our hurricane maria experience
Visiting family in San Antonio this August we happened to be in town as Hurricane Harvey slammed into the Texas coast. Water disappeared from grocery store shelves with local TV stations warning that “the worst was yet to come”. My dad and the boys were glued to the tube watching as Harvey tracked closer and closer on the radar. Anticipation was building to a fever pitch, but at least for those of us in San Antonio at the time, the storm was mostly a non-event. After all the buildup, my boys were slightly disappointed. It’s was closest any of us had been to a major hurricane and all we got was a little wind and two inches of rain.
Well it didn’t take long before we all got more of a hurricane experience than we ever wanted. Less than a week after we returned to Puerto Rico, Hurricane Irma dealt the island a glancing blow followed by a direct gut punch from Hurricane Maria only two weeks later.
Hurricane Maria was such a monumental natural disaster it’s hard to know where to begin when discussing it. It’s effects are still very much dominating life on the island and will continue to do so for months, if not years to come. It has disrupted the island’s economy as a whole as well as the lives of many individual residents, including our own (I am writing this from my brother-in-law’s house in California). For now, I just want to recount the storm itself and it’s immediate aftermath to give you an idea of what it was like. There is much more to say than can fit in a single post.
Our Hurricane Maria Experience
Using the Caribbean Storm Network’s Closest Point of Approach tool at just after 11 pm on September 19th, I calculated that the storm would be closest to us at 7:42 pm the following day. That was the last time I was able to check on the storm. The wind was already howling as Holly and I went to bed. I told her that at this rate, power would be out by morning. In fact, the power barely lasted until midnight. Our water had long since stopped flowing earlier in the day. We never lost our AT&T cell signal in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, but by around 2:30 am, the cell signal went dead.
When the sun came up at around 6 am, the wind was already about as strong as the strongest winds we experienced during Hurricane Irma. We cooked breakfast on our camping stove and enjoyed witnessing the power of the storm from the safety of our side balcony which was not directly facing the wind.
By 10 am, horizontal sheets of rain had caused water to begin pouring in underneath the sliding glass door of our back balcony. We quickly put towels down in an effort to sop up the water. Holly and I were learning and adapting as the storm progressed and because we keep an eye on our friends’ units in the building when they are away, we applied what we learned in their units as well. We feverishly ran from unit to unit putting towels down in an ultimately futile attempt to keep our neighbors’ condos from flooding.
By 11 am, we noticed that one of our bedrooms was partially flooded. Our condo units have hotel type air conditioners in the bedrooms that fit through the wall, and water was pouring in around them as a result of the powerful wind and sheets of rain. We frantically put more towels down in our bedrooms as well as the bedrooms of the other units in the building we take care of. At this point, we were pretty much out of towels so we had to start wringing them out into buckets in an effort to stay in front of the deluge.
By around 11:30 am Holly noticed that the sliding glass door on our back balcony was bowing in. I stood in awe watching and feeling the power of the storm as I supported the door with my hands and weight. It was pretty obvious the doors wouldn’t be able to hold since there were still 8 hours until the storm was closest to us. We decided to go ahead and prepare for the inevitable by moving the furniture out of the living room into my office. Afterwards, I went ahead and slid the glass door open which immediately relieved the wind pressure from the door.
As I said earlier, we were experimenting and learning as the storm progressed, and since this seemed to work, we decided to do this with our side balcony door as well. So we cleared out our master bedroom as much as possible but when I slid open the door, our curtains and a few other items in the room violently flew out. Apparently, having both sliding doors opened at once allowed a tropical storm force wind tunnel to blow through our condo! I shut the master bedroom door to block the wind, which calmed things down in the bedroom.
Armed with this new knowledge, and against the wishes of Holly, I rushed over to one of our neighbors units that also has a side balcony, to implement what we had learned. After clearing out their rooms, sliding open their glass doors, and closing their master bedroom door, I tried to pull open their front door to leave. There was immense wind pressure pushing against the door so it wouldn’t budge. Realizing how dangerous the situation was, I made a mental note to keep my fingers away from the edge to avoid them getting pinched in the door. I pulled on the doorknob as hard as I could to open the door and when I got out, I put my hands in the middle of the door, far from the edge, to try to keep the door from slamming. Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the fact the door was wet, so my fingers slid straight to the edge of the door where they promptly got smashed as the solid wood door slammed close on them. The force of the impact knocked me down on the wet stairs. Blood splattered everywhere as my fingers split wide open. Mad at myself for allowing this to happen, I got up to run back to our condo only to slip on the wet tiles in the stairwell and fall down again scraping my knee.
When I got back to my condo, I was yelling in frustration and pain which obviously freaked Holly and the boys out. Our fun family time watching the storm suddenly turned somber. To think that before the accident, I was actually planning to play some guitar and relax as we waited for the storm to pass. “David! I can’t fix this!” Holly sobbed, as she examined my hand. She saw bone sticking out and believed I had a compound fracture. After Holly bandaged it up, I laid on the couch with my hand in throbbing pain and a hurricane going on outside. I needed medical attention, but that was definitely not going to happen for quite some time. It was only noon.
Holly and the boys stayed busy sopping up water and wringing out towels while I laid on the couch. The whistling of the wind was so deafening that we all had to put in earplugs. After a few of hours of laying there, I decided the best way for me to take my mind off the pain was to go ahead and try to take in the hurricane experience. I glanced outside and it was almost completely white.
After watching for awhile, I walked down the hall and noticed that our master bedroom door was bending in at the top and cracking in the middle. It was the only thing keeping the wind tunnel from reconstituting itself, and it was pretty obvious that the door wasn’t going to hold for much longer. Holly grabbed a 32 gallon trash bag and I held it in place as she duct taped it in an effort to block the wind. It took over half an hour and a whole roll of duck tape, but ultimately our patch job saved the door. Our friends door, which I had shut hours earlier, didn’t fare nearly as well.
By around 5 pm, the wind calmed a bit. We looked out our balcony and saw the palm trees close to our building swaying one way and the palm trees further out swaying the opposite way. After about 15 minutes, the wind started in earnest in the opposite direction than in had been for the 15 or so hours prior. Holly and the boys spent the next several hours sopping up water coming in from the side balcony. Holly’s hands were blistering and her arms were aching; I felt terrible that I couldn’t help.
The back side of the storm featured slightly weaker sustained winds punctuated with extremely strong gusts. Holly and the boys were tired of sopping up water so we tried to shut both doors as soon as possible. At about 10 pm, I closed the back sliding door and at about midnight, I slid the side balcony door shut. After picking up a little more of the water off the floor, the four of us went into my boys’ room to try to get some sleep. It wasn’t more than 15 minutes later when Holly and I heard a cracking sound in the living room. Upon inspection, I discovered the bottom frame of the sliding door had been pushed into the tiles, causing them to pop up. I opened the door and laid back down.
Periods of relative quiet were followed by regular intervals of violent, door rattling gusts against our side balcony door. I laid in bed with my eyes wide open as every time I closed them, I had visions of our side door blowing out. Finally, after a particularly strong gust at around 2 am, I went to inspect the door and found that it was coming out of the rails. I slid the door back in place and resigned myself to opening it back up. Hurricane Maria was obviously in no hurry to leave.
The Day After
At sunrise, we hardly recognized where we were. Desmond’s first comment was that it looked like winter. The sky was gray and all the leaves had been blown off the trees. Because of the extent of lost greenery, we saw houses we had never seen before. The front of the condo was littered with deck furniture and sheets of metal from the neighbor’s fence.
Our first priority was to get to the hospital to have my fingers looked at, but there was no point in rushing out the door. Two large coconut palms had fallen across the road on one of the ways out of our condo and power lines were down over the road the other way. Since we were trapped anyway, Holly made some coffee on our camping stove and we just sat on our balcony to take in the view. Shortly thereafter, we saw some of the neighbors pull up in their trucks and start cutting the downed palm trees to clear the road. We figured we would wait until after we had a late breakfast before attempting to drive to the hospital at about 10 am.
The last place I wanted to be was on the roads the morning after a major hurricane, but my hand wasn’t going to heal correctly on it’s own, so we had no choice. Driving down to the Cam Playa, we saw our beloved breadfruit tree on it’s side with it’s roots ripped out of the ground. A tree blocked the road to the left so we had to drive under a precariously balanced tree going right. Where the road wasn’t completely impassable, fallen trees and power lines had reduced large sections of the road to a single lane. Even though it was still raining, private citizens were out in force, clearing the roads in front of their homes and businesses with chainsaws and machetes.
After a few U-turns, we made it to the urgent care center in Aguada only to find it boarded up. A neighbor told us he heard the road to Mayagüez was impassable, so we headed to Aguadilla. Dodging dangling power lines on Highway 417 and downed trees we finally made it to Highway 2. It looked like a war zone. Trees covered half the road and drivers looked dazed and confused, driving in both directions on both sides of the road.
Holly was cautiously driving north on Highway 2 when we saw a lot water over the road up ahead. Looking to our left, the Culebrinas River looked like a large lake. There was a small white car in front of us which drove through the water over the road so we figured we could get through as well. While carefully driving through the water, we noticed that the white car had stalled. Later we found out that a few hours earlier, two police officer were killed when their vehicles were washed into the Culebrinas River at that very crossing.
We arrived at the urgent care center across the street from Walgreens in Aguadilla only to find it boarded up as well. The harrowing drive to get there had thoroughly freaked all of us out. Holly said we better rush home because it was still raining. Thankfully I had downloaded the map of Puerto Rico to my phone, so I asked her to wait for me to do a quick search for hospitals. Fortunately, there was a hospital a little further up Highway 2; Hospital Buen Samaritano. On the way there and probably as a result of driving through high water earlier, our automatic transmission wouldn’t change gears as we accelerated, causing the RPM to run higher than it normally does. We were in a near panic as we were surrounded by devastation and flood waters, far from home, in the rain, with a car that was starting to act up.
When we finally drove up to the hospital, my heart sunk. The fifth floor windows were blown out and the palm trees around the building were snapped in half. Most distressingly for us at that time, the parking lot was empty. We went ahead and drove around to the back of the building and felt a rush of excitement as we saw cars, people and even an ambulance! Holly dropped me off at the door and I rushed in and asked the first person I saw if there was an emergency room. She pointed to her right and told me to take a left at the end of the hall. As I hurried past a couple of workers who were mopping up the water that was dripping down from the fifth floor, I felt such a huge weight come off of me that I spontaneously started tearing up. Our dangerous post-hurricane excursion was a success!
The emergency room was already busy when we arrived. I saw and spoke to many others who had slammed their fingers in the door just as I did. As the day wore on, we started to see people come in who had injured themselves as they were working to clear fallen trees in and around their property.
After about four hours, I finally got an x-ray. Much to my relief, it didn’t show any broken bones! After about two more hours, one of the two doctors on duty stitched up my fingers. After another two hours, I had my prescriptions and was on my way. (In the midst of the chaos, they lost my file which caused it to take longer than it should have.) When it was all said and done, my emergency room visit cost $180.
The rain had stopped, so the drive home wasn’t quite as perilous. However, the destruction was breathtaking. Metal streetlights and concrete power poles were cracked and fallen beside and sometimes across the road. We drove home into the sunset and cooked dinner in the dark. We felt good that day one of the aftermath was a success. Little did we know what challenges lay ahead. (to be continued…)