When I saw the swirl of Hurricane Maria on Univision’s evening news, I knew it was going to be ugly. Reporters kept saying that it would be one of the largest hurricanes to hit Puerto Rico. My dad grew up there as a jibaro on a mountain in a small but old, hilly town called Coamo. Most of his side of the family still lives in or near Coamo, located in the south-central region of the island.
The week meteorologists began warning about how big Maria was going to be, my relatives began posting on Facebook about how nervous they were. They began stocking up on supplies.
Then, two days after Maria made it to Puerto Rico, I started messaging my aunts and cousins. There were no updates.
I waited for days and kept track of what percentage of the island was without electricity. I watched as the U.S. government slowly responded to requests for help, and I heard arguments about the “real” death toll. In early November, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz said the number of dead could be as high as 500. The official death toll stands at 58.
I scoured Twitter and Facebook. I joined several online groups where other Puerto Ricans outside the island were desperately trying to get information about their family. An aunt, Titi Tere, organized a fundraiser and food drive in Brooklyn. A legion of women joined her in collecting donations and mobilizing even more people. I went to help so I didn’t feel useless.
Two weeks after the hurricane hit Coamo, my Tía Ana commented on a family member’s Facebook post to say that she was safe and that her house was all right. Soon thereafter, my younger cousin who also lives in Coamo messaged me and said that they were okay, but worried. Their phone service was coming in and out, the stores nearby were running out of water for them to drink, and their electricity was spotty as well. When I asked her if she had seen military or anyone from the federal government there, she told me she hadn’t seen anyone yet.
For weeks, messages between everyone came through very slowly. Photos online showed all the telephone poles in my family’s area lying against buildings and on the ground. My dad was able to speak to one of his youngest sisters, my Titi Aurea. I was able to briefly hear her over the phone as well. She owns two small pharmacies in Coamo. Some of our other relatives work there as cashiers or help organize the pharmacy section in the back.
It took everything I had to hold it together when I heard her over the phone. She was concerned about her business, but she was also worried about her customers who needed their medication. With the system down, it was going to take longer to get people their prescriptions. Titi Aurea is the kind of person who loses a significant amount of sleep worrying about other people. I’ve seen her slumped over the wheel of her car taking cat naps in between running errands and driving all of her church friends around. I knew that not being able to help customers would hurt her. I knew that she had gone to work at the pharmacies as soon as she could instead of taking days off, and I figured that like every other time she was stressed, she wasn’t taking a break. She was probably carpooling everyone around and making sure that all of her employees and friends were safe.
At the beginning of November, I had a missed call from another aunt, this time it was Tía Tita. She hadn’t answered messages in over a month. The week before, my father found out that most of our relatives couldn’t go to work because of power shortages. A lot of my family members’ small businesses had been damaged and every report I saw online or on TV was depressing. I wondered if she was okay and couldn’t unlock my phone because my hands were shaking so much.
She called again, and I picked up. She explained that during the hurricane, she ran around the house laying down quilts and towels to mop up the water coming into the house. Her house is in a high spot, so she didn’t expect flooding. The backyard looked like an ocean, she said. The water was spreading everywhere. She thought she was going to drown inside her home. The two small businesses she and my uncle own in town were even worst off than their home.
“I don’t know how I didn’t faint when I went with your uncle to go see the bar,” Tía Tita said. “The roof was half gone and the roof from the restaurant [building] he owns is just completely gone.”
I expected her to sound sad, but she was hopeful. The supermarket was running out of food but instead of worrying, she described how it forced her to be creative.
I almost cried when I heard that before the hurricane, she couldn’t see my grandmother’s nearby house from her yard. Trees blocked her view. Afterwards, she could see her childhood home easily. The larger trees were mostly gone. Tumbled to the ground by the wind and rain.