"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo

Friday, September 29, 2017

Surviving an Apocalypse

A man rides his horse on a flooded street in San Juan, PR. I kind of love this photo because that would have been me.
Photo by Getty Images.
I want to start this out by thanking everyone that took the time to comment on my previous post. It is at times like this one that you realize who your true friends are. People that I have never met in person have reached out to see how Carlos and I are doing, and people that I once considered friends have stood out brilliantly for their lack of...anything. Even a kind word. It just makes me sad because it highlights how little people comprehend the magnitude of what happened.

Puerto Rico was destroyed. Its entire 110 x 45 miles: destroyed. 3.7 million people without electricity: the power grid needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Literally NO ONE on the island has electricity. Without electricity you can't cook. You can't keep food cold in the fridge. You can't get money out of ATMs. Without electricity you can't pay for goods at the store with your card or debit...you have to have money. Without electricity you have no security cameras. No street lights. No light to greet you at night in front of your door, to keep the darkness at bay. Nothing to show you the vagrant that is about to jump you to steal the $2 you might have in your pocket.

A San Juan resident sitting outside in the darkness post Hurricane Maria.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
I've been wanting to write an update but I have been having a really hard time with it because it involves slogging through photos. You can't understand the loss and grief I feel when you don't know what the island looked like before. The average American sadly thinks PR is part of Mexico, that we typically eat tacos (hint: we don't. And Despacito doesn't mention any goddamn tacos in the lyrics because it was composed by two Puerto Ricans! It's actually the most erotic song on the radio and I'm thrilled it's getting so much airplay in the US, but you don't know how incredible the song's lyrics are if you don't know Spanish), they don't know we are US citizens, they don't realize we are bilingual as a culture, they think we are all dark-skinned, etc, etc, etc. Unless they have visited the island or have friends that know better, the average American has the perception that Puerto Rico looks like...well, that it has always looked the way it does now.

Toa Alta, Puerto Rico, on the west side of the island.
Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/Getty Images
Downed electric posts everywhere.

More downed power lines. My mom described this on the phone to me: even concrete power lines had fallen, snapped liked twigs. My mom hasn't left Guaynabo since the storm. This photo was taken in Humacao, on the opposite side of the island, by Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters.
A woman inspects what remains of her home after Maria.
Photo originally from The Washington Post/Getty Images.

Dead horses on the side of a road in Toa Baja, PR.
Photo by Carlos Giusti, AP
Most of the island has no running water at the moment. You can't shower, flush toilets, do dishes...never mind having water to drink. People are resorting to mountain springs to get their drinking water. Note: not many people have the good fortune of living close to a mountain spring like this one.
Photo by Carolyn Coles/Getty Images
You can't understand a loss when you don't know what was lost to begin with.

This was my home. As a kid pre-parents' divorce, we lived in the US. My dad was in the Army. Every summer from the time I was born until I was 7 years old was spent in Puerto Rico with my mother's family, in this insanely green land of Spanish as a first language, of turquoise waters, of heat and humidity and my grandmother's cooking and the love of my aunts and the many sato dogs the family owned that I got to romp with. Love, Spanish and beauty were my own definition of Puerto Rico and as a child, I yearned for the day when we could just stay there.

I was 6 years old and eating a vanilla ice cream from McDonald's, a reward for good grades, the first time I heard Madonna's La Isla Bonita. We lived in San Antonio, TX at the time. It is such a vivid memory because I broke out into this enormous stupid grin, thinking, "Madonna is singing about Puerto Rico!"

Tropical the island breeze
All of nature wild and free
This is where I long to be
La isla bonita
And when the samba plays
The sun will set so high
Ring through my ears and sting my eyes
Your Spanish lullaby

It was the first radio song I learned the lyrics to so that I could sing along to every word. The song is, alas, not about Puerto Rico, but it perfectly summed up my feelings about my own island. To this day, to me, it is about Puerto Rico.

I got my fierce wish the summer I turned 8. Fate took my dad from me through the divorce in exchange, but I gained an entire island to call my home. Not just any island: my family's island. The island where the Torrech family has lived and owned land in for close to 500 years. My family history is intertwined with Puerto Rico's for 20 generations. There are streets and neighborhoods named after my great-grandparents and great-great grandparents. I wasn't born on the island, but its rhythm, the smell of its ocean breezes and its hot humidity are imprinted in my blood as much as if I had been.

The Taino natives called the island Boriquen. If you are from Boriquen, you are known as a boricua. Roy Brown is a Puerto Rican musician and composer who wrote a song inspired by Juan Antonio Corretjer's poem, "Boricua en la Luna" about Puerto Rican emigration to the US. It has become the anthem for generations of us that don't live on the island anymore. We will all tell you with pride: "Yo seria borincano aunque naciera en la luna."

I would be a boricua even if I had been born on the moon. 

I could drive around most parts of this island without a map (I lived there before GPS and smartphones) and always get where I needed to be, even if I was in a town I had never been in before. Before Carlos and I were together, we did our own separate adventuring where we would deliberately get lost on the island so that we could find our way around.  If you got lost, you'd always eventually make it to the beach.

The beach of Isla Verde. This is a tourist spot.
My middle school would take us to this beach for a yearly field trip in the spring. The water really is that color.
It might take you a couple of hours, but land always ended. Once on the coast, you could get to where you wanted to be if you truly had no idea.

Puerto Rico's central mountain range, La Cordillera. You can see the ocean in the background.

With my mountains.
At the Monumento Al Jibaro in the central mountain town of Cayey.

This little gem is the beach of Mar Chiquita in Manati. I used to surf here. Locals only for the most part. Most tourists will never get to see it in person unless they know a local that can take them there.

Everything that the light touched was mine. MINE. MY island.
I was standing on the volcanic rocks of one of Aguadilla's beaches looking out at the Atlantic on a hot stormy day, during my last summer living in Puerto Rico. The year was 2004. The photo was taken by my bestie at the time, Breda.

A family sitting on top of the roof of their Maria-damaged house in Yabucoa, a mountain town. That mountain is part of La Cordillera. It's supposed to be green.
Photo by Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

An enormous and very nice house teetering on the very edge of the remaining land around it after a landslide in the mountain town of Corozal. Again, note the leafless trees.
Photo by Ricardo Arduengo/Getty

This is in San Juan.
Getty Images

Also in San Juan
Getty Images

I knew every corner of Old San Juan because I walked it in its entirety nearly every weekend for 18 years. My mom and the aunts taught at one of the art schools there every Saturday. I loved heading to El Meson for lunch for one of their shaved turkey and cabbage sandwiches, with a side of thick sliced homemade fries and a cafecito. I flew kites in the rolling green fields of the great Spanish castle of El Morro as a kid...and later as an adult.

I ran down those hills so many times. I flung myself on the grass and rolled down it in sheer joy. It always looked so soft and velvety from a distance...and it was, up close.
I always wanted to gallop a horse on them because  you actually could!

Carlos sitting on the fortress wall surrounding the El Morro green. That's the San Juan cemetery in the background. Lauren has posted photos of it on her blog!

Paseo de la Princesa in Old San Juan
This was my favorite part of the city. It's a gorgeous path that runs along the San Juan Bay that takes you from one of San Juan's big public parking lots all the way to El Morro. I used to make a point of using that specific parking lot so I could walk El Paseo, even when it meant taking longer to get to the art school, because it is so beautiful.

The fountain from the above photo. This photo is mine, taken with my SLR in 2003 for a photography contest.

Paseo de la Princesa at dusk. It was such a romantic spot at this time of day.
And yes, I did take advantage of that with exes!

This is a highly enhanced stock photo, but it's the spot where El Paseo de la Princesa comes even with the fortress walls of El Morro.

Paseo de la Princesa
My mom brought the art school kids to draw here so many times during summer camp. These excursions were my favorites because it meant spending hours under the shade of these old ceiba trees overlooking the water.

Paseo de la Princesa at night

And...this is it after Hurricane Maria.

Paseo de la Princesa after Maria

The "before" of this is the series of photos above. See if you can recognize it.

This was a concrete building near the docks in San Juan, in the area called Puerta de Tierra.

This scene is from Condado, just outside of Old San Juan.
Fun fact: Category 4 winds can flip cars. They can also leave cows hanging from telephone posts. I saw a photo of that on a friend's Facebook feed but it was too gnarly to re-share here.

The University of Puerto Rico's Rio Piedras campus is the oldest university on the island and it has existed since 1903. It has the largest and most diverse academic offerings of both PR and the Caribbean as a whole, with 472 academic programs of which 32 lead to doctorate degrees. 

The historical bell tower of the University of PR's Rio Piedras campus. It was one of the first buildings built on the school grounds.

A view of the path towards the tower.

I completed my bachelor's degree there. By island standards, it is the equivalent of studying at Yale or Harvard in the US: most of the island's greatest doctors, scientists, civil rights activists, anthropologists, engineers, historians, Puerto Ricans that have made a historic difference both at the local island level and at the national US level, all earned their degrees at the University of Puerto Rico. As a University of PR student, your student ID number becomes as important and as part of your identity as your social security number. Ask any UPR graduate what their student number was...they will be able to recite it to you by heart, even decades after having graduated. Going to La UPI (as we call it) is an enormous honor. You wear that badge with pride. You are Someone. 

Entrance to the Liberal Arts Department

I loved that university. It was my second home. I spent countless hours of both day and night studying there, I ran around campus when I had long waits between classes, I played the guitar in the student lounge, I sketched passersby while sitting under a tree in Peyton's Place or on the deck of the old theater after it was shut down for remodeling. I took naps on its benches during finals week with my backpack as my pillow and a sweater over my head, and I had lunch and dinner at El Pollo Tropical in the Students' Center while memorizing Haiti's sordid history. I was known around campus as the girl that owned the backpack with a license plate screwed onto it #artist #rebel  because it was my excuse for walking in the middle of the street whenever I felt like it. 

Entrance to the General Studies department. As students, we all started our majors through here: it was the building where we generally took our pre-reqs.

I had my physicals done at the university medical center because we got free healthcare through the university as students. I made long lines for books and financial aid and learned that being sweet to government employees will get you much farther much faster than being impatient with them. (The UPR is owned and run by the PR government because it is a public institution. We used to joke that the vogons in Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy were a parody of PR government bureaucracy.) I ate vegetarian meals and fruit with yogurt from La Carpa, the little veggie/organic stand near the Liberal Arts Department that was run by a group of students. I took two semesters of fencing as an elective and kicked butt at it, and spent so many hours sparring with classmates at the end of the day after classes were over. I honed my swimming skills in the Olympic pools of the university gymnasium so I could be that much better at surfing. Puerto Rico might be warm year-round but that pool water was icy on chilly December mornings! I heard the news of 9/11 while coming out of a Sociology class in the General Studies Department and ran to the Student's Center with a flood of other students to watch the news on the giant TV screen in the main lounge area. I saw the planes crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center while standing in the University of Puerto Rico. Our world was as shaken by that scene as anyone's on the mainland: we have always been very much aware that we belong to the US and as college students, we all feared a draft if there was another world war. Puerto Ricans are always drafted first. 

Staircase inside the multi-level Student's Center (Centro de Estudiantes) of the UPR.

Centro de Estudiantes. The wrought iron walls were designed by Henry Klumb, a German architect who was one of PR's most prominent architects during the mid 1900's.

The section in italics below is a translation from here. The writer entered the UPR only a year after me and her experiences parallel mine so much that I'm just quoting her because she says it all so perfectly. 

For the next few years, I lived the best moments of my life. And it's just that La Upi was so much more than a university. La Upi was an experience. I met all kinds of people from all areas of the island: I carried flies from the lab, I explored all of Rio Piedras, I ate food from every "chinchorro" you can imagine, I went to so many theater plays...I discovered myself. 

I had professors of all types: passionate, bored, enthused, fanatical. While I studied in La Upi, I fell in love with El Cid Campeador; I hated math more than ever [me too, girl. Me too!], I almost failed the pottery class because the clay and I didn't get along and everything came out horrible (the professor gave me an A- for effort despite me being "the worst potterist he had ever met".) [This was me with fucking Philosophy. Ugh!] I walked through all of the campus libraries [yes, plural!], eating books with an incredible pleasure. I pulled all-nighters studying or in group meetings. I was vice president of a student association that would later open doors for me professionally. What didn't I do in La Upi! And it's just that I wanted it: I had this enormous desire to learn, to study, to educate myself. I didn't care about anything else. And during those four years I took advantage of every second of it, living the best experiences of my life until today. 

The University theater

While I studied in La Upi there were thousands of events: 9/11, protests, strikes...I went to assemblies, I voted, I supported causes that I thought were fair and when I didn't agree with a cause, I would meet up with the professors at the Burger King to have coffee and listen to that day's lecture. The best thing about La Upi is that it teaches you to be an individual with a voice. It opens your mind up to new things, to ideals. It instructs you and gives you the tools so you can decide for yourself what matters to you and what doesn't.

Strike at the UPR. 
If you're not a warrior when you are admitted into this university, you are most certainly one when you graduate from it.

But you only learn that when you immerse yourself in the University, when you let the experience live within you. You learn that YOU make your own decisions in life, that no one can impose ideals upon you: you impose those ideals on yourself. I graduated magna cum laude, not because I was a nerd, but because I lived my college life to the utmost maximum: I took pleasure in it, I valued it, I enjoyed it.

I could have written all of that. I too, graduated magna cum laude because I studied and lived and experienced everything that La Upi was with a...a driven viciousness and hunger unlike anything I had felt before in my life. I learned what it was like to be passionate about life and ideas and causes. And I too started discovering who I was as a person and what I wanted to do with my life within the walls and hallways of the University of Puerto Rico. La Upi is what initially molded the fighting outspoken (when the cause warrants it) bitch warrior woman that I am today. When I go off on a fierce tangent about something I'm passionate about, that's my Upi warrior side coming out. I fought hard to turn into the person I am today. This is mi mancha de platano, my plantain stain from the island as we say over there, showing through.  I'm not apologizing for who and what I am so either deal with it or bye-bye. #notsorry 

I started out volunteering at the University museum...the museum that would become my first full-time job. The museum that created a position just for me: the Museum of History, Anthropology and Art. It is the oldest museum on the island, founded in 1951. It is like saying I worked at the Smithsonian. It Meant Something. 

El Museo de Historia, Antropologia y Arte

Inside the exhibit hall of El Museo with my supervisor and friend Lionel, standing in front of the famous historic oil painting of El Velorio by Francisco Oller. Lionel was one of those key men in my life who changed it just by being in it. 
As of this writing, he is one of the ones I haven't heard from after Maria. I don't know if he is alive.

This university has stood for over a century. I can't explain to you what I felt when I stumbled upon these photos.

A view of the tower from outside the university's main entrance after the hurricane.

I won't deny that there is something comforting about seeing the tower still standing proud and tall despite the ravaged scenery around it. I could say it's symbolic but it's too soon to say of what.

This building contained the Natural Sciences laboratories. 
have friends that have dedicated their careers to research here...and it's all gone. Now, pay attention to this photo. Note the materials the walls are built of. This is how houses in Florida are built. You can't build homes out of concrete and brick in Florida because they will sink in the swamp. This fact always gave me chills when we were facing a hurricane while living over there because after living on the island with its concrete houses, you already know what this photo shows: this gives you an idea of how Florida would fare during a hurricane of this magnitude. The difference: in Florida you can get in your car and get the heck out of dodge for the price of a tank of gas. In PR, you have to get on an airplane if you want to flee, which involves a helluva lot more money and planning since airports on the island close up to 48 hours before storms arrive.

There are more photos of damage but you can't comprehend it unless you've seen the "before", and I can't find good photos of the "before." The saving grace is that most of the 100-year-old buildings of La Upi are standing. But the annexes, expansions and additions to the old buildings are mostly gone...which is at least half of the university buildings.

The university can be rebuilt, and it will be. The problem is when. When will it be rebuilt? My eldest aunt is a professor at La Upi. She is the head of household in terms of income. Until the university opens again, she has no job to go to. No income. No way to pay the bills that are still going to be due. 

And the problem is that she isn't the only one. 3.7 million people that live on the island are in the same boat.

And the University isn't a priority. Basic needs are a priority right now.

The entire island is without power. All of it. The entire power grid is demolished. Why is this a problem? Because the island was already bankrupt (read that article. It explains our current president's view on the matter as well. Shocker) thanks to so many loopholes in US laws that were originally beneficial to the US but have have slowly strangled Puerto Rico's economy over the last few decades. This is another article on the subject, with the reasons behind the island's economic crisis bulleted and explained in layman's terms. It also explains the Jones Act, which has been an enormous source of outcry right now if you've been keeping up with my personal Facebook feed.  

So anyway, the Autoridad de Energia Electrica, the electricity company that supplies power to the entire island, declared bankruptcy earlier this year. 

The entire power grid in Puerto Rico was destroyed by Hurricane Maria.

Electricity posts on the ground after Maria's passage.

The little light you see in the "post" photo is from areas where people have generators.

Which means that the entire power grid needs to be rebuilt from scratch. Do you understand that? These people have nowhere to go, and all of them are without electricity. And there is no money to fix it with because the USA won't forgive the island's debt like it did Detroit's. Remember: PR is a US territory. We are US citizens whether born on the mainland or on the island. Why can't we receive the same benefits as a state? Because of a tiny amendment to a law in 1984 that stripped both PR and DC from being able to declare bankruptcy under Chapter 9. John Oliver explains it pretty well here

How long before the power grid is restored, if the US is able to help? We're looking at 6 months maybe. Possibly longer for some areas of the island. This actually could be a hidden blessing: if the US does step in and helps re-build the power grid, it will be a fantastically awesome thing for the island because they will have a shiny brand-new fully functional source of electricity so they don't have constant blackouts anymore (a common thing prior to this storm.) But given the current presidency, no one is holding their breath on that one.

Six months without electricity, without light, without air conditioning, without fans, without running refrigerators, without stoves and ovens, without a source to charge your cell phone.

Cell phones...what a joke. 

You know what else happens during a Category 4 storm? Cell phone towers get destroyed. There is no cell phone signal after a major hurricane. This was seen during Harvey and Irma. The benefit of being a state attached to the mainland is that help can drive in and stuff like cell towers can get back up and running fairly quickly because people from the state next door can just come in and help. After Hurricane Georges in 1998, a very strong Cat 3 that hit the island while I still lived there, we had no cell signal for weeks at our house. I discovered that if I sat at the top of our swimming pool slide, I could pick up a signal. So we would all take turns clambering to the top of the slide so we could communicate with people. It was a ridiculous sight but you did what you had to do in order to do something basic like just fucking communicate.

Do you know what that is like?

When you are on an island surrounded by water, and the entire island is destroyed, and you need outside help in order to just be able to begin recovering, things tend to take a lot longer than they would on the mainland: they are that much more difficult because the only way to get there to provide aid is via plane or boat.

So. They have no cell signal. Except in some of the most random spots you can imagine.  These bizarre scenes have been described to me over and over again by friends and family living on the island and through stories posted on Facebook time and again since Maria:

This is a traffic jam next to a cell phone tower: everyone has stopped to try to find signal so they can call friends and family elsewhere on the island and on the mainland to let them know they are okay. And also to get news from the outside on what the hell is going on in PR. Those of us on the outside are the ones informing the ones on the inside about what is happening in their own land. It's fucking crazy.
Photo from here.

People trying to find cell signal next to a phone tower. 
Photo from here.

It's gotten a tiny bit better. One of the island's local cell companies, Claro, has been working hard to put up emergency towers so they can provide signal to ALL residents regardless of cell carriers. All people have to do is turn their cell phones off for 10 seconds and turn them back on in order to pick up Claro's signal. It's still massively dicey and they can't do stuff we take for granted like open links or see photos on their phones or use GPS, but they can text to a degree and for whatever reason Facebook Messenger is even easier than texting thanks to it being low data or whatever. I don't know the explanation, I just know that I am able to talk to friends and family on the island who have data on their phones via Messenger with a lot more ease than I can reach them via text. It's not instant: they can only communicate at odd times when they have signal, but the messages are a lot more likely to make it through than text. Sometimes it takes 24-48 hours to hear back from someone. Why? Because they still have to actively go out hunting for a goddamn cell signal. Have you ever had to do that while living at home in the middle of a 21st century city in America?

Okay, back to Claro's awesome efforts: so you only have two radio stations transmitting news locally on the island. That's it. And that's IF you have a battery-operated radio to hear it with. Nowadays people forget about this little basic thing that you should always have around in case you lose power in a storm: a battery-operated radio will be your one link to what is going on in the outside world. (And yes, we do have a small cheapo battery radio that we keep in the house in case we ever lose power in a blizzard.) The problem is that the battery-operated radio only works if you still have batteries. Why is this a problem? Because there aren't batteries left in the stores. And that's if you could even make it to the store, because you need to drive to the store and there is no gas to fuel your car with. And even if there was gas, there is no electricity to pump it with. Unless the gas station has a generator...but remember: there is no gas, so no generator. (I'll get back to this in a minute.) But all of that aside: people can't go on the internet and they can't watch the news on TV and they can't call loved ones or receive phone calls because, guess what? Most people in PR, just like people on the mainland, have no landlines anymore. (A good portion of PR's landlines run underground: it was our saving grace during hurricanes up until the late 90's.) It's mostly cell now. So you have this cell phone company that is providing signal for everyone but you have to turn your phone off for 10 seconds and turn it back on in order to pick up the signal. But guess what? If you live on the island, YOU HAVE NO WAY OF KNOWING THAT! So here I am, knowing this news because I read it online and desperately trying to reach everyone I know through text, phone call, Messenger, Facebook, to tell them, "Hey!!! Turn off your phone for 10 seconds and turn it back on! Your signal should be better!"

It took 2 days to get that small piece of information out to the people I care about. I wanted to scream.

And it did get better. I mean, now my 65-year old mom can hike up a hill and talk to me for 5 minutes vs not being able to talk on the phone at all no matter where she went. Now my friend Alice can message me on a more-or-less daily basis.

So yeah: "better" is only relative because it is an improvement from "nothing." It's nowhere near what we consider "normal." Mmmkay? Just to make that clear. I can't just call at any time of day and know that my mom or the aunts will be able to pick up the phone. It doesn't work that way right now and no one knows when and if it will ever be that way again. Every time I call and am sent directly to voicemail, it's like hitting a brick wall because it means "No signal." 

If I sound combative it's because I'm trying not to bawl while typing all of this out. I'm more coherent if I get angry.

So on the gasoline issue.

You know how before storms they tell you to fill the tank? Part of it is because if power is lost, you can't fill your tank. Gas stations need electricity of some sort for the pumps to work. Also with natural disasters, it can be hard to refill gas stations if there are road closures/blockages. So you might not have gas for a while post natural disaster if fuel runs out because everyone in creation filled their tanks like they're supposed to prior to said natural disaster. The advantage of the mainland is that eventually gas will come to you, even if it's from another state, as soon as the roads are cleared. 

When you're on an island, that gas has to be shipped and then distributed, and then driven to the individual gas stations. When you live on a tropical island and every single road is covered in water or mud or rocks or trees that need to be removed in order to be able to move around, that can take a minute. This is the current status of cleared roads in PR. It's not very comforting.

It can be even harder when some of the roads look like this.
This is Highway 10 in Utuado and it's kind of important: it connects the northwest and southwest parts of the island. It's one of the routes through which help from the more heavily urbanized northern coast would need to travel to help the people in the south. You know what else you can't transport if you can't use the roads? Stuff like food and medicine. There are literally people dying on parts of the island, stuck in their homes, in hospitals, because they have nothing. Nothing. No food, no water, no medication (think insulin, which oh by the way, needs to be refrigerated). We're not talking about just gasoline here. Photo from here.

The gasoline situation has been a nightmare. Since there is so little, it is being rationed. You need gas in order to drive your car to get more food and water, and you need gas to run your generator. You also basically need gas in order to charge your phone. 

So then you get into a situation like this one, where you have a little bit of gas in the tank, and you spend a chunk of it while waiting in line at the gas station FOR HOURS in the sun (because there is no shade now: no trees, and the remaining trees have no leaves.) Even if you turn off the car while waiting, you have to turn it back on to move forward. When you only have 1/4 of a tank to begin with, that can go fast:

This photo and caption are by my uncle's wife. Those are my hometown's mountains in the background. 
This traffic jam is a line for gas at a gas station on Calle Martinez Nadal.
"Day 8, yet another long wait for gasoline (4.5 hours) but it has to be done in order to be partially functional. While I wait in one line, Rafa [my uncle] waits in another on foot, as only $30 of gas are served per client. [That's more than the norm at the moment; a lot of gas stations are only allowing $10 worth. Gas is more expensive in PR than here on the mainland btw, because it has to be shipped in.] Water service returned yesterday to our house (not drinkable but very useful). You may laugh but it was amazing to flush toilets rather than using a bucket. Trying to do as much as possible before the fuel runs out for the generator used by the water authority to pump water. Another day another accomplishment. WE WILL RISE! WE WILL SUCCEED! Love you all!"

People that live in the greater urban areas around San Juan like my family are more fortunate: they are the first to have supplies re-stocked, they have been the first to have running water re-established (my whole family currently has running water, even if it means they can't drink it. No electricity means no way of cleaning running water at the plants), they will be the first to have electricity whenever that time comes, they are the ones with the best phone signal, and they are the ones that were the first to be able to communicate with the outside world.

People in line to fill up  gas cans in San Juan.
Photo from the internet.

My friend Alice and her wife, waiting in line to fill up gas cans in Guaynabo. They aren't poor people: Alice is an established personal trainer that runs her own business. She has celebrity clients. One of them has competed at the international level. Her wife is a lawyer. Everyone has to do this to get gas, regardless of social class and status.

That's maybe 25% of the island. 75% of the island is not that fortunate. They have nothing. There are people stuck on rooftops surrounded by flood waters with no food and no shade, no escape and no help on the way because help hasn't been able to make it that far inland yet. Articles like this one are devastatingThere are people dying, literally dying, in hospitals because there is no gas for their generators so there is no electricity to provide oxygen, there is no electricity for ventilators to breathe for them, to run dialysis machines with. There are people already dead rotting in their homes with no means of removing the bodies and burying them. 

Supposedly 10-14 people died during the storm (the number depends on the source). They haven't said yet how many have died afterwards but they are many. The stories are all over Facebook: grandparents, uncles and aunts, parents, elderly or gravely ill people who have already died and their living family members here on the mainland can do nothing about it. 

There are dead people that can't be buried because no one can get to them to remove the bodies. And that's just people. Let's not even talk about the hundreds of dead dogs (feral dogs are a thing in Puerto Rico), cattle, horses lying everywhere. Anything that couldn't be brought in, died. 

Do you understand that? Do you comprehend what that implies? Combine dead bodies with rats and flies and mosquitoes and stagnant water everywhere under the hot humid tropical sun and you have the recipe for epidemics like typhoid fever and diseases like leptospirosis, both of which are very real concerns right now.

These people can't get away from this because they are surrounded by water on all sides!!!

So let me tell you about the little that is had by those that have the most. 

I spoke to my mom on Tuesday this week. Ever since getting the signal from Claro, she is able to hike up a hill in the neighborhood and call. The signal isn't great so time on the phone is limited. Once signal is lost, it's gone. 

Her stories and updates previously via phone and text had revolved around cleaning, about getting the house back in order, about the neighbors helping one another out (she lives in an awesome community where everyone knows everyone and treats one another like family), about civilians doing clean-up themselves so that the brigades could make it in to do the grunt work. 

This time her stories revolved around other things: about not being able to sleep because it is so oppressively hot at night. The long, long, long lines to get gas, only to be able to buy $10 worth of it. Going to the grocery store, and the long line to get in. She was escorted by an employee and in her case she was allowed to buy everything she needed...at other grocery stores, you are only allowed to buy a very limited amount of food. She described the empty aisles and the fact that the entire store smelled like death from the rotting perishables. The gas shortage is felt by everyone, which means grocery stores can't run generators the way they need to in order to keep the refrigerators going. So all of that is rotting. The trash can be taken out but there is no one to pick it up, nowhere to put it. There's nowhere for it to go. Their days revolve around looking for gas and water. You can only pay with cash because cards can't be run because no electricity. You wait for an hour in line at the ATM, only to finally get to it and realize that there is no money left in the machine. They have bills due but they have no way to pay them: they can't get online to pay them and they can't send a check via mail because the post office isn't working. She is in touch with my uncle; he was finally able to hack his way out of the driveway through the fallen trees. They are very fortunate. Most of the island is not. She realizes that she should have brought her flashlight, as night has fallen on the hill. I have this momentary flash of the stories I'm hearing from the cities, where in some areas people are killing one another and robbing one another and looting, for food, for cash, and crying to the outside world, warning them (us) that you need to carry a weapon if you are venturing into the bigger urban areas on the island so you can defend yourself. I started to protest but Mom interrupted, "No, I'm not alone. There are more of us here making phone calls. It's just that we're all in the dark."

The mental picture of this group of people clustered on top of a hill in the darkness so they can call their loved ones with this tiny shred of cell signal is post-Apocalyptic. It's like something out of a sci-fi movie. Except it's real. 

She starts to tell me something else but cuts out mid-sentence. 

"Mom? Mom!" 

She cut back in right after I had gone silent.

"Nicole?" Her voice was tiny and sad and broken. It was one word, one second, and if the signal had not returned, I knew she would have given up and headed back down the hill.  That one word held the despair of having no way of communicating with one another, with the outside world, of combating the darkness with light, of combating the oppressing heat with air, of being able to have basic needs like food and drinkable water and gas to fuel your car and your generator with of having to make eternal lines in the hopes of finding some money left at the ATM or just to buy a loaf of bread and boxed milk at the store, of not being able to just get in the car and drive to get away from it all, of not being able to escape because you're surrounded on all sides by water, trapped in this small and utterly devastated land, with no end to the misery in sight.

And me here with my hands tied, unable to help her. It was one word, one second, that broke my heart into tiny little pieces because I heard the despair that she had been hiding so bravely.

"Mom! I'm here!'

"The signal broke," she said in a normal voice, instantly switching the channel, annoyance in her timbre as if she was talking about a fly that was bothering her and not the fact that she has to hike up this mountain in order to get maybe 5 minutes of dicey cell signal. 

I shoved aside the wave of emotion that had just slammed into me and talked to her in a normal voice myself, prompting her so she could continue telling me about all the horrors that I was getting wind of online. So that she could vent. And I asked her, I asked her if she would let us bring her here. We would get her a plane ticket now that flights were supposed to start again in October and get her out, if only temporarily, so she could take a break and be back in civilization in air conditioning with a functional refrigerator and warm food and light that can be turned on with a switch and endless amounts of water that you can just drink from the tap.

And she said no. She said no because she couldn't leave her sisters struggling alone, even for a week. My mom has always been the mom, to both my brother and me and now to her younger sisters. That's just who she is: she was born a caretaker. I understood but it didn't make me feel better. 

She started to tell me about something else, some funny story about her dogs to make both of us feel better. But then halfway through her sentence, the signal cut out again and she was gone. And this time it did not return.

I waited for a moment to see if she would be able to call me back. When she didn't, I tried myself. I called her phone and the aunts' and no answer or I was sent directly to voicemail. I called and called and finally gave up.

And all I could think of was her tiny broken voice calling my name over and over into the dead phone, before turning around and heading back down the hill home through the darkness. And I couldn't do anything about it.

Making breakfast together during one of her visits, back when Carlos and I lived in South FL.

I had walked into the bedroom during this conversation and stood next to one of the windows, as if me moving around the house would help my mom find a better signal on her end. As if me standing next to the outside would keep the signal from fading. 

I now walked back out into the living room where Carlos was, and he looked up in alarm because apparently I had gone white as a sheet.

You guys, my mom isn't just my mom. She is my best friend. Ever since moving to the mainland, one of the perks anytime I had a long commute was being able to spend all of it talking to her on the phone while en route to work in the mornings and sometimes on the way back home in the evenings too. We talk about everything: work, art, our animals, my adventures here, her adventures there, politics, family, personal issues, religion, existentialism. We laugh together, we cry together, we give one another advice, we pick one another up when the other one is down, and sometimes we just hang out on the phone in silence because we have nothing to say but even across the distance we can keep one another company. She is my best friend.  

In Rincon, PR during our last visit to the island way too long ago.

She was the one that walked me down the aisle at our wedding.

We later went to the grocery store. I walked into the lit, air conditioned beauty of Wegmans with its fresh colorful produce and aisles fully stocked with more choices of every item than you knew what to do with. And I felt guilty because I had all of this, and I wanted to share it, I would have sent it all if I could have...and I couldn't. Because USPS isn't delivering mail yet. You have to have clear roads in order for employees to get to work and to be able to make deliveries. You have to have gas in order to be able to go to work. You have to have electricity to use the computers and make sure everything gets where it needs to, so packages don't get lost in transit. If you don't have electricity, you then need gas to run a generator. But if you don't have gas, you can't run the generator, can you? In case you haven't noticed yet, it's this crazy, insane, never-ending vicious self-perpetuating cycle of total futility. 

I was standing in the middle of the produce aisle when I burst into tears. I just started sobbing because I felt so useless. Carlos held me while I bawled uncontrollably. It is so...so stupid, so idiotic that I can't do anything to help. The thing is, I'm not the only one that feels this way. There are 5 million Puerto Ricans living on the mainland right now, worried sick because they can't do anything to help their friends and family back home. 

This was written by the friend of a cousin who lives in L.A., CA:

"I started this post in Spanish but I feel like I have so many friends in the US that I can't just not communicate this in English since everyone showed so much support during the insane odyssey I went on a few days ago [this man bought a plane ticket and got permission from Delta for unlimited pounds of cargo so he could get an enormous shipment of donated goods and supplies to the island in person]. My people are dying. I'm trying to not be a hysterical asshat but I keep getting constant messages and phone calls of friends that are on site and are explaining the current situation that we're facing. The elderly are dying from either no power for dialysis or respiratory equipment, dead bodies being pulled out from flooded homes, a friend went to the central region today with supplies (Utuado) and told me children were drinking water from the roof gutters to survive, medicine as simple as Advil is quite the commodity. Every time I eat a hot meal, I pull over at an empty gas station, I shop at a fully stocked market...I can't stop thinking about those folks that are hunting down food, don't have enough gas to go find supplies, wait hours to get into supermarkets to find empty aisles. Man...these last few days have been the uttermost soulsucking days of my entire life...I'm glad I got both my parents out and my sister and nephew will be on their way here Monday but fuck...There's still so much more to do, my fellow boricuas... Please, please, please step things up to help your people out. Tu tierra te necesita brother..."

My family has a P.O. box at one of the big post offices...that is not yet open. I'm trying to see if they can open a box at any of the other post offices that are currently open (24 of 174 as of 9/28/17). The problem again is getting to the post office when you barely have gas in the tank, and then having cash to open a box when you need cash for so many other essential things like drinking water, and cash has run out. You can't get more out of the ATM because the ATM doesn't work because no power. Remember?

Do you see my quandary? So I asked, but I still felt like an idiot asking: "Do you guys think you can open a box at the Guaynabo post office so I can get stuff to you?" Because that's $40 that could buy them gas four times. And I can't even send them the money for it. Not yet at least. With more grocery stores opening, I'm hoping that wiring money becomes a possibility again in the near future...

What did they respond? I haven't heard back from them yet. I'm hoping maybe tomorrow.

Supplies are being sent to the island by organizations, groups and individuals trying to provide aid in the form of donations. This stuff is supposed to be free to be distributed to Puerto Ricans on the island because they are donations. The news we are getting back is that these containers of donations, and also others with regular shipments of food, water, and gasoline that would normally make their way to stores and gas stations in a timely manner, are not being distributed, even now that more of the main roads have been cleared. I have no idea what the real deal is, as there are so many mixed stories coming from reporters and the island news and locals that it's getting more and more difficult to sort through it.  One rumor says the island's truck driver union is on strike, protesting the PR governor (I don't know why and it's one of the things that I haven't researched because 1. there is so much more I'm trying to keep up with and 2. I honestly don't care about their reasons for the strike: it's idiotic given the circumstances and it's just going to make me angrier over a situation I can do nothing about.) Another says that volunteer drivers with CDL licenses, both from the island and those who are flying in from the US in some instances are being turned away...one theory on this says that it's because no one knows who it is that they're supposed to be reporting themselves to. I'm having a hard time wrapping my head around that one, but there are heated discussions on Facebook on the subject. Others say it's related to the whole thing with the Jones Act, but I don't understand what that has to do with distributing goods after they have arrived at port. The US military have arrived on the island and are helping out, but I don't know why they are not getting involved with the distribution and shipping of supplies that are just sitting at ports and airports. (Maybe they are now as I'm typing this...one can only hope.) The island's Coast Guard and National Guard members are also on duty...so I don't know. There is fake news related to this and the stories from locals are hair-raising: the current PR government is quite corrupt and my fear is that they are going to steal the supplies and try to sell them at exorbitant prices or use them as a means to control people in a land where they now have absolutely nothing. It's happened in other parts of the Caribbean. There's no reason why it wouldn't happen in PR now. We're just praying that the US continues to intervene to keep this from happening.

But this is why I want to make sure that anything I ship to my family is shipped directly to them. I'm not sending no container on a cargo ship only to have it sit in a port and then have those supplies used to extort people that have lost everything. Another cousin bought a plane ticket, got the permission for several hundred pounds of cargo, watched the cargo go on the plane and never got on the plane himself. He just sent the flight info to his family so they could pick up the supplies on the other side. I am seriously looking into this option. There are not a lot of flights leaving D.C. to PR right now, but they are in the $300 range which is perfectly reasonable given the circumstances. 

And that is where we are at right now. 

I cry every day. Every goddamn day. 

This is making the rounds on my fellow mainland Puerto Ricans' Facebook walls:

"Well meaning human: 'Hey, I heard about Puerto Rico. How are you doing?'

Me internally: 'I cry myself to sleep every night out of shock from seeing awful pictures, worry about people who lost material needs they can't afford to recover, guilt that I'm not with my family, feeling of impotence like I'm some sort of small and helpless fly, stress from the semester, pressure to focus and do well because at the end of the day that's the best way I can be of use, anger because the US President doesn't give a damn about my home and points out that we are greatly in debt even though the colonial status and its stupid, restrictive laws imposed on us, combined with them lending absurd amounts of money at absurd interest rates to corrupt governors, knowing that the island wasn't able to pay it back, are what got us there in the first place...and also chronic, worsening depression.'

Me to them: 'I'm okay, all my family is okay. Thanks for asking.'"


I get a little bit of hope sometimes when I see videos like this one:

This is what some people are doing while waiting in line for gas.

Fighting the darkness with music.

I see videos like these and I smile and think fiercely, "GO PUERTO RICO, GO!!!" And pray and hope that the sense of community and family that we are known for prevail in the long run. Because the stories of areas that are already turning into scenes out of Mad Max or Walking Dead with people fighting and killing one another over gas and food chill me to the bone.

My closest cousin, another Puerto Rican living on the mainland, posted this last night. I nodded and reposted. The caption read, "Hurricane Maria aftermath."