Stories from Puerto Rico in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria
On September 20th, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall with Puerto Rico, causing devastation the island had never experienced. Widespread damages, power outages, and deaths swept over the beautiful island. At the same time, other hurricanes made landfall with the mainland U.S., but none were as horrible as Maria. When the time came to assist Puerto Rico, relatively less news coverage and an unwilling administration left Puerto Ricans to their own devices to recover.
This story was originally intended as an attempt to visualize the feelings and stories of those directly affected by Maria. Although I include some graphs, what I soon discovered is that the stories were the more important feature to share. Data can tell us much, but it became apparent that the personal accounts of Puerto Ricans was more telling than any line graph or histogram.
Some have asked why I wanted to report on Hurricane Maria. At the end of this article is my story and how Puerto Rico healed me during a particularly tough time (it reads somewhat like a travel blog, and has more pictures then it probably should). This is my attempt to give back. I want more people to understand just exactly how destructive Hurricane Maria was.
I asked people living in Puerto Rico to share their experiences. Below is a summary of their feelings and personal accounts of living through Maria and being forgotten and ignored in the aftermath.
First, there does seem to be evidence that Hurricane Maria was under-reported relative to Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. This is curious given Maria’s chaos. The graph below shows the frequencies and rates that each hurricane was mentioned across various news sites.
The lack of reporting, however, could be due to the lack of response from the current government. For example, Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic wrote this piece showing a timeline of Hurricane Maria and the response to the following disaster. Or this report by Kishore et al. (2018) from Harvard, which claims an insanely high death toll as a result of Hurricane Maria.
The focus of these reports doesn’t truly tell the stories of Puerto Ricans. Right now, with the turbulent political climate, the newest scandal captures our short attention spans and shifts them toward other unbelievable crises (e.g., see immigration internment camps and family separation).
But when we step back and consider the degree of damage caused by Maria, we must not forget or let others forget and ignore that U.S. citizens are still suffering. Here are the reports of the Puerto Ricans who took part in this survey.
First, I asked people to tell me how well informed they were about Hurricane Maria. Perhaps some of the issue came from lack of awareness about the power of the storm. Most people reported being well informed.
Next, I asked how well-prepared people were for Hurricane Maria. Perhaps, the people of Puerto Rico simply were not ready for a storm of such strength. Many people reported being prepared, though some did not feel they were as prepared as they could have been.
Given that many people were well-informed and prepared, I was interested in knowing what issues they were still, to this day, experiencing as a result of the hurricane.
Some reported that they were no longer experiencing issues, but many reported damaged property, power and electricity issues, and emotional trauma.
Many of you may be thinking, “There’s only 12 responses. How is this representative of the feelings of Puerto Ricans?” And I admit, as one trained in statistics, I would not attempt to publish the above charts alone. I may have found a small group of people who felt extraordinarily underserved and unhappy about their current circumstances. Instead of trying to convince you that Hurricane Maria was horrible, I will leave you with the personal stories and details that respondents were willing to share.
First, I asked people to tell me a story of a negative experience related to Hurricane Maria. Below are several selected narratives. Please be aware that several of these are very emotional.
“My house is a 50 y/o reinforced concrete bunker, built with hurricanes in mind yet I could feel the house swaying in the Cat5 winds. I honestly thought it would come down on me.”
“I’m lucky that I didn’t experience any deaths in the family or close friends, nor did I lose power for an exaggerated amount of time like other people (only lost power for about two months, while some people still don’t have power). I would say the worst experience is seeing how the government handled the situation. From under-reporting the deaths, to taking advantage of the disaster by giving contracts to companies like Whitefish. I would say this is the biggest offense, since the people needed adequate government response to get power back, and the government took decisions that, not only were they not helpful enough, they were detrimental to that goal. We’ve had power outages this year thanks to the inadequacies of people contracted by the government. I had a little faith in our government before the hurricane, now I have no faith left.”
“There was a dead horse on the road for 10 days.”
“I have a 20kw diesel generator which uses about a gallon an hour. We would only turn it on for 15 hours a day, from 5pm to 9am. We had a 90-gallon tank. We couldn’t get diesel supplied to our home for 2 weeks. We depended on bringing diesel from our business in two 15-gallon drums. We also couldn’t get diesel to our business for about 10 days, 3 more days and we would have had to shut down, which would have been the end of our business, and would result in chaos for our clients which were operating during and after the storm. The stress caused by this was insane.”
Frustration, fear, and chaos. How many of us can say we’ve lost power for two months or had a dead horse in the middle of the road for 10 days?
Next, I asked for tips or thoughts about what would have been the most helpful before or after Hurricane Maria.
Tips for the future
“Being a state of the Union instead of the after-thought we are right now.
“Faster response after the fact, especially telecommunications to be able to locate resources and family members more effectively.”
“Before the hurricane, it would have been great to see the government or mayor of the city giving water or food. Also, to see movement in hospitals, which are super important for the people who are in need of health assistance.”
“Have at least a month’s supply of fuel for your generator, your car, and your stove. Have a month’s supply of water (for cooking and drinking). Two week’s supplies of food if you live in an urban area, three to four if you live in a rural area. If you have an electric stove, get a propane backup. Have spare fuel and oil filters for your generator and don’t forget to get the proper oil.”
As a U.S. citizen, to be forgotten and ignored by the federal government during an emergency is cruel. The thoughts and advice here clearly show that Puerto Ricans felt things can and should be better at the local and federal level.
Sometimes, good things can come in the face of destruction. I asked Puerto Ricans to share with me a positive story from their experience with Hurricane Maria.
“Seeing people come together in a way that I never expected. We Puerto Ricans tend to see ourselves in a negative way. I’ve always heard (from relatives who are also Puerto Ricans) comments like “Oh, Puerto Ricans are selfish. Puerto Ricans are dishonest. Puerto Ricans are a**holes.” etc. But that cannot be farther from the truth.”
“In the weeks after the hurricane, there was no shortage of people willing to help, willing to clean up the streets, willing to help a neighbor. University of Puerto Rico students cleaned up the campus. We shared our canned food, batteries for flashlights. We kept each other’s companies. Even now, after things have sort of come back to normal where I live, we look at each other in a different way. There’s a stronger sense of community that wasn’t there before.”
“Even if the federal response was probably less than required I felt reassured by the daily sight of heavy equipment, helicopters and air force cargo planes flying over. Only fools would think international aid would have been better or faster.”
“3 days after the hurricane I wanted to see my family in San Juan to know they were okay. I had to travel 5 hours (usually a 2-hour trip) from the west of PR to San Juan and the only moment I felt happy was when I arrived at my mother’s home after 3 days without radio, cellphone signal and seeing her was just the best feeling. I’d never cried of happiness before, I think it was the most emotional moment of my life.”
“Having my grandparents live with us for about 6 months. They are very humble and live in the rural part of Bayamón, they took refuge in my house in Condado, which has a 20kw generator. At one point there were 12 people sleeping in my house, 8 of which were sleeping in the same bedroom which had a small air conditioner.”
Community coming together to help one another, reassurance at the sight of aid, and strengthening of family bonds. Out of the destruction from Hurricane Maria, perhaps made a stronger, more unified Puerto Rico.
Lastly, I asked if there were any other thoughts that they could share. Something that might provide additional insights about the true experience of Hurricane Maria.
Insights into Hurricane Maria
“The infrastructural damage done to the island is one that it will never recover from, especially if all they do is patch things up and keep the money as they always do.”
“I do not wish to experience a category 5 hurricane again. But if it happens we’ll be ready.”
“I surely don’t want any other hurricane to come to Puerto Rico now in 2018. I don’t know how I could prepare mentally and physically for it. I didn’t actually think about the hurricane much after it passed because I got my electricity back after 2 months and I felt relief, but, thinking about it now while answering this survey, I just want to cry thinking about what all Puerto Ricans and I went through.”
“The anxiety of thinking of another day without power, another day without water to drink, those 3 days without seeing my grandmother who lives alone, while lying on a chair crying for help, the concern about how my mother was doing, my aunt who is a paraplegic patient. Without communication for 2 months, without university for 3 months. And the sad thing here is that no matter how well prepared you are for another hurricane, it is just not enough.”
These are the stories that we should all hear and all know. What Puerto Ricans felt, we should all feel. We, as a nation, value independence, but we should never fail to recognize that we are all in this together. When we failed Puerto Rico, we failed as a nation. But if we can understand where things went wrong, how Puerto Ricans, U.S. citizens, were personally affected, and how they prevailed and showed stunning resilience, then we can learn from our failures and become a stronger nation.
Before I send you into my personal journey through Puerto Rico, I want to list several organizations that are committed to aiding Puerto Rico in recovery. If you feel inspired and encouraged by the personal accounts in this report, please consider donating.
Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.
And for a very inspiring video about another person making a real difference, here’s a wonderful Ted Talk by José Andrés about his efforts to feed Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and a link to his non-profit organization, World Central Kitchen.
Thank you, Puerto Rico
In October of 2016, I was going through somewhat a low point. Depression and anxiety, which plagues so many people worldwide were beating me down. I was doing everything I could to lessen my symptoms, but sometimes they linger. I was looking for inspiration; something to change how I was feeling. I recalled a previous bout that was turned around by taking a fantastic road-trip from Illinois to California with a group of friends to watch the Illini football team eventually get orange-crushed by the USC Trojans. I felt like another adventure could potentially help.
Although somewhat of a trivial motivator, the movie “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” ultimately pushed me to take a leap of faith and just go somewhere different to experience life in a way I had not experienced it before. Thanks Ben Stiller.
I looked for a cheap flight to anywhere and found one to San Juan, Puerto Rico. I remember at the time thinking about how crazy it was to spontaneously book a flight because a fictional character played by Ben Stiller inspired me to do so, but not only was the flight cheap, so was the AirBNB in the Old San Juan area that I found and eventually booked.
I packed my bags and flew to Puerto Rico on an early flight connecting through Atlanta. When I arrived, the thrill of being in a new place and also not knowing where I was going or really what I was doing took my mind off my gloom. I was on a humid, beautiful, tropical island. I took a taxi to my AirBnB and contacted my host. He told me the room was not quite ready and to come back around 3 pm. With my suitcase and no idea what to do, I walked down the road to a small restaurant with a lunch special. This is where I first knew that Puerto Rico was a great place.
My waiter served me a wonderful lunch, brought me a couple beers, and they even gave me a couple experimental shots on the house. He was friendly, asked what brought me to the area, and we ended up chatting for some time. This was how much of my experience with the people from Puerto Rico went.
My first night, I met a group of people from Puerto Rico, several of whom had attended the University of Notre Dame and were studying medicine now. They invited me to sing Karaoke with them, and after a couple too many drinks, I sang my go to song “That’s Amore”, which the patrons gladly joined in.
The next day, although feeling the affects of a long night, I found out that an old friend was also in Puerto Rico and about to go visit some place called El Yunque. I found out that El Yunque was a National Forest, a tropical rainforest. We rented a vehicle, discussed matters of life, and explored El Yunque. It was absolutely beautiful.
The following day, I found myself once more exploring the area and, feeling recovered from the previous long night, decided to have a cold beverage to fend off the heat. In this bar, I met several wonderful people. The first was a very talkative young man (i.e., under-aged for a bar), who told me his life story and how he was failing out of school because it was too boring. We played quite a few games of pool and enjoyed each other’s company until one of his friends showed up.
After leaving my new friend, I went down to the main bar and sat nearby a group of people who seemed to be somewhat close in age. At some point, they included me in their conversation. It turns out they were from San Diego and were also at the karaoke bar when I belted out “That’s Amore”! We all hung out for the rest of the evening, exchanged contact information, and promised to have breakfast in a couple of days. And we did.
Old San Juan
At the time, I was on a big fitness kick, and thought it would be great to take a jog around the area to get to know my surroundings. My first morning, while slightly hungover, I jogged around Old San Juan. The first thing I noticed was the number of stray cats in the area. They were everywhere! Luckily, I enjoy cats and found their interactions within the city quite amusing. This is one of my favorite pictures that I took.
I found my way to a trail along the coast and near the Castillo San Felipe del Morro, a historic citadel and fort made of stone. The waves crashed into the rocky coastline and sprayed onto the trail, which was quite refreshing as the temperature and humidity kept rising. The cats also occupied this trail and made quite a mess, though dodging made for a more challenging jog.
I noticed at one point, there were fewer cats, and to my surprise and delight large iguanas now occupied the trail. I had only ever seen iguanas in cages or being handled by specialists. These iguanas were large and fast, and surprisingly good at climbing the Castillo San Felipe.
The area of Old San has beautiful architecture and colorful complexes. There were statues and fountains, old manors, and historic sites. All of this was inside a small area of a small city on a small island.
The Return Voyage
I think like many experiences, we don’t fully appreciate them until after they are over. I was both sad to leave, but happy to get home (especially to my dog, Bing). This time, my connecting flight was in New York City.
I sat down at a sushi bar, playing the free games available on the tablets they provide at every space. It seemed surreal having just been in a beautiful tropical paradise, to then playing games on a tablet in LaGuardia airport.
But I’m lucky I did. I met one more person. We chatted for some time. And for some reason I felt like opening up. I shared why I went to Puerto Rico by myself, and how I was feeling after the experience. Although only a couple of years older than myself, she provided me with insightful wisdom only experience brings, of which I will try to recall here to the best of my memory.
“After time, you’ll start to think about this less and less. It will never go away, and you’ll randomly think about it years from now, and you’ll still experience the emotions. But it will always be there. And be part of you. It is part of who you are now and who you will be in the future.”
Not until I finally arrived home and reflected on all the wonderful people I met and all the beautiful, enriching experiences I had was I able to fully appreciate my trip to Puerto Rico. As I had hoped, it was a tipping point. Things started looking up after that trip. Although it’s possible had I gone to Jamaica or Iowa, that I would have started feeling myself again, but I truly believe Puerto Rico and it’s people are unique. I owe much to Puerto Rico for changing how I looked at and experienced life.
Thank you, Puerto Rico!