Gone – When Maria struck the commonwealth of Puerto Rico by Emanuel Castro
Emanuel Castro was born in San Antonio, Texas and has lived his whole life in Puerto Rico. He attended TASIS Dorado where he enjoyed a bilingual curriculum in English and Spanish. Whilst in high school Emanuel also completed a summer course in Cambridge University, where he received the most distinguished student award in his Business and Finance class. Emanuel then went on to attend Emory University where he is now a senior. He has distinguished himself there as a researcher at the Center for Law and Social Science and member of the Emory University International Relations Association. At EIRA Emanuel received a second-place award at the Harvard Model United Nations competition. When Emanuel is not working on his collegiate career he enjoys traveling, hanging out with friends, and meeting new people that challenge his views.
On September 20th, 2017 hurricane Maria struck the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico for approximately 15 hours. My family could not have imagined the devastation brought by this hurricane. During the storm, the front door to our home was struck by winds blowing at 160 miles per hour, my father, brother, and my grandfather struggled for 8 hours holding down the door, to prevent the winds from tearing it down. I was unaware of the details due to the communications blackout, and I was comfortably situated in my dorm at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia occasionally reading about the devastation. Hurricane Maria disabled all cell phones and similar modes of communication, which meant that I had absolutely no way of knowing if my family was even alive. All I could do was wait. Rationally I was certain that my family was alive, safe, and together but, as time went by, my inability to have any sort of confirmation stole my peace of mind.
After the hurricane passed, I tried calling, texting, Facebook messaging, email but I heard nothing. When hours turned into days my concern transformed into impatience and I began to frequently check my phone with the hope of finally seeing a text from them. My interactions with others changed, saying where I was from provoked immediate sympathetic reactions from others. I remember going out to a bar one night and showing my identification to the bouncer. Once he realized that I was from Puerto Rico, the bouncer gave me a hug. To me it felt as though I had just lost a family member and the whole world knew. The way people would apologize and comfort me confused me at first. I was frustrated by the way people would immediately stop what they were doing to offer me their sympathy. It made me sick. I didn’t want to be that person that people would feel sorry for. These interactions also reminded me of my youth in Puerto Rico, specifically the way people had expressed sympathy over the earthquake in Haiti or the repression in Cuba. When people acted the same way towards Puerto Rico, it made me not want to accept my reality. I just wanted to wake up one day far away from this mess. I wanted to wake up in the Puerto Rico I grew up in, one without the desperation, the hardships, and devastating destruction brought in a single day. The reality was that all of this was gone and my family was still unreachable.
As a college student, I made sure I went to class and fulfilled my responsibilities. I would not let myself falter in my studies because I knew no matter what, it would be the best way for me to be of service to my family. I kept checking my phone and social media, I also got in contact with other Puerto Ricans in similar situations all over the US.
By day 3 post-Hurricane Maria, I started seeing photographs of the devastation in my town. I will never forget the confusion I felt when I saw photographs of my town completely flooded; businesses I frequented were surrounded by brown, murky water. I was in class when I saw them and I looked up at the room I was in, blank faces all around me, some students scrolling through Facebook, others eagerly taking notes as the professor wrote on the board. I could hear the words spoken by the professor yet at the same time I was not understanding them. I could not take in the images I was seeing, all I could do was stare blankly at them. They provoked even more questions in my mind, “Where are my parents? How long ago was the picture taken? Is my neighborhood in a similar situation? Is my family alright? Why haven’t they called me?” As these thoughts raced through my head I searched the room for any sympathy; I felt confused by the fact that my home probably had been devastated but I was sitting in a classroom far away and I remained unaffected.
Soon after I discovered these disturbing images, I started seeing Facebook and Twitter posts from people on the island about different locations in my town with cell phone service. More days passed after this post and I was puzzled. I could not understand why they had not called me yet. Adding to this stress, my friends with families on the island were starting to hear back from their loved ones. Then I started hearing from my extended family in different parts of the island. They were all safe and still had homes, but they were reaching out to me to find out about my family. I couldn’t offer any kind of answer. I learned from them that my home town, Dorado, had been flooded severely, to the point where the police and national guard were called in to restrict access points into the town to ensure public safety. After learning this, I was frozen. Even the rational side of myself struggled to take in these facts. I had absolutely no idea if my family was safe, healthy, sheltered, or even alive. The mere possibility of their unconfirmed deaths made me want to get on a plane or swim home. All I wanted was a brief text that said, “We’re ok.” I found myself locked into an autopilot mode. I wasn’t feeling or thinking, I was just studying and responding. Now completely disconnected from my life in college, I was constantly thinking about the circumstances my family found themselves in. My resolution was to continue to be a student no matter what.
After nearly two weeks of no response, my brother reached out to me. He sent me a brief Facebook message stating our home was still one piece and that our family was in good health. I felt like an idiot after reading this message. It was like all the stress and anxiety I had built up was misplaced and it was confirmation of something I already knew. I felt like I had let my emotions get the better of me but then I remembered all the people who had asked me about my family. I dried my tears, took a deep breath and started reaching out to my extended family and friends, to let them know that my family was alright.
Once the island’s communication lines were stable enough to sustain consistent phone calls, my family shed light on what Puerto Rico had become after hurricane Maria. Maria inflicted approximately $95 billion dollars’ worth of damage to the island’s infrastructure. These damages have hindered every Puerto Ricans’ ability to carry out their daily routines. For the first three weeks, gasoline was rationed. Residents were only allowed to purchase $10 worth of gas a day. Health professionals were the exception, due to the necessity for their services they were allowed purchase as much gas as they needed. However, to get gas, my father, a doctor, explained, one had to wait in line from 4:00am to 11:00am.
During the first three weeks after the hurricane, Puerto Rico also suffered food shortages. Supermarkets and convenience stores had little stock and people had to get in line at 6:00am if the store opened at 8:00am for whatever was left. Access to medications was another difficulty many struggled with. One of my friends in school, also a diabetic, had to ship insulin to her friend in Puerto Rico. People lacked access to water and electricity, and to this day many still lack both. In the first month after hurricane Maria more than 90% of the people lived without electricity. When I heard these stories from my family and then on the news it felt as though Puerto Rico had suddenly become a third world country. This contrast motivated me to return. I wanted to go back and see the conditions, experience the suffering and hug my family. The entire situation provoked pain but what made it almost unbearable was that I was far away from it all. So far away that I could pretend it was not happening. Out of curiosity I asked some of the Puerto Ricans in my college and other friends from the island studying in the US if they were planning on visiting. None of them were returning. Some, in fact, had decided to leave the island permanently. That was the toughest part of it all, the fact that old friends weren’t coming back.
My generation has struggled to decide whether to stay or leave for years. The financial crisis preceding Hurricane Maria made it clear that the previous generation had left the island worse off. Puerto Rico’s financial crisis mirrors the Greek crisis that occurred in 2007. Essentially the island owes a total of $72 billion dollars in bonds. Employment for people wishing to earn more than minimum wage has become an uncertainty and Hurricane Maria froze an already contracting economy due to the debt crisis. To make matters worse, the hurricane also delayed the start of the semester at the local universities, which had already suffered major setbacks from protests related to the financial crisis. All this has culminated in an atmosphere where many young people no longer feel like Puerto Rico can offer them the opportunities their parents had.
When I returned to Puerto Rico for Thanksgiving, I knew I was going to see my island in a significantly worse state than I had left it. Regardless, I felt determined to see my home and didn’t care what state it was in, so long as my family was there. When I set foot on the island the first thing I noticed was my mother’s smile. She had the same smile and light in her eyes that any mother would have after seeing her son for the first time in months. It wasn’t until we got in the car and drove down the highway that I started noticing the damage. First I noticed the street signs, which were in many cases either completely gone or upside down. Next were the billboards common on any major highway, which were mostly gone and showed signs of being yanked off violently. The vegetation was noticeably diminished, once luscious and green hillsides that decorated the roads were now barren and grey. I could see much farther into the horizon because it was no longer densely covered in vegetation. Some houses had been stripped to the point where only one wall was standing. However, the most impactful images for me were from the debris. There were mountains of debris on the side of the road, in construction sites, landfills, empty lots and anywhere it could fit without obstructing roads.
Moving beyond the initial shock of experiencing the effects of the hurricane first hand, it’s important to highlight the challenges faced by the island. Puerto Rico faces reconstruction, restarting its economy, paying off debt and combatting a 10% unemployment rate. After Hurricane Maria, things have gone from bad to worse. However, I refuse to give up and like millions of other Puerto Ricans I will stubbornly continue to do whatever possible to help my island recover.
I’d like to ask everyone who reads this article to never forget about Puerto Rico. It will take years for the island to return to the state it was before Hurricane Maria but this process will only be hindered if the media takes its attention away from the island. I would also like to highlight the work done by several organizations that could always use more donations: Casa Pueblo, ConPRmetidos, and the Hispanic Federation. These organizations carry out different projects all with the goal of helping those affected and reconstructing the island. Ultimately any efforts right now can help Puerto Rico, even if it is something as small as sharing an article about the devastation on social media. I only ask you not to forget Puerto Rico and the millions who are struggling.
© Emanuel Castro