driveway. They asked for nothing in return.
Then the troop was ready to continue on to clear more of the crashed down trees and toppled over telephone poles that blocked the road and cut it off from the main traffic vein. Markus grabbed his machete and joined the neighborhood cleanup crew. He was gone for many hours, and I started feeling a little anxious as the sun was setting.
That’s when Markus returned, drenched in sweat, covered in dirt, with cuts all over his hands and arms. He was smiling from ear to ear. “That was the most amazing experience! We cleared the road together all the way down to 115! Everyone came out to help. We moved huge logs, weighing tons, with nothing but muscle and rope! I love this neighborhood, and I love this incredible island!”
After that, the neighbors drove by our house waving cheerfully and honking. They now felt like family. It was awesome to see the people coming together as a community after this disaster and all helping each other. This is what makes Puerto Rico so special, and these aren’t the stories you’ll hear on the news.
Sunday, Sept. 24
Now at Day 4, I feel post-hurricane exhaustion. I want to talk to my mom again so badly. I actually started having dreams about communicating with family and friends just to let them know we are alive. I’m really worried for my family in Aguadilla and Isabela, where our neighbor said that the eye of the storm hit. All of our news comes from a single AM radio station that cuts in and out.
We are also physically exhausted. Every part of our bodies hurts right now. We were mopping up so much smelly water and muck from the flooding in our home for days. Everything is still a mess. Our neighbors told us it could be months before any power or water will be restored. The heat wave after the hurricane was overwhelming. We didn’t realize how much shade from the sun the jungle around our house used to give us. Now it was just fallen trees and sticks, like a post-apocalyptic landscape.
Most of the homes along the water have been destroyed, the rubble and debris sliding into the sea. The devastation breaks my heart, and I can only imagine what the rest of the island looks like right now. Sometimes I just want to curl up in a ball and escape it all by sleeping. I want to wake up to a different reality for Puerto Rico.
Monday, Sept. 25
Still no power, water, cell service or internet. We drove around helping out friends here in town again today. One friend had the contents of her downstairs marquesina blown by the hurricane into the surrounding jungle. Others are in need of medications that have been held up in the mail. Our friend’s father is in need of a triple bypass surgery and is trying to find an emergency flight back to the mainland.
We are running low on gas in our car, and I know that if we can’t refill soon, we will run into troubles. Gas tankers are escorted into town by police cars, and the line of people goes on for almost a mile outside of every gas station. Some people waited for hours in the hot sun only to be turned away because all of the gas in town sold out by noon.
Water is sold out in all stores, too.
We have a 7 p.m. curfew in town now and a new dry law. No alcohol sold anywhere. Apparently this is for our safety, and it makes me wonder what is going on in other parts of the island. We are hearing frightening rumors that make us want to board up our doors and hide in our home for our safety. I don’t know what’s true. It’s not like we have cable or internet to look up the news. That’s what makes it scary.
A lot of people we meet on the street are talking about evacuating the island. We don’t want to leave our home, but honestly we couldn’t leave even if we wanted to. No internet to book a ticket, no cell phone service to call the airport and not enough gas to even drive to Aguadilla.
I’m grateful that Markus filled up empty bottles with filtered tap water before the hurricane, but now, five days after the storm, our drinking water reserves are beginning to dwindle. Access to safe drinking water is going to be a major problem for all of us on the island if relief doesn’t arrive soon.
Tuesday, Sept. 26
We’ve been using duct tape to fill in the gaps in our doors broken by the hurricane, but we’re still experiencing an influx of creepy crawlers: bees, mosquitoes, wasps, cockroaches, fire ants, spiders, larger-than-usual reptiles and mice. We have both been stung by the bees. They get caught between our fingers and in the nooks below our knees. They are swarming every window, flying into every crack. They are everywhere, not just our home, but all over Rincon. I know the bees are struggling desperately for food. This is not a good situation.
We are covered in mosquito and fire ant bites. Our friends are all dealing with the same. So much nature has been destroyed, so everything is entering the homes.
Our neighbors drove into town this morning and returned with gloomy news. Still no water in the supermarkets. The shelves in are basically cleared out, just rice left. The closest gas station has a line that stretches for miles. Looks like we will be staying in today to conserve the little gas we have left in our car.
A good number of helicopters flying overhead today. I think that’s a good sign? Not many cars drive by our house now. Those that do seem to be running on fumes and look to be in a rush. It must be a madhouse at the airports. I wonder if FEMA arrived in Rincon yet. I wonder what’s going on in the rest of the world. I wonder about my family and friends. It’s so weird to be completely disconnected like this. Writing helps.
Wednesday, Sept. 27
It’s been a week now since Hurricane Maria. Feel like my optimism is slipping a little into despair for everyone on this island.
Is anyone going to come help Puerto Rico?
I’m definitely coming down with something, and I have no energy. It feels like a stomach virus. Markus said I have a fever, and he’s making me rest in bed. He’s taking good care of me.
I hope today brings good news. I know it’s too early for electric or water to be restored, but if we could regain some internet reception or cell phone service, just to communicate with the outside world.
We ran out of bottled water, so we are now filtering water from our cistern reserve to drink. We’re running it through two filters, so we hope it is safe to consume. It’s not like we have any other option right now. When that runs out, we will boil rain water on the camping stove.
Markus built a rain water collection unit. It goes down the water spout into a barrel. I’ll use that to wash our clothes today, wring them out and hang them to dry over the balcony.
Markus is still in good spirits, and he’s constantly making me laugh, which snaps me out of my depressing thoughts. He’s using his machete to cut a path through the fallen trees in our backyard right now. It’s going to take months to clear all the fallen trees and debris, but you have to start somewhere.
Our chickens are doing fine. The hurricane broke our fence, so I don’t want them to wander into our neighbors’ property. I’ve been keeping them in their palace and collecting their eggs every morning. We feel so much love and gratitude for our chickens. They require food and fresh water too. We want keep them safe, alive and healthy through the aftermath of this hurricane.
Our neighbors are amazing! We share our fresh eggs, and they come over with plates of warm root vegetables, rice and beans. They offer advice and encouragement. I’m so thankful for them. I don’t know what’s going on in San Juan or other parts of the island or anywhere in the world right now, for that matter. But it’s kind of like a Puerto Rican version of Little House on the Prairie here. No break-ins, theft, looting or crime here yet. Everyone takes care of each other. I try not to speculate too much about what bad things could happen next.
Thursday, Sept. 28
Still no water.
Yesterday we found out that we can get limited cell phone reception in parts of the town of Anasco, which borders Rincon. I was able to successfully text my Mom and send messages for some friends for a short while before it cut out. The only problem is that it takes gas to reach these locations, and if we don’t find gas soon, we will no longer be able to connect with the outside world.
There are long lines at every gas station, but no one is moving. They are just waiting in the scorching heat for gas to hopefully arrive.
This is a surreal new reality. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around how much our lives have changed in one week. It feels like The Wizard of Oz but in reverse. We went from Oz in Technicolor to black-and-white Kansas wrecked by the tornado.
Friday, Sept. 29
Still no gas in the stations, no water on the supermarket shelves, no electricity or water anywhere around our home. I don’t know what is going on outside of our town because we no longer have enough gas in our tank to travel very far.
I don’t want to be all doom and gloom in this journal entry. On the bright side, our neighbors gave us an entire bushel of bananas, so we have food! There was a beautiful rainfall today. It filled up our rainwater collection system, and we had a really long, refreshing, invigorating shower in the rain. We have a lot of rain water now that we can boil on the gas camping stove and use as drinking water. I know everyone in Rincon is celebrating this and enjoying all the rain today. I see all of our neighbors filling up their buckets. We have so much to be grateful for because we are alive. Things will get better for Puerto Rico soon. I know they will.
Tuesday, Oct. 3
I stopped keeping a journal for a few days because I was feeling depressed, heartbroken and devastated. My grandma passed away in Aguadilla. I still can’t believe she is really gone. I’ve been trying to process this tragic news in combination with the devastation everywhere and trying not to sink into despair. Everything in life felt like it was turned upside down, and everywhere I turned I saw and heard tragedy. Whenever I wrote anything, it was just really sad, and writing was no longer a form of therapy. I couldn’t convince myself that anything was going to get better. I was losing hope. How many people need to die before help starts arriving?
I heard that our U.S. President landed on the island. He threw paper towels at a crowd of Puerto Ricans and said our death count was low compared to Hurricane Katrina. He thinks we are doing great. This is disheartening and seems unreal, but I have no access to the news.
Thursday, Oct. 12
Very little has changed. Most of the island still does not have access to clean drinking water. Now we are worried about disease—namely leptospirosis—and mosquitoes. More people have died. The death toll is rising, but it’s hard to get accurate numbers with so many communication channels destroyed.
Tuesday, Oct. 17
Rincon is going on an entire month now without electricity. It’s becoming this surreal new normal. When the night falls, we pull out our candles, headlamps and flashlights. We now gaze up at the stars every night, and they never looked so bright. Tonight they were especially beautiful. We listened to the coqui frogs sing and felt the damp grass between our toes. Puerto Rico is still a beautiful Caribbean island, and things will get better.
Thursday, Oct. 26
Old habits die hard. Thirty-six days after the hurricane, I still stumble into the bathroom half awake every morning. I turn the knob on the bathroom sink and place my cupped hand beneath the faucet anticipating water. When I’m in the dark, I still run my hands along the wall, searching for the light switch. I still try to simply flush the toilet, momentarily forgetting that I have to grab one of the buckets of rain water to pour into the tank first. Today, I even threw some clothes absentmindedly into our washing machine, which is now filled with spider webs. There are so many things I still just do instinctively because I was so accustomed to these modern conveniences that I used to take for granted. Now I’m getting a very small glimpse of how my great-grandparents here used to live. Markus and I have our health, so we are OK. I can’t imagine going through this aftermath of Hurricane Maria if I was sick, disabled or elderly. Which is the reality for so many. Seventy-four percent of the island is still without power. One in four Puerto Ricans still lack access to reliable clean water. I’m trying to remain positive … but this is not OK.