Within hours after Maria struck, the winds subsided and people began to open their fortified doors and take a peak at the wreckage. Tentative steps at first. Is that it? Is it really over so quickly? Is it safe to go out? Time to survey the damage.
Our house itself had little damage, but there was a heavy tin roof over the patio in our back yard. Half of that had come off in a screeching and shrieking fit that seemed to last for hours as the metal twisted and tore off the roof, then banged around the back yard until the wind settled down. I think that made it sound particularly intense and destructive from inside our bunker.
We also lost a beautiful, old Flamboyan tree in our patio. She was already old, bent and twisted with time, but a really special plant that provided shade and the perfect environment for dozens of other plants below her canopy to flourish . And her flowers were exquisite! Imagine hundreds of tiny orange orchids, the size of a quarter. I felt really sad about losing this one.
But that was the extent of our damage. Nothing else broken, no flooding, no damage to our car. It’s like we were protected, because as we looked around our street, the destruction was pretty bad. Most of the houses were fine, although the place directly across the street lost their metal roof. One part of it is permanently lodged in a big tree, 40 feet up in the air and about 100 feet down the street. Most of the damage in our neighborhood was Trees and power lines down, and miscellaneous debris everywhere.
In our home we had stayed up late the night before, taking care of last minute preparations and feeling the coming storm. The wind had been building that day since late afternoon, steadily increasing, with sudden gusts and fits sometimes. I went for one last swim, just after sunset, before it was too dark. It was around 7pm and winds were a bit stronger than usual, but not too intense, maybe a steady 20 knots, gusting to 30. The sea was confused. Waves not too large but churning and wind whipped as I swam strongly against the wind to the swimming buoy. I didn’t want to think about being here in 12 hrs, when Maria get’s closest. That swim was important to me. I had been working all day to prepare our home, and was hot & sweaty. It always feels good to take a dip to cool off, but this was more than just that. This was a chance to dive into the sea already touched by Maria, to feel the essence of the coming storm. I taken this swim hundreds of times, in all sorts of conditions. It’s a safe beach, all sand, yet that night I felt a bit nervous. A little bit afraid about what I felt was coming.
I’ve been living here in Puerto Rico for just over 2 yrs, full time, but have been coming to work for 7 yrs before that. I’m blessed with a beautiful family and a home less than a block from the beach. Which in normal circumstances is awesome, but you need to think twice about staying with a hurricane on it’s way.
We actually had a warm-up two weeks earlier. A “Hurricane Drill” you could call it. Irma also turned into a Cat 5 storm, but that one missed us. It veered about 50 miles north of us, into the open sea, at the last minute. It got a little windy here for a few hours, but the damage was minimal. A few downed trees and power lines, but power was out for most most of the island for 10 days. Some areas never got power back before Maria. That tells you how fragile the infrastructure is here. For Irma, we prepared the house and stocked up on supplies, and at the last minute, decided to evacuate out beach house for a friends house a mile inland, up on a hill. Turns out there was more damage and danger up there than in our neighborhood. But that was not really a hurricane, at least not for this island. We went 10 days without power, and the night that it returned, our celebrations were cut short by the news of Maria. For most people this was upsetting news, but I was secretly hoping that I would get to experience my first hurricane.
We prepared again, boarded up the front door, covered all the windows in plastic, stocked up on food & water and everything else we thought we’d need. This time though, I wanted to stay put in our home. I spoke with a lot of our neighbors who have been there for 20+ years and been through other big storms. None of them were concerned. “This street never floods” is what I kept hearing. Most of them were staying, including our friends Bebo & Guichi who live right on the beach. They had storm shutters, cold beer and a complete lack of fear that extended to their 13 yr old son. If anyone would get hit, it would be them. Several of our neighbors did leave for higher ground, but most did not. My final decision came the day before, when I looked up the flood maps on the FEMA website. It showed flood waters coming very close, but never reaching our street or home. So the evening before Maria hit, we made the final decision to stay. I’m so glad we did.
Those who know me know that I am not that “normal”, by most standards. Those who really know me don’t mince words. Crazy is perhaps the most common description. I love nature and I LOVE storms. I swim alone in the ocean at night. I hike naked & barefoot in the rainforest occasionally, at night without a light. I speak to not just plants & animals, but also to stones, fire and water.
I feel like I missed my calling as a storm chaser, so when Irma was coming, I got very excited, and then quite disappointed when it missed us. I’ve been studying hurricanes and meditating on the essential nature and divine purpose of these monstrous storms. Since Childhood I’ve been very excited about storms, and I think it must have been Hollywood that instilled an image in my mind of being tied to palm tree as the eye of the hurricane passed over me. I thought that was the coolest thing ever, and maybe a part of me still does. Fortunately, that part of me is not stronger than the part that wants to stay alive to tell about it.
The only downside to Maria (in my mind) is that the eye would not be passing directly over me. But it should be close enough. And it is a category 5 hurricane, so it should be good.
By the night before, it became apparent that it would not veer north at the last minute, like Irma. Good. Game on! After my pre-Maria swim, I came home, rinsed the sand & saltwater off with the hose in the driveway, and prepared a simple dinner of Quinoa, beans & cabbage. We kept the front door open all evening, feeling the storm building. Power went out at 1:30am and we turned in shortly after that. Sleep was light and unsettled as the strong wind rattled the windows all night long. I awoke at about 5:30am to the entire house shaking and the wind howling. My wife also awoke at the same time and suddenly had misgivings about staying. Visions of the whole building collapsing on top of us fueled a full blown panic attack. But the building was strong and sturdy. After some deep breaths and reassurances, she was fine again. I peeked out of our front door. There was a small crack of vision between the plywood panel and the edge of the window. No flooding, so that’s good. No patio roof, that’s not so good.
The day before, we were told that the worst of the storm would hit us by late morning, about 11am. So I thought that it would continue to build for another 5 hours or so. Because of that, I wasn’t paying too much attention to the storm at that point. I was making sure my wife & daughter were ok, then checking on my phone. I was surprised to see that we still had a pretty strong signal and even internet during this intense phase of the storm. So I used this opportunity to check on the storm path and also to send messages to my family off island. Of course, so many people were concerned for our safety and I told them all I don’t know how soon we’ll get communications back, so just be patient. I didn’t know that we could communicate right through the storm.
At some point while I was on my stupid phone, I realized that the wind was dying down. So I checked the weather (on my phone) and saw that it looks like that was the worst part of the storm for us and it was passing. Instead of being filled with joy and relief, I felt disappointment and regret. Yes, the storm had hit us pretty hard, but I was not present to the essential energy of it because I was on my freaking phone. A metaphor for life! I thought I had many more hours to be present to it, but it came and went fast than I thought. So let this be a lesson to all of us: PUT DOWN YOUR BLASTED PHONE AND BE PRESENT TO YOUR LIFE!!!
Today is the one month anniversary of Maria, and here is the metro area things are just starting to normalize a little bit. Many places are not. I originally had thought of writing this blog about life after the storm, but realized I should start at the beginning. So I will continue later with the rest of the story.
Blessings, love and prayers to all of those still suffering.