Hurricane Maria Experienced by a Puerto Rican in Florida
By Alejandro Acosta
HIV Advocacy Project Coordinator
A couple of weeks ago, I woke up to a text message from my father back in Puerto Rico (PR), the first text message I had received from his phone number since it went dead on September 20th. It read: “Alex esto pinta bien feo,” roughly translated to “things are starting to get ugly.” The time of the text and the ominous message were enough to keep me awake, in fact sleeping has been especially challenging since Maria went from a Cat. 1 to a Cat. 5 hurricane within hours, an unprecedented event in recorded history.
Hours after my dad’s text, Donald Trump tweeted about, “the lazy and indebted Puerto Ricans.” On Tuesday during Trump’s trip to the island where he diminished the destruction and loss of life by comparing the current situation with Katrina, he visited one of the most affluent towns in the metropolitan area, far removed from the where the hurricane caused its greatest damage. After seeing the footage of Trump foolishly throwing paper towels at a captive audience of survivors, I sat down to write these words.
Back in 1998 when Cat. 3 hurricane Georges devastated the island, I still lived there and somehow we recovered fairly quickly. We had no power in my house for 31 days; living through that was rough. Nineteen years later, Hurricane Irma had just passed through both PR and Florida leaving enough destruction to last for months, yet Maria threatened to destroy the island just one week later as a large Cat.5.
My father lives on the west coast of the island in a modest wooden house in my hometown of Mayaguez. I knew the house might not survive the forceful 145 mph winds. Later that day I video chatted with him, I asked him to secure as much as he could, we both cried when we said good-bye. After that last call, I followed every single update provided by National Oceanic Atmospheric Association: 5am, 8am, 11am, 2pm, 5pm, 8pm, 11pm and 2am. I was awake for each one of those updates; people who live in vulnerable hurricane areas are very aware of the update schedule. On Sept. 21, our history as Puerto Ricans changed drastically. Right now, Boricuas are in desperate need of assistance.
The whole island went dark and without communication, and as of today, many people are still without power or reliable communication. Waiting to hear from loved ones, in any way possible, was the top priority. Countless phone calls, text messages, and hours glued to Facebook to see if anyone would connect and share some information. Then, little by little news started trickling in, and it got worse with every passing minute.
My first contact was 18 hours after Maria’s landfall with my good friend Tito who lives in San Juan. We spoke for 15 minutes before we lost signal, and his description of what he’d experienced was apocalyptic. My worry was not that my father was alive; I knew he had spent the storm in a safe place -- my worry was how he is going to live afterwards this. Six days passed before I would hear his voice again. It was six days until I finally saw how badly his house, our house, was damaged. He was sad but optimistic. At 67 he still has a boyish attitude that makes him appear younger. I asked what he needed; he said, “nothing.” This is far from the truth, but he is not someone who enjoys asking for help.
Since landfall, Puerto Ricans were kept busy clearing roads of debris and helping their neighbors. Like everywhere else in the world, we have all types of different people in Puerto Rico but the majority of my fellow Boricuas are hard working individuals who can flourish even under extreme circumstances. They might even sing and dance while at it. We are happy people who are proud of our roots and our Puerto Rican identity. Part of that identity is being a proud American which many people living in the US mainland were unaware of before PR was all over the news. We know we will rebuild and survive this catastrophe, like we had done many times before, but right now 3.5 million Americans, in the island surrounded by “water, big water, ocean water” need our help; not only from us Puerto Ricans outside, but from whoever and wherever it is offered.
Florida State Representative Carlos G. Smith recently visited the island as part of a humanitarian relief effort. His descriptions of the still desperate citizens in need of basic necessities was heartbreaking. Supplies are not getting to the places where it’s needed. Rep. Smith witnessed the Ponce port and airport fully functioning yet empty runways and no ships docked. The logistics of these massive efforts are unprecedented.
Let’s remember that in moments like these the already marginalized by society often go unnoticed. There are thousands of Puerto Ricans who are part of the LGBTQ community who might be isolated from their family or a support network, often unemployed by discriminatory practices. Similarly, people living with HIV have limited access to care and life-saving medication, making this population particularly vulnerable.
Last year during the Pulse massacre, there was a reaffirmation of the undeniable connection between Puerto Rico and Florida. There are almost 1 million islanders living in the state mostly concentrated in the Orlando/Kissimmee area, and thousands of Puerto Ricans move every year to Florida in search of opportunities to better their lives. The massive exodus from economically crippled island only promises to increase after the storm.
As to my dad, today he recognizes things are not as easy as he thought, frustration with excessive wait times and limited access to everyday things are taking a toll. As a Puerto Rican, I’m asking you not to allow the “Puerto Rico News” to be drowned out by our everyday chaotic world.
If you are able, please donate to the Hispanic Federation's Puerto Rico Hurricane Relief Fund here.
To learn more about the Hispanic Federation's Hurricane Relief Fund for Hurricane Maria victims in Puerto Rico, click here.