As a fishing guide in Apalachicola, September is my slowest month, so for three years I have escaped the dog days by “vacationing” to the affordable, friendly paradise of western Puerto Rico. I love the island, and over the years have made good friends, and rode great waves, as I also love to surf. Puerto Rico is called the “Hawaii of the Atlantic” for good reason - nearly identical climates and a culture that celebrates the ocean. Playa de Jobos, a small rural town similar to Apalachicola where you can escape the “chatter” of modern life and enjoy a relaxed lifestyle, is on the northwest side of the island, where the Atlantic turns into the Caribbean.
As late summer is the peak of the Atlantic hurricane season, I have kept a keen eye on tropical activity, more as a source of swell for surfing than a threat. Like so many, I was lulled into a sense I could ride out any storm and thought I knew how to prepare. What I didn’t realize was how powerful Mother Nature can be, and that it’s not the storm but the aftermath you are preparing for. I know better now.
We had some excitement when hurricanes Irma and Jose brushed past the island, then talk turned to a new tropical depression coming up from the southeast. My friend Sammy said he didn’t like the looks of that storm and started saving water and preparing. The forecasters kept saying the storm might develop into a hurricane but should follow the path of Irma.
The next day Maria developed into a major storm, her course set to hit southeastern PR, cross the island and exit near where I was staying. We hoped it would take a northerly turn but just before we lost power Tuesday night, the meteorologist on TV solemnly confirmed our worst fears; the course of the storm was staying true. I went to bed that night knowing the next day was going to be a very long one.
At dawn, the air had that heavy tropical feel it does as a storm approaches. By 10 a.m. winds had increased to around 50 to 70 mph. I didn’t want to ride out the storm alone, but it was too late to go to my friend Hector’s house. For the next few hours the wind was nothing I’d ever heard before, sounding as though a parade of 747s taxied by the house, revving their engines. The house shuddered during the bigger gusts or when a tree came down, the wind was blowing so hard the rain wasn’t even reaching the ground! When I thought it couldn’t blow any harder, it did, terrifying me, but by 2 p.m., the jet engines turned off and it got light outside. I was in the eye. (Later I found out a neighbor’s home weather station recorded a peak gust of 152 mph.)
The storm slowed, the eye took almost two hours to pass, and then I heard the backside of the eye wall approaching and around 4 p.m. the wind shifted 180 degrees and the jet engine was back but from the southwest. The velocity dropped to maybe 100 mph and the rain was reaching the ground and it poured. As the wind decreased the rain increased. Around 10 p.m. I was exhausted, figured the worst was over and went to bed. Sometime around 3 a.m. I awoke because the bed was wet and I realized the house had two feet of standing water.
The house, on a bluff 800 feet above sea level, was in a slight dell in the rolling farmland. The nearby pond had flooded and the pastures around the property had turned into a good size lake. The house was on an elevated concrete slab two feet above the ground, but the water was coming in through the septic system. I gathered what was not soaked and put it as high as I could store things. I cleared a space on the kitchen counter and rode out the the remainder of the storm perched on the counter only a foot above the rising water. By dawn the water was inches from where I sat. The wind had dropped but the rain continued. The rental car in the carport was flooded in two feet of water. The driveway was totally blocked by fallen trees. The water was still rising, I had to get out.
I packed bottled water, dry clothes and food into my daypack and waded chest deep out the driveway until I got to the higher ground by the road. I was numb and didn’t know what to do, so I started the two-mile hike to Hector’s house. During my walk I saw the magnitude of the storm. Every tree over 30 feet tall was down, every leaf blown off the trees and bushes. Almost every power pole was down and wires clogged the streets. Concrete houses fared well, but every wooden structure was demolished. People began to emerge from their homes and went to work clearing debris or just staring in astonishment at the destruction. The images I saw didn’t make sense. What could possibly have done all this damage? It looked like pictures I’ve seen of Hiroshima.
Puerto Ricans don’t wait for the cavalry because they know the cavalry doesn’t exist for them. If the road needs to be cleared, everybody pitches in until cleared. I’ve never seen such a sense of community and good will in my life. It didn’t matter who you were, if you needed help, help was there. Hector took me in and that evening when I climbed into a warm dry bed, I was so relieved not to have to spend the night on a kitchen counter in a sewage-flooded house. The next day I woke up at dawn, as I did for the next two weeks, to the crowing of roosters.
I thought I had prepared well with five days of food and water. It was obvious five days was not even close to what was needed to get by. All businesses were closed for the first three days and when they did open, only Arturo’s Colmado, the ma and pa grocery, and the Gulf station had generators. All other businesses were either gone or too damaged to open. Imagine all of Apalach relying on one of the gas station/convenient stores for its needs. Three days after opening, every food stock, beverage, candle, battery, bottled water were gone. Three days later Arturo got resupplied and two days later it was all gone.
The gas station rationed fuel to two gallons per person and you had to wait six to nine hours just to get that. Sometimes people waited all day to get nothing and returned the next day to wait again. An island-wide 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. curfew was put in place. Soon the roads had been cleared and you could get around, but nothing was open except for the occasional undamaged gas station or Colmado. No cell phones, no internet, no TV, no ATMs, no credit cards. Everything was cash only and if you didn’t have cash, you counted your coins.
Money or not, supplies were limited. Despite these hardships, there was no looting, rioting or complaining. The Puerto Ricans took it in stride and if you needed help, they helped. If you needed anything, and if somebody had it, they would share. I’ve never been more impressed with the sense of community, hardworking people and positive attitude displayed.
I rationed my food and ate just twice a day. I would warm canned food in the sun and my meals consisted of an avocado (I had plenty of those) and a can of tuna, soup or chili. My rationing allowed me to eat for 12 days before I was out of food. Thankfully I managed to get a flight out on day 13. I got very lucky on day five. The water receded enough that I was able to get the rental car started, a miracle! I spent the next six hours clearing the driveway and managed to get the car out. I had transportation again and a full tank of fuel. Once I had an exit date, my spirits were buoyed and despite my food running low, I knew I was going to be able to get out.
Unfortunately my friends are still in Puerto Rico. Running water was restored but the power grid infrastructure was destroyed, it will be six months or more before power is restored. There is limited cell service. Some banks have opened but access to cash is limited. It will be a long time before life returns to normal, but through the hard work and determination, the seeds of normalcy are taking root.
Little things became valuable and a new appreciation was learned. Something as simple as a cold drink. Arturo got his ice maker going and when Hector secured us two sangrias with ice I thought I was in heaven. Hector’s wife Diana seeing his cup of ice, exclaimed, “Oh my god, is that ice?!”
In all honesty this storm was the worst thing I’ve ever been through but it has turned out to be the best thing I’ve ever experienced. With every low there was a high, with every setback a step forward. I don’t ever want to go through it again, but anybody who lived through Maria or any major storm has been changed and I’d like to think for the best. However, despite finding the good things in life everyday, everyday life in Puerto Rico is far from normal and won’t be again for a long time. They are prepared to make it on their own, but I can assure you, they need serious help.
We are working on a short-term way to help the people of Jobos Beach. If you wish to contribute, here are the ways to make sure your support reaches those who need it most: Via PayPal: transfer to email@example.com; By check, made payable to A.R.F., and sent to 44 Avenue E, Apalachicola, FL 32320; Or by credit card call Kathy Robinson at 653-8896.