Often we take simple things for granted, such as running water or walking into a room and turning on the lights. But for the people of Puerto Rico, those things are not always guaranteed.
On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria, a Category 4 storm, knocked out electricity across the entire island. In some areas, people remained without electricity for more than 11 months. When Hurricane Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, it killed nearly 3,000 people and was named one of the deadliest natural disasters in U.S. history.
Today, most people don't know what it’s like to live without power for a day, let alone several months. Neither did the people of Puerto Rico until Hurricane Maria changed everything, including its residents.
I first visited Puerto Rico in March of 2018 with a group of eight (me included) from First Presbyterian Church (FPC) of Asheboro. It was six months after Hurricane Maria had decimated much of the island and neighborhoods. There was still no electricity along the southern coastal area we visited (Patillas), but our group was able to stay in a Praying Pelicans work camp powered by a generator.
We stayed in rural Guarraya for a week, and in that short time, I was also changed. I still remember one of the elders of the local church saying, “I have seen the wrath of God,” and how those words frightened me.
At home, after the trip, I cried hesitating to turn on the water to brush my teeth. It was ingrained in me not to drink the water that week. We used bottled water to brush our teeth.
My husband was somewhat stunned as I stood in the bathroom crying. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
I was broken. I explained to him the amazing people we’d met that week didn’t have the “luxury” of turning on the water and that was hard for me. And I was able to leave and return to normalcy, but they were not.
A year later, however, we returned to Guarraya and found hope. People’s lives weren’t completely back to normal, as electricity was still fragile, but it was much, much better.
This month, almost exactly five years later, Hurricane Fiona came and left many in Puerto Rico and the southern region facing a terrible situation again.
Hurricane Fiona, a Category 1 storm, reached the island overnight on Sunday, Sept. 18. It was slow moving and dumped up to 30+ inches of rain in some parts of the island. The storm left behind huge mudslides, downed trees and power lines, washed out roads and major flooding.
In some parts of the island, people remain cut off from help. Others were stranded, needing to be rescued from the quickly rising waters. Also, amid an extreme heat alert issued by the National Weather Service, air conditioning is non-existent, making for even more miserable conditions.
A few days before Fiona struck Puerto Rico, I received a text message from Sebastian Torres who was 13 years old when I first met him. Now 18, he is in his first year of “university,” as he refers to it.
I hadn’t heard anything on the news about Fiona, so I was surprised by his text. I started watching reports about the progression of the storm. Within a couple of days, Fiona became a Hurricane, and news reports were predicting Puerto Rico could see historical flooding and mudslides with this storm.
I tried to stay in touch with Sebastian and his mom Vivian (who live near Guarraya) and was able to through most of the storm. I lost contact with them, however, on Monday, Sept. 19, which worried me most of the day. I finally heard from them that evening. They were “okay and doing good,” but the cell signal was “bad,” power was out and running water had stopped.
Sebastian texted, “This feels like Maria,” and my heart sank for them.
Posted on Facebook by a friend of Vivian and Sebastian’s was a news report of the Mayor of Patillas in tears as he talked about the damages in Patillas and the surrounding rural areas again.
“Patillas has all its areas, all the communities, highly affected. We have so many overflowing rivers, the reservoir reached maximum capacity and the dam system had to be activated to flood the area. We have multiple reports of many landslides, fallen trees and affected homes,” Mayor Maritza Sanchez Neri said.
“The preliminary information is that we are very close to the damage that occurred with Hurricane Maria.”
The municipal official also indicated that the power transmission lines were fully affected because the poles were on the ground. “The news is not very encouraging,” he said. According to Sanchez Neri, they closely monitored the filter plant of the Patillas reservoir that supplies water to 80% of the municipality and five other neighboring towns, so any situation that could arise would have a multiplying effect.
On Sept. 20, I heard from Vivian by text. “We are good. We got a community generator for all of us to have water. I’ve been able to speak to Richard (their friend in San Juan) and Eduardo (her oldest son who stayed at the University where both he and Sebastian attend). They are with no light nor water.”
Since that text, Eduardo and Richard have regained electricity. But Vivian and Sebastian remain in the dark and extreme heat.
Wrote Sebastian on Sept. 22, “We still without light but we are good. Nights are bad because Puerto Rico is very hot. Is really bad the temperature, and I can’t sleep.”
I remember that feeling. The heat and humidity of Puerto Rico kept me up at night. Once I’d sweated enough, I’d finally cool down very late at night and could rest.
But for some people who survived Maria, resting peacefully was difficult, especially for the children. Many of them struggle with post traumatic stress disorder even today.
Vivian, who spoke to youth at First Presbyterian Church by FaceTime in the midst of Fiona, said, “We will be okay. We are much better prepared for the storm today than when Maria hit. We have a generator. We repaired the roof (where parts were blown off by Maria), and it is stronger. I live in a cement home so we will be okay. But there are still many people that live in stick built homes, and they still have the blue tarps as their roof. This will be very bad for them,” she shared. “We now have a water tank, filled with 400 gallons of water. That’s a lot of water, but depending on how long we are without electricity, days, weeks or months, we could run out.”
The faces of the youth during their conversation looked familiar. It was the same look our entire group had five years ago hearing the stories of the people we met and prayed with on daily home visits. It's the look of shock, horror and disbelief that people can really endure so much!
Their stories and lives are forever etched in my mind, and when I feel inconvenienced by waiting for items or the power goes off for a few hours, I try to remember them.
The people of Puerto Rico are some of the most resilient and strong of any I’ve ever encountered. Many live with a very strong faith which “sustains them.” I heard those words a lot that week.
I can only hope that I have that kind of faith one day. I won’t forget one lady we met. Through her faith, she lied down and went to sleep during the loud, howling, battering winds (some up to 160+ mph) and torrential rains of Maria.
She was alone at home as Hurricane Maria approached her beautiful island. Her home sits on top of a huge hill with an amazing view of the beautiful turquoise waters in the distance and the community of Guarraya below.
“I just prayed,” she shared with our group. “I had done everything I could do to prepare so I took my Bible to bed with me, laid down and went to sleep. Whatever happened to me, my house, all of it was in God’s hands.”
Her home was mostly spared. And as hard as it had been without electricity for over six months, she was still praising God.
I realized at that moment God hadn’t just sent me to Puerto Rico to lend a helping hand to others. I was there so those same people could also help me.