the aftermath of hurricane maria
(continued from our hurricane maria experience…)
It was easy to feel a bit overconfident after the massive category five Hurricane Irma skirted the island. At three days without electricity and four without water, it was easily the longest outage we had to endure to that point. However, even on the day immediately after the storm, many stores and restaurants were open for business. In fact, we were able to get ice for our refrigerator at Mr. Special every single day of the post Irma outage. Because most businesses here have generators, I was seriously beginning to think that the inverter I purchased on our first summer here, and which was still in it’s box, was a waste of money. The aftermath of Hurricane Maria quickly laid that notion to rest.
Day 2- Friday, September 22
Having taken care of my injured hand on the day after the hurricane, our first order of business for the next day was to power up our refrigerator. Generators are not allowed at our condo, so I had to research other backup power alternatives with a narrow focus of only powering the fridge. I stumbled on some information online about using an inverter connected to a car battery, which made a lot of sense to me. Once I purchased all the necessary components, I put them in the back of our closet where they sat for over two years. Now was the time to put this system to the test.
First, I connected the fridge to a 50-foot extension cord I had draped down the side of the building and into our garage. Then, I attached heavy duty cables from our inverter to the battery terminal connectors, putting a fuse on the hot connection. After I connected the ground wire to the chassis, I was ready to fire it up. I turned on our car and flipped the switch on the inverter. Finally, I plugged in the extension cord from upstairs and yelled up to Holly to see if was working. She hollered back, “it’s working great!”
After letting that run for about five hours, our next priority was to fill the prescription for antibiotics I had received at the hospital the prior day. Disconnecting and reconnecting the inverter from the car battery was a hassle, so our primary mode of transportation became our bicycles. We heard from a neighbor that the pharmacies in town were open, so after securing our inverter under the hood, Holly and I hopped on our bikes to make the trip.
On our way there, several of our neighbors who we had never met, or even seen before, were outside cleaning up the mess left by Maria. Some of them stopped us, wanting to share their story and hear ours. One of our neighbors, Antonio, even insisted that we go inside his house so we could see the flood damage. We spent nearly an hour chatting with him and his family and left his house with a bag of avocados and limes from their trees. This was our first experience of one of the most wonderful and enduring silver linings resulting from this natural disaster; we now feel an instant connection with other residents through our shared experience of living through Hurricane Maria.
After leaving Antonio’s house, and getting down to road 115, we saw a lot of congestion. A massive cement power pole was blocking the road, forcing cars to take a detour through a neighborhood. Zipping past the traffic and around the fallen obstacles made us appreciate our new default mode of transportation even more.
When we pulled up to Farmacia Del Pueblo, their storm shutters were still up and their sign was laying down across the parking lot. There were, however, a couple of cars parked outside which was promising. Walking inside, it felt amazingly normal. The AC was on, the shelves were well stocked and a few shoppers were calmly perusing the aisles.
Holly picked up some wound dressing and baby wipes while I got my prescription filled. Baby wipes are a must have for washing hands and even for using as a shower substitute when water service is out. After receiving my antibiotics (which only cost $7!), I walked around a bit and found a refrigerated drink case in the corner. It was full of soda, but in the bottom left corner I found three bottles of water, so I grabbed two of them for our ride home. This was the last time I saw bottled water for sale anywhere until we went to Subway just before we left.
On the way home, we saw a water truck set up a block from the plaza with no one waiting in line. At the time, I didn’t really think we needed any because we had a decent amount stocked up. Further, we figured that water service would be restored in the next few days anyway. Nevertheless, since there was no line, we decided to go ahead and grab our water jugs from the condo and then come back to fill them up. Little did we know that we would end up needing every drop.
A few weeks before the storm, we purchased a wire mesh basket for Holly’s bike so we could pick up groceries together. I already had a basket on mine for carrying a basketball to a nearby court to shoot hoops. It turned out that two one-gallon jugs fit perfectly in these baskets, enabling Holly and I to fetch four gallons of water at a time. We made it back from the water truck just before the 6 pm curfew.
After dinner, it was dark and time for us to wash up and go to bed. Ever since the water turned off, “washing up” for Holly and the boys meant wiping themselves down with baby wipes. Baby wipes are ok, but for me personally, a shower at the end of each day is a nonnegotiable. That’s why I insisted on getting a camping shower shortly after we moved to Puerto Rico. Now, after a couple of hot and sweaty days cleaning up, Holly and the boys were more than ready to go ahead and try out “my” shower. Yes it can be a bit jolting when the unheated water first hits you, but they all greatly appreciated being able to take something resembling a shower. Without A/C or fans, this was the best method we had for feeling fresh and cooling off before bed.
Day 3 – Saturday, September 23
Power came back on at our condo on day 3 after Hurricane Irma, but day 3 after Maria had a markedly different feel. With no internet access, our only source for news was word of mouth. We asked everyone we encountered if they heard anything about when power, water or cell service would be restored. Wishful thinking and rumors were rampant. As much as we didn’t want to believe it, the truth was sinking in that we could be in for a long, hard slog.
For example, on the first couple of days after the storm, we were tossing our clothes into the laundry bin at the end of the day as we always do. However, without enough extra water to wash them by hand, we realized that we wouldn’t have anything to wear before long if we continued doing this. I own three shirts made of a cool moisture-wicking synthetic fabric, two of which I had already worn and were now mixed in the laundry bin with the filthy towels we used to sop up the water on the floors. The last thing I wanted to wear on the hot humid days after the hurricane was a cotton t-shirt, so I wore my last athletic shirt for the next week straight, hanging it up at the end of each day.
Here’s another anecdote. As important as showering was for us and with our supply of water being extremely limited, I asked Holly if it was ok for me to shave my head bald. She let out a sigh and gave a resigned “yeah, whatever”. I figured having to shampoo and deal with my hair was an unnecessary waste of water so I got rid of it. We were in survival mode and now I looked the part. ;)
Later in the day, we went for a walk and bumped into and started chatting with a neighbor down the road. She mentioned in passing that her landline started working and how she was so relieved that she could finally get in touch with her family in the states. As she was talking, I’m pretty sure she noticed our faces change and our eyes light up, because she abruptly stopped mid-sentence and graciously offered to let us use her phone.
One week earlier, it would’ve been difficult for me to imagine getting excited about a working landline. The ability to communicate whenever we need or want to is something that frankly, we take for granted. But now, three days after Maria, it felt like a miracle to hear my dad’s voice on the other end of the line. Thanks to our neighbor, Holly and I were both able to get in touch with our families and tell them to spread the word that we were OK.
Day 4 – Monday, September 24
Before the storm, we filled one of our tubs with water for flushing the toilets. We had been keeping the tub somewhat full by dumping the buckets of water we had sopped up off our floor and from the condos of some of our neighbors in the days immediately after the storm. However, now with the floors dry and the tub running low, the boys and I began a post-breakfast routine of ferrying buckets of water from our pool up three stories to our tub. It was a lot of work, but at least we could continue to flush the toilet.
After another long day of inventorying supplies and cleaning, a neighbor told us they heard the El Galeón restaurant had internet access. As soon as we heard this we walked straight over to check it out and sure enough the owner, Manuel, confirmed it was true.
After he helped us get connected we were flooded with so many Facebook messages, emails and other notifications our phones starting buzzing maniacally with notification sounds. Holly and I both work online, so we had to try to ignore the din and focus on getting in touch with our clients in the states to let them know we were ok and that we would start working again once power and internet service were restored. After that was taken care of, I jumped on some of the Puerto Rico based Facebook groups to see if I could find some news. All of the postings were from people in the states.
It’s hard to know where to start when bombarded with so many notifications and messages so when I got home that night, I started to plan ahead of time what would be my priority the next time I connected to the internet. I decided I should at least see how much it would cost to fly back to San Antonio in case the outage was prolonged. Our clients wouldn’t be able to wait for us indefinitely and Holly and I did need to get back to work.
Day 5 – Tuesday, September 25
The next morning, I walked down to El Galeón and found tickets online flying out of Mayaguez for about $250 each, one-way. The only catch was they were for October 8th, which was still two weeks away. I spoke to Manuel about it and being an irrepressible optimist, he told me, “by October 8th we will have power, water, everything!” As we were standing in front of his restaurant, city crews were hard at work clearing debris on the sides of the Cam Playa adding credence to Manuel’s positive outlook.
I really wanted to believe him. Our home was on the island and I had no interest in flying my family back to the states after just coming from there a few weeks earlier. I would hate to unnecessarily spend money on tickets only to have the power and water come on just before we were to leave. Manuel’s positivity rubbed off on me, so I left his restaurant feeling hopeful. I decided to at least wait one more day before buying the tickets.
It didn’t take long for the positive vibes to melt away. When biking into town to get water, you could detect a growing sense of desperation in the air. The line to get water had gotten so long it no longer made sense to wait in it for a mere four gallons. The line of cars to get into the Gulf station on road 115 in Aguada stretched down past the Selectos supermarket, which sported a line of it’s own of customers waiting to get in.
With our car slowly consuming fuel while connected to our inverter, our ability to freely drive around was severely curtailed. Because of this, everyone we ran into became our eyes and ears. I polled each of them to see how long it took for them to get gas. The news wasn’t good. Average wait times seemed to be increasing everyday after the storm and were now approaching, and in some cases exceeding, 8 hours. This, just for the privilege of purchasing 10 or 20 dollars worth at a time! At this point, I pretty much resigned myself to spring for the tickets, but true to my word I would wait until tomorrow.
Day 6 – Tuesday, September 26
I walked down to El Galeón as soon as I woke up and found the internet was down. I tried not to think about it as we had breakfast and went about our routine, but I was clearly preoccupied. Holly could sense my elevated anxiety and tried in vain to reassure me.
Around noon, I hustled back down to El Galeón and found that, surprise, the internet was still down. Frustrated, I decided to jump on my bike and see if Burger King or the Plaza in downtown Aguada had an internet signal. I saw a lot of hot, tired people waiting in lines, but found no live internet connection.
A bit of panic began to overtake me which made me more desperate to buy the tickets so I circled back around to El Galeón. When I arrived, I told Manuel that I had been biking around looking for internet access. He graciously welcomed me in and told me to feel free to sit inside at the bar and wait for the internet to come back up. For the next five hours, I sat slouched at the bar, constantly hitting refresh on my phone. As the sun started to set, I had a piercing headache and a stomach that was growling angrily. I was forced to call it quits and trudge home.
As my family and I shared dinner around the cold, harsh light of our LED lantern, I was exuding so much stress and tension you could cut it with a knife. I knew that once internet and cell access was more widely available, airfares would rise dramatically as demand for flights off the island overwhelmed the available supply. I couldn’t relax until I locked in our tickets even if it turned out that we didn’t need them. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that night.
Day 7 – Wednesday, September 27
As I did the day before, I rushed down to El Galeón first thing in the morning to check the internet connection and just like the day before, it was down. Walking back to my condo, I began to mentally prepare myself to hunker down at the bar again for the whole afternoon after eating breakfast, lugging water to the tub, and letting the inverter run for four or five hours to cool our food and charge our phones.
True to form, upon my return to the restaurant the internet was down. I had no idea what my chances were for actually connecting to the internet there that day, but I had no where else to go. After about two hours, the internet connection suddenly started working. You could feel the energy in the room surge as others who were waiting there like me finally got connected. I immediately checked on the tickets I found two days earlier. They were now nearly $900 each! I broadened my search and found a similar itinerary three days later on October 11th at about $350 each. Beggars can’t be choosers so I whipped out my credit card and locked it in.
Afterwards, I told Manuel I purchased the tickets and again he reiterated his optimistic view that power and water would be on before our flight. I told him I hoped he was right, but the tickets were my insurance just in case he wasn’t. Then I bumped into a guy who said he received an email that the tickets he bought from Spirit airlines the day before were cancelled. His flight was out of Aguadilla and ours was out of Mayaguez/San Juan, so we were probably ok. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t feel completely comfortable until I had a chance to check my email the next day.
Day 8 – Thursday, September 28
The internet was down at El Galeón again this morning so I would have to wait until after our daily inverter run before checking the internet connection again. We were very impressed with how little gas the car was using to run the inverter every day, but we were now down to about a quarter tank. I thought the gas lines would’ve been manageable by now, a week after the storm, but they were still pushing eight hours. I told Holly we could maybe go one more day before I would have to suck it up and wait in line.
Then, just as I was about to turn the inverter and car off for the day, our electrician Javier and neighbor Antonio drove up. They were on their way to Antonio’s brother’s gas station in Aguadilla and stopped by to ask if we needed any. We tried to play it cool so as not to be a burden, but about two hours later they returned with enough gas to fill up our car! We were so taken aback by their random act of kindness that I was more than happy to pay them extra for their trouble. However, they would only take as much as the gas cost.
After they left, I rushed down to El Galeón to check my email. Not surprisingly, the internet was down. Since whatever internet time we had was so limited, Holly and I hadn’t had a chance to respond to the many emails, texts, and Facebook messages we received from friends and family checking on us. Therefore, since I was stuck there waiting anyway, I decided to take the opportunity to start drafting a message to let everyone know we were ok and now had tickets to return to the states. After I finishing writing the message, there was still no internet access. I hung around until sunset and then walked home.
We bought our plane tickets two days earlier, but as mentioned, I couldn’t relax until I checked my email to ensure sure our flight wasn’t cancelled for some reason. Sounds simple, but nothing was simple or easy in post Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico. I repeated my routine of the last four days where I basically waited all day for the internet to start working. Finally, near the end of the day, the internet came up. At this point, I was too worn out to get excited. I checked my email and didn’t see any cancellation notices so I went ahead and posted the message I drafted the day before to both Holly’s and my Facebook pages. (I also posted it here on the blog.)
Days 10 – 21
Hurricane Maria had put both Holly and I on what basically amounted to a forced, unpaid vacation. However, unlike most vacations, we couldn’t do much of anything fun. That said, as it sunk in that our flight off the island was secure, we were able to relax a bit. True, the thought of 12 more days without power and running water was daunting, but at least there was a definitive end point coming. After doing an inventory of our supplies, we felt pretty comfortable that we had enough to last until our flight.
Thanks to Antonio and Javier, we had plenty of gas in our car to run the inverter for another week or so. By the time we had to refuel, the lines had gone down to the point where it took us only about 5 minutes to fill up. In fact it was so easy and painless that when we were driving away, I told Holly it felt like we stole something. ;)
After the storm, it had been raining nearly every afternoon. One morning, while the boys and I were lugging water up from our now green pool, I mentioned in passing how it would be nice if we could just divert the rain water down into our bathtub. Then I remembered and mentioned that one of our neighbors up one floor from us had a roof drain that gushed every time it rained. After we were done filling our tub, Desmond took the initiative to follow up on the idea.
He placed a funnel on the drain, connected a hose to it and then tied the whole thing together with string. Then he connected a second hose to the first and ran it down the stairs and into our tub. His little contraption worked brilliantly. Our tub filled up in minutes every time an afternoon thunderstorm dumped buckets of water on the roof. We had so much water that we filled up jugs with water for washing hands and dishes, refilled our camping shower and filled buckets so we could wash our clothes.
For drinking water, after the lines at the water trucks had become unmanageable, we supplemented our supply of bottles with water from our hot water heater. We also had access to plenty of soda. In fact, we probably drank more soda in the three weeks following Hurricane Maria than we had in the prior three YEARS combined!
We had just filled our fridge and freezer with food right before the storm and were able to use most of it thanks to our inverter. Running it for four or five hours a day had effectively turned our freezer into a fridge. Therefore, as space became available in the freezer, we transferred our perishables over from the fridge. For the time period we were there, the items we most needed and wanted to replace were milk and eggs. And it was a good thing too. On our last trip to the store, Holly had to wait 30 minutes to get in, only to find the meat and produce shelves bare and the nonperishables sections heavily picked over. However, they did have some milk and eggs, as well as a few cans of fruit.
Since we needed cash to purchase pretty much everything, the amount we had set aside before the storm was slowly dwindling away. Thankfully though, we did have enough to last at least until our flight. One of our neighbors ran out of cash a few days after the storm and had to wait in line 11 hours over two days for the privilege of accessing some of their own money! (The first day they went home empty handed after 6 hours.)
All in all, I was pretty happy with our emergency preparations. Since we live in a condo, there’s really not a whole lot more we could’ve done. However, as good as our prep was, it’s not feasible to survive this way indefinitely. Supplies run out and replacing them is generally not easy, when possible at all. For example, we ran out of propane the day before our flight and took our last two bottles of water with us to the airport.
I was unable to check-in ahead of time, so on the day of our flight out of Mayaguez I wanted to get there plenty early in-case we would need to drive to San Juan to catch our flight. With stop lights not working and power line crews blocking one lane of 417, traffic slowed to a crawl. Everywhere we looked, we saw weary faces, often waiting in line. Military transport vehicles shared the road with us while chinook helicopters crisscrossed overhead. What I naively thought would be a twenty minute drive stretched to over an hour.
When we finally arrived at the airport, I rushed inside to make sure they had our reservation. I felt an immense weight lift off of me after the man behind the counter read out our names. The flight to San Juan gave us a bird’s-eye view of the devastation and traffic snarled on the ground below. It’s obviously a bit dramatic, but the image that came to mind for me immediately was that of the evacuees on the roof of the embassy in Vietnam, clambering to get on the last helicopter before the Fall of Saigon.
Reflecting back on this ordeal does give us a sense of pride in what we are capable of accomplishing when we pull together. If we can survive a direct hit from a major hurricane is there anything we can’t do?
Recently, we received word that power and intermittent water service has been restored at our condo so Holly and I are currently making plans to return to the island later this month. We can’t wait to get back home!