How It Feels To Be Puerto Rican After Hurricane Maria

It was four days after Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit that we received our first call from a family member in Puerto Rico. My aunt had finally found some ground where she could get cell signal. She is the only one out of my whole family that has been able to contact us. We know they are OK because other people have seen them around the barrio after the hurricane hit, but no word or call from them. Most of the island’s cell phone towers are not working, about 80% of the island’s power lines are down and there’s people with no access to drinking water. The island’s situation has been called a humanitarian crisis.

I received a call from a strange, yet official-looking 12-digit number (a normal cell-phone number has 10 digits) and answered, thinking of a worst case scenario. I heard a “Hello?” which frightened me. It was like the movies — the static sound was overpowering and the person on the other side sounded very close on my end, so it wasn’t clear enough to recognize whose voice it was. It was actually a high school friend calling me from a satellite phone – phones that are commonly used for communicating after a disaster strikes. He asked me: “What has happened? What have you seen?” I was in shock; how could I be the bearer of bad news?

All post-hurricane conversations go the same way: The victims themselves do not know what happened. They only know about what they have seen with their own eyes. Turning on the TV and watching video footage of the flooding waters running through towns isn’t a choice. I had to explain to him how the Guajataca Dam had failed to contain itself, how the death toll has reached to 16 people and which towns were completely flooded.

My aunt has asked us if we know which supermarkets were open after the hurricane. I was stunned when I realized that we – the outsiders – know more about the situation than the victims themselves. I had seen pictures circulating the Internet and videos of San Juan Mayor, Carmen Yulín Cruz, in tears explaining that the damage was too much to handle.

“We need to get our sh--t together,” she said in an interview with David Begnaud.

She explained how people have begun to pass away in hospitals because power generators have run out of diesel, which is lacking on the island. How can I put the desperation of Puerto Rico’s leaders into words? How can I explain devastation? The streets and highways have been impassable because either the asphalt is too wrecked or the traffic is too heavy. The images of Maria’s path of destruction have been pierced in my mind since the hurricane hit, but how can I explain such distressing imagery to someone who is living that nightmare, yet can’t see it?

Me, along with other Puerto Ricans who are in the mainland, share the same feeling. It is in moments like these that we realize that when we come back home, it probably won’t be the same. The landscape has changed: buildings have been devastated, trees were uprooted, highways are literally broken andfood and supplies are lacking for the population. The island has been in a financial crisis for some time now, and the hurricane has made it even worse. Hurricane Maria, with its sustained winds of 155mph, has stunted the island’s agricultural industry by 80% and caused great damage to the power grid. Officials say that it is more practical to rebuild the power grid rather than repair it.

It hurts to see our people deprived of such basic necessities, like food, drinking water, fuel and shelter--and it hurts even more not being able to help directly. We want to provide aid to the hardships that have hit Puerto Rico. We want to make the floodwaters disappear before they become too toxic to stand in. We hate the fact that we have all the fuel we need here because there are people who struggle with rationing their gas to be able to commute to work.

Even though Maria took the trees and the breeze they provided, we want to walk under the heat alongside our family members. Wishes of bringing victims to the mainland are higher than ever.

My family and I have offered shelter here in the U.S. to our grandparents and family members, but airports in Puerto Rico are in terrible conditions and there are very few incoming or departing flights available.

However, we have found ways to help the cause from a distance. Puerto Rican students from institutions from all over the nation have opened this GoFundMe page to raise money for aid in Puerto Rico. The website has a central page for victims of Hurricane Maria here. (Remember, the U.S. Virgin Islands and other Caribbean islands were also victims, let’s not forget about them!) The New York, Miami, and Philadelphia area are launched their own campaigns for relief efforts; you can see them here. Also, make sure to contact your local senator or representative to make sure the victims of Hurricane Maria get all the support they need.

House Speaker, Paul Ryan, made a pledge to make this happen: “They need our help, and they are going to get our help.”