Op-Ed: Hurricane María has shifted our entire focus
“No es lo mismo llamar al diablo que verlo venir.”
This popular phrase is used frequently in my beloved Puerto Rico. It means that it’s one thing to say that something is coming, than to witness it in the flesh.
Today, days after the monstrous storm, Hurricane María, slammed into our shores with sustained winds of 155 miles per hour, our entire focus has shifted.
We already knew how bad things were: A whopping 46 percent of our population living below the poverty line, just 38 percent of the population is currently employed and our economy, which has been stuck in a recession for the past decade, has caused the migration of more than 500,000 islanders in search of greener pastures.
All this while our government undergoing the biggest bankruptcy in US history, with more than $146 billion owed mostly to Wall Street Banks.
However, all these problems, which are completely legitimate, can’t compare to the one fundamental goal we all share: The preservation of human life.
It’s been a rollercoaster ride with mixed emotions. So much good, yet so much lost. We’ve all been shaken and tested by what María has brought to our island.
Anxiousness. People were worried even if they weren’t sure what to expect. It had been almost 20 years since Puerto Rico had felt the wrath of a hurricane (Georges ’98). Yet we had so many close encounters in between — that kept sailing either north or south — that we had forgotten what an actual hurricane hit looked like. So even though we prepped, a big part of us kind of blissfully hoped that María would join the ranks of “close encounters.”
Terrifying. The winds created an alarming buzzing sound that shook doors, windows, trees and everything in between. I couldn’t believe the force that it came with, which felt like a vacuum, sucking everything within sight.
Communications broke down around 5 a.m. or 6 a.m., but not before my mother texted me that her windows had been blown away. She said they were bunkered in the bathroom, hoping for the best. I could think of only one thing: survive.
The day after
Gratitude. Nothing gives you more perspective than a traumatic event. Understanding we had just survived the most powerful storm to hit our island in a century, makes you feel appreciative of it all.
However, this feeling was quickly overturned by shock. Once the winds finally stopped blowing, we recognized the severity of the situation — Puerto Rico, as we knew it, was no more. Complete destruction of what once stood. It looked like a scene straight out of a Hollywood blockbuster. Windows broken, electric posts lying alongside trees on the ground. You couldn’t help but feel a burning sense of loss.
The bad… Chaos.
Painful. It was Mike Tyson who once said “Everyone has a plan until you get punched in the face.”
Desperate times make people do desperate things. Scarcity of water, gas, electric power, internet and food supplies, coupled with a complete breakdown in communications has caused an outbreak of crime.
Trucks carrying diesel and water have been held at gun point, houses have been raided, stores have been broken into, leaving little inventory behind and looting to parked cars have continued once the government mandated curfew kicks in.
Patience has been tested with 80 percent of the cellular towers down, the lack of internet prevented communication completely and prohibited credit or debit card payments, which in turn has caused a cash shortfall for many who have had wait two or three hours in lines to withdraw cash. In addition, because of a lack of inventory, gas stations have caused lines to refuel cars up to almost a day’s worth wait (around seven or eight hours.)
Even worse, hospitals have been forced to operate without electric power, putting numerous patients at risk and folks in the center and western part of the island have lost their homes — left to live with little to no supplies.
To add insult to injury, our economy — which has been struggling through a decade-long recession — has officially hit a new low. Local start-ups, restaurants and service firms have been forced to remain closed due to a lack of internet, power, diesel and water services.
There is no other way to say this, but it has become a humanitarian crisis.
The good… Camaraderie
Revival. They say you sometimes need to hit rock bottom to stand up again. This storm devastated us all: young and old, rich and poor. Nobody willingly wants to go through adversity, but it has brought out the best in most of us.
Neighbors using machetes to clear pathways in roads, families staying together to cook, talk and love each other. Citizens volunteering for aid relief efforts. Financial institutions stepping up to offer debt-relief for 90 days. Strangers sharing water and food. People acknowledging each other and engaging in random conversations instead of staring endlessly looking at their smartphones.
A sense of renewal is coming. An enviable trait of Puerto Ricans is that warm feeling… that without necessarily knowing each other…we’re all…familia. We’re navigating a new way of living — no electric power, no internet, no readily available gas and an imposed curfew —but we are in this…together.
More good…The Cavalry is coming
When our fellow Caribbean neighbors in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands were blasted by Irma, we immediately came to their aid, raising donations, supplies and even got recognized by Sir Richard Branson himself.
Now that we have been devastated, it’s been humbling to witness the quick response from the Puerto Rican diaspora, including our beloved athletes and musicians, standing together to send shipments, donate their resources and do what they can to bring relief efforts to the island. Even global leaders like the Zuck (CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg) and others have come out publicly and pledged donations to help with the damages, which are already estimated in the billions.
You can also join the #PuertoRicoSeLevanta movement by donating to www.helpprdespacito.com.
Amazingly, our influence is growing, with roughly 5 million Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland we’ve even swayed President Donald Trump to temporary lift the Jones Act, an outdated law that makes all shipments more expensive and take longer to arrive since vessels must come from a U.S. fleet.
Supplies like food and water shipments have begun coming in. These must be shipped to those communities that have been hit the hardest.
Communications are also being reestablished, which are key to help revitalize general commerce and a sense of normalcy. Next, must be the proper distribution of gas and diesel to decrease waiting lines that have unabled many of us complete basic tasks, while also providing the necessary power to those in greater need (hospitals, senior healthcare centers etc.) Good news is that water is being reestablished — currently at a 50 percent clip.
Our new mantra is “Puerto Rico se levanta” (Puerto Rico rises.) We must be patient and band together, not because we want to, but because we have to. There is no other option. I’m positive things will get better, but it will take some time. Now is when our resiliency will shine. Our proud nation will rise again.
How do I know this? Because we are in this…together.