Tuesday, October 03, 2017

Hurricane Maria or What Happened to Me

How could I make heads or tails out of my experience with Hurricane Maria?  I am still figuring it out.  In other words, I am still sorting out the information and drawing conclusions.  What follows is an account of what happened. You all basically know that Hurricane Maria churned off in the Eastern Atlantic for a few days in the middle of September, teetering between being a Category 4 and 5 hurricane while it zeroed in on Puerto Rico.  Eventually it came through the Maunabo-Yabucoa area on the south eastern tip of the island crossing through it at a mere ten miles per hour tearing apart everything in its way.

When we got the news that there were two systems out in the Eastern Atlantic showing signs of development,  I was just getting on my feet again after Hurricane Irma.  The new storm was Lee which quickly became a tropical storm and the second, should it develop would be called Maria.  Well, Lee which was the one furthest out and nearest to Africa developed first.  Then a disturbance developed closer to the Lesser Antilles and was named Maria.  The whole thing seemed unusual from the start. They were not in what seemed chronological or geophysical order but Maria though developing second, strengthened preceded Lee.  In fact, Lee fizzled only to much later regroup in the Western Atlantic.  All this activity in the Atlantic after Irma was disconcerting.

I had successfully battered down my bedroom window for Irma, only to tear it all that down before Maria because Irma left me and my neighbors without electricity for four days.  There was a need for air circulation in the house as we were experiencing a sweltering heat in the 90’s without the benefit of even a fan.  I tried to rewrap the window before Maria’s arrival but it just wouldn’t come together. It was very frustrating and frightening to say the least.  Then came the porch with its glass sliding door.  This time I left the wooden panels nearby in the porch nicely placed where I could easily get to them.  Since they were heavy, I still needed help.  So, when my handyman friend, Anibal gave me a hand putting the boards upright, I really appreciated his help.  For some reason, I thought if they had worked for Irma, they would work for Maria.  At least I thought that at first. 

By late Sunday, September 17, the news was more and more certain that Maria was not going to make a turn for the north like all the other recent storms had done, but instead it promised to slam directly into Puerto Rico.   I always wondered about how could they know.  Was it somehow programmed that this particular hurricane was not going to turn? They had said Irma wasn't going to slam us and it had turned. Why not Maria? We had to get ready for a storm and I was already tired.  
I was not looking forward to this. So on Monday, the 18th, I finally took the mandatory day trip to Maunabo where my daughters have a hillside apartment that faces the ocean.  I knew I had to secure things, including tables and chairs on the open rooftop, that if left unsecured could become flying projectiles.  I could never forgive myself if someone got hurt by them.   There was also a refrigerator that I had to empty.   I went upstairs to their mostly open terrace penthouse and crammed as much as I could in their tiny bathroom and tied down the rest.   I also pushed any cushioned furniture further inside the apartment, closed all the windows as well as I could and then closed all the interior doors to stop cross ventilation.  We will only know in an uncertain future if what I did there worked. *

As I drove back to San Juan, cars whizzed by.  I could sense the uneasiness and see people doing final preparations before Maria’s arrival.  I could only think that Tuesday the 19th was the last day to make final preparations.  In fact,  Ada Monzon, a well known meteorologist on FaceBook and Lente Viral  was constantly repeating that we needed to have our preparations completed by noon on Tuesday.   Tropical Storm winds would arrive at least twelve hours before the eye of the hurricane itself.  She emphasized we needed to prepare for some really strong winds in a hurricane which was moving at a slow ten miles per hour.   She went so far as to describe what wind speeds each town would get and for how long.   I wish I had recorded her reports, because pretty early into the storm we lost electricity and any connection with the outside world vanished except for a couple of radio stations and text messaging.  We were also dismayed to learn that the National Weather Service Doppler radar had been blown away and was no more.  

Frankly, none of us had ever faced such catastrophic conditions and if we were honest we only had a dictionary definition in our heads when we thought of the word catastrophe.  Sure I had gone through Hugo 25 years before but that only hit a corner of the island.  This huge monster threatened to smother our whole island with these Category 4 winds.  Believe me, we now know what catastrophic damage really looks, sounds, and feels like.   While I was secluded in the bathroom I could hear those ferocious winds sounding like race cars zooming past.  These destructive winds brought powerful gusts that bent lampposts like wet spaghetti, gnawed on concrete blocks like a dog to a bone, and sent zinc and wood roofs flying like toys.  Anything made of wood, would not be a match against these winds.   Not only did these one hundred ninety mile per hour winds would do that but they would also strip trees of all their foliage and then mercilessly topple them leaving  their roots uprooted.  

Since I didn’t phantom what catastrophic meant, I prepared for Maria in a similar way as I had for Irma.  The only problem with that thinking was that Irma only hit us as a Tropical Storm and not with the full force it had hit St. Thomas and Barbuda for example.  They were devastated.  Why didn't I visualize that Maria could do the same to us. I put my boards up, brought the fourth board in and placed it behind the others.  I did find some base boards which I had drilled some holes into so I could screw them onto the frame of my sliding glass doors. I thought I had done an excellent job securing them nice and flush.  The last board was a different story.  It had to fit behind the other boards in the channel saved for a screen door. I slid it behind the other boards and in front of the sliding glass door.  It was there standing loosely. What a terrible mistake.  

Upon hearing Governor Rossello come on the television with his Emergency Team demanding that anyone who knew they could be in harm’s way get to a shelter and heed the local police, I started to evaluate my thinking.  He emphasized that no first responders were going to be out and about after 50 mph winds started.  The fact that the moment for Maria to turn had long passed, I heeded the Lord’s voice to move my 45-gallon trash can out of the bathroom and into the kitchen.  Let me clarify what that meant.  It didn't mean that I could simply roll the trash can out to the kitchen.  No, it meant I had to empty it out of all water.  I had to take a bucket and do this.  Then I had to wash it out.  I had stored water in it for over three months so it was yucky.  So I cleaned it out with Clorox.  Once I cleaned it, I took it to the kitchen and then started pouring clean water in it.  Meantime the clock was ticking.  My busyness may have been a distraction to me but the storm had arrived.  

In fact, I barely heeded the Lord’s voice in time.  I had just finished filling up the now sparkling clean trash can with clean tap water when the winds started to pick up. The lights were flickering and I needed to find my candles, matches, and flashlights. It was then that I noticed that the sliding glass door was breathing! Breathing-- this was not poetic.  This was not personification.   It was in fact moving in and out.  I naively went to hold it in place.  The strength of the pressure against the door was herculean.  I knew I was no match.  So, I thought what can I put to hold it?  I looked around and saw my 20-year-old sofa bed and got behind it and prayed.  “Lord, give me the strength to push it without the sliders.” I went for it.  It screeched across the floor.  Poor downstairs neighbor.  The heck with that.  Next, I pushed the rattan dining table against the other side.  Then I ran into the bathroom.

Once there I realized it wasn’t ready.  I had planned to spend the hurricane in the living room since the door had protection, but all those plans had gone kaput.   I sat on the toilet seat and waited a few moments to plan what I would do next and gather up some courage to get some cushions from the living room.  I peeked out and ran and got a soft rug from the closet, and dried the shower floor, then laid down the rug with three or four cushions on top.  I retrieved some pillows and made myself a comfortable bed.  I should have gotten a blanket but it didn’t occur to me at the moment. It didn’t occur to me to get food either.  Fortunately, I did grab my purse and there I later discovered two trail mix bar which were my breakfast the next morning. 

Then it was just me in the bathroom and texting with my daughter in Rochester.  We texted into the night.  I was comfortable and I drifted asleep, talking to the Lord.  He told me everything would be alright.  I was concerned for my bedroom and he told me to imagine it as a porch. Somethings might get wet but no big deal.  I handed everything over to Him and I fell asleep.  During the night I woke up once or twice with the pipes in the walls gurgling and then a musky smell similar to a swamp seeped into the room.  Thank goodness it didn't smell like a sewer.   Then sometime in the night, I heard the glass shatter like tinkling ice, like many little pieces of tinkling ice. I did not get up to check. I knew what it was.  It had to be the glass door and I couldn't do anything about it.    

I woke up at about five.  I got fully dressed and put on sturdy shoes.  The winds were still raging but it seemed like they were not quite as strong.  Then suddenly a strong gust would blow by and take with it my hope that the worst was over.  It would be another hour before there was a lull, that I ventured into the master bedroom to check the window.   To my surprise, it had opened-up but it was holding up with the plastic wrapped screen.  Three of the four screws were still in place. I got up on my step stool to try to fix it but an occasional gust dissuaded me from fixing in.  It took another half hour to make it feasible to stand near the window with screwdriver in hand.   Water was still coming in but not excessively.  What I needed to do was move my tall Tiffany type lamp that was next to the window.   So, I placed it across the room next to an interior wall. How it had not toppled during the night still surprises me. What flustered me was how difficult it had been to open and close the bedroom door without it snapping my fingers off since there was a lot of pressure coming in through that somewhat open window.  Small details.

Next, I peeked into the living room.  Actually, it was safe to inspect because the wind had changed directions.  Yet, I was having a hard time interpreting what I was seeing.  I had placed four panels over the complete sliding glass door.  Now I could only see two.  I realized the glass on the right-side door had broken, but where were the two panels on the left that I had screwed down to the frame? How was the loose panel standing?  The left door was not broken since I could make out a reflection on the glass but it had been lifted, unlocked, shifted and was left slightly open allowing my curtains to flutter in the wind.  I went to check. I discovered that those panels that I thought were the securest had fallen in front of the loose board and had kept it in place.  I was astonished.  I had imagined water and wind coming in but none had.  I am still amazed.  

The worst of it all was the glass which had shattered.  In the grand scheme of things, that was nothing.  The glass could be swept up.  Yes, it eventually took me six trips to the trash bin downstairs to get rid of the glass, and I did lose practically everything in the refrigerator.  I also became ill because of the heat and the oppressive life changes because we lacked power. Washing clothes by hand is no easy feat.  How I identified with my ancestors.   Rumors of looting and a shoot out across the street shattered our sense of security as well but I survived.  Even when I was on my last nerve after two plane cancellations, my daughters were able to get me on a flight on Saturday afternoon, September 30.  Ten days after the storm where desperation, greed, and fear motivated people to misbehave, argue, and yell.  Yet for all of that, I never lacked God’s goodness and mercy, and for this I give him thanks and praise. 

He astonished me in so many ways.  I was not alone.  I never have been and I never will be.

Amen.

* A relative was able to visit the property in Maunabo.  The apartment fared well with only some water coming into the first bedroom.  It was a different story for the penthouse.  The metal table got blown off the top floor and went reeling to the ground four stories below.  The huge silver BBQ got taken for a ride around the top floor and lost a door but other than that it is still functional.  Not bad for facing a direct hit with the eye of Hurricane Maria its 140 miles sustained winds. 





This is how I crammed things in the upstairs bathroom.

Maunabo. I tied down the furniture to a metal loop that was screwed  into the wall and I wrapped it around the furniture.  The hurricane some how loosed the table and took it flying.  It fell to the bushes below.  

These are the two half panels that I secured real well in my opinion to the door frame.  These are the same ones that got loose and fell in front of the loose panel which to my amazement stayed fixed in place. 

My little Miracle angel.  She survived intact as well.

In the shower. 

After the storm.  The two panels on the left had fallen.  You can see the sofa bed pushed to the door.  

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