Surviving a Double Hurricane (a first person report of the Puerto Rico disaster by Heather Cooke)

Heather Cooke graduated with an environmental science degree from George Mason University and studied marine biology. She is now a dive instructor and runs Culebra Divers on Culebra Island. This article was written during brief moments of power on Culebra Island.

As General Manager of Culebra Divers in Culebra, Puerto Rico for the last 2.5 years, I have enjoyed our semi-arid island with its brief storms. Known for one of the safer harbors in the Caribbean, my husband and I watched tropical storm after tropical storm and hurricane after hurricane pass us by. What I am writing is based on our experiences and what others around me have experienced or shared from their families on our sister islands.

Culebra the smallest of 3 islands that make up what you know as Puerto Rico (the “mainland”, Vieques, and us) and we’re 17 miles from the mainland itself.  To get here you fly from San Juan or take a ferry from the mainland’s east coast. We get all our food and fuel via that same ferry system. Our water and power travel under the ocean from the mainland through Vieques and then to us so if anything happens to either of those islands, we are screwed.  The island has a rag tag rental generator and no desalination plant.

As I write this, it has been 34 days since Maria and 48 since Irma and we still lack non-generator power, reliable daily water, and cell service not provided by some other island.

First thing to know about hurricanes – they are loud. Very loud.  People board up their homes using steel shutters or literally boards.  The winds are so powerful that everything vibrates, and it sounds like a train is coming through your house.  We have a concrete home with a concrete roof so despite this being our first experience(s), we weren’t overly concerned for the main structure. But you do have to worry about flying debris which we heard hitting the house and that is crazy scary. Irma hit us during the day and since she ended up being a category 1-3 based on what we’ve heard, we could watch her through a few windows that were safe enough to leave unblocked.  Young trees uprooted, plants tumbled by, a satellite dish ended up on our yard that wasn’t ours, and rain blew horizontally. When Maria hit two weeks later to the day, she started at night and sleep was a non-starter. Being a category 4, the pressure in your ears was worse and with the deafening noise from our shutters, I felt like we were in the movie Twister. We moved from room to room trying to figure out where the safest place was to “sleep”. Thus, we just kept moving around all night. We finally started vacuuming up the water that was seeping under all the doors and around the shutters at 5am.  We were lucky; we only had inches of standing water. We peaked under the freshly added window coverings for those previously unadorned windows and watched trees get re-uprooted in the opposite direction, held on only by some stakes that somehow stayed in the ground.  More satellite dishes (hurricanes are hell on satellite dishes), and water blowing in all directions, hitting so hard it stung. How do we know that tidbit? We have a small dog, so we had to stick our heads outside to see if we could let her go out and also for those obligatory selfies. While we got the photos and painful facials; she blew a little to the side as she tried to do her business. Didn’t think about that did you? 24 hours of dangerous weather and someone has to go #2 outside.

After both storms we took an inventory of life around us. Deciduous trees were broken and 95% were stripped of all greenery. Plants were barren, broken, or plain disappeared; sucked up like they never were.  And everything falls over.  Tin roofs and debris that don’t belong to you end up in your yard but don’t worry – something of yours ends up on someone else’s car. Most of our roads were passable but with the heavier rain of Maria, many were flooded.  Wood homes and trailers either stand tall or implode and we had both of it here, with people’s possessions flung everywhere.

After Irma our water kept flowing and our power, cellular, and Internet were out for only a few days although with that, we felt very cut off.  The community found a high spot on the island that faced mainland PR where we were able to use cell towers there to call family and friends, make FB posts to let people know we were still kicking and post funny cat memes. When Maria hit, she took out any remaining power systems and water pumps that the mainland and Vieques had, both of which were fragile to begin with.  To this day, we get our phone/data signals off of a barge from St. Thomas which you can get driving opposite ends of the island and sitting on hot, uncovered hills. Remember gas and diesel come via ferry hopefully weekly, so fuel for cars and personal generators (if you are lucky enough to have one) is precious.  Electricity was shut off the night of Maria to ward off live electrical wires and as of today, we get power from 6:30ish pm to 7am daily.  I say “ish” because some days it’s later or not at all if the island generator runs out of fuel. FYI, it gets dark here year-round starting at about 6:15pm. Water stopped the night of Maria so we’ve been flushing and bathing via buckets and jugs and whatever other means we have. Its delivery to our homes has no schedule, we either get it or we don’t. It all depends on whether Vieques releases it to us and there are way too many rumors as to why that does or doesn’t happen.  Most of our island has working power lines now, but not all.  Most of our island receives sporadic water now, but not all. So, we rely on cisterns, rainwater, and oasis or potable water cisterns situated in a few spots where we can fill jugs and containers. I’ve become quite adept at doing laundry in coolers.

Just consider living day to day with no running water and no daytime power.  You can’t rebuild or properly paint or clean because you have no power or water for either. Businesses can barely communicate with the mainland to order supplies nor can they power and maintain what they have which means people have been laid off for the foreseeable future. Tourism won’t be allowed to resume until these basic necessities are strong enough to support both the tourists and us.  Mail has just started trickling in as has UPS so all those supplies we typically get from Amazon (go Prime) that sustain us, and those lovely care packages, are taking weeks to get here.

We were able to visit some reefs yesterday and saw devastation on par with expectations.  Shallow reefs were bare rock with little color in the way of soft corals, fans, whips, and seagrasses a meager version of their previous selves.  Deeper reefs still revealed huge tumbled brain corals and tube sponges and mysterious dead trees here and there but maintained more of their grasses and softer life. Both still had fish and rays although our infamous turtles appeared to be missing.

So, what does relief look like? Do you think it is Trump throwing paper towels and visiting one town? Don’t get me started… The estimates vary, but word is we won’t have running water and non-generator power for 4-6, or even maybe 10 months.  Remember we are 100% reliant on everyone else getting their act together before we can be up and running.  There’s so much positive happening on the mainland according to the media, right? Consider this: Culebra has maybe 2500 residents but Vieques and mainland PR have approximately 9,300 and 3.4 million respectively.  So, we wonder when we are slated to get some attention.  It became a war zone on the two bigger islands as food supplies and fuel started running out and the looting began.  We are still having difficulty leaving Culebra as our little airport has no communication with San Juan International, so once again, the left hand doesn’t know what the right is doing.  Even taking the ferry is a bigger crapshoot than usual as you can’t prepare a taxi in advance and there are no streetlights on the mainland.

FEMA – which I used to envision as a combination of the Justice League and the Avengers – has actually been people in polo shirts trying to understand their own forms.  Which they in turn tell us we need to finalize via phone and the web [forehead smack].  Red Cross came this week for a day or so, but we missed whatever it was they did.  We saw a few Army Corps of Engineers here and there and some military guys.  Quite frankly, the coolest part of all of this has been watching all the military helicopters flying in and out and dropping supplies.

But no one is rebuilding our power grid, no one is dropping off a new island generator to replace our shoddy backup one, no one is finishing our desalination plant, which has been sitting in some form of non-completion for 5 years.  Don’t get me wrong, our friends and we are eternally grateful to those that are here and helping in any way they can. There are wonderful locals who hand out rations nearly every day and who are cleaning up our roads; but there isn’t a soul from the US that I see doing something amazing to make Culebra great again.  Where is everyone?

Here is the ray of sunshine: our friends and neighbors are rallying around each other, cleaning up yards and spending more quality time together. As no one can walk around with his or her nose in their phone anymore, we pick our heads up and drop in on each other all the time to say hi and hang out. The beach, which is taken for granted just like your own local attractions, is now the afternoon meeting place for folks to sit for a few hours and just try to feel “normal” again. We cook each other dinner or have game night. I’ve never enjoyed not having the pressure to post on Facebook or to respond to the pinging of another text so much in my life even as I miss the connection with all our friends and family back in the States.

But …

If the media is telling you fuel is plentiful, and the lines are short – call BS! People can sit for half a day for fuel.

If the White House is telling you that other hurricanes are worse and Puerto Ricans don’t deserve any more of your time or assistance – call BS!

People on the Puerto Rico mainland are dying senseless deaths because they lack basic healthcare and supplies.  We have no jobs, limited water, limited power, and little we can do but wait and see what help comes to give us a push forward.  If people want to help Puerto Rico (and I know they do), I just suggest you research carefully where you donate. We see lots of offers to take in money but haven’t heard of anyone actually receiving it. If you really want to help, be that first tourist here when things get up and running. Your vacation dollars could be what keeps a family’s business from going under.

Please don’t give up on us yet. Don’t lose sight of us just because another news story takes the top slot.