A Brief Journal of Utter Devastation

Dear Diary: Today we watched the wind rip open our front door, and then we ate cold baked potatoes.

Map imagery from The New York Times

September 2017

We woke up to wind and rain. Strong, but not a hurricane.

Not yet.

The winds continued and grew stronger all day. We watched it all out of the windows, which never broke or even cracked a bit. Leaked, yes, but everything leaked. Things leak when the rain is sideways.

The day was long but calm. We talked, ate, read, rested, and watched the hurricane. Trees bending sideways. Gusts of wind. Roar and then calm, roar and calm. We heard branches breaking, felt the windows pushing in…

Late in the day, it died down, and we thought: Was that it?

Bad, to be sure, but not as bad as we thought. We looked at each other. Maybe it was over?

No.

She came back hard, strong, pounding, laughing. Real funny, this hurricane.

Ah.

This is María, then.

The doors were rattling and shaking, water pouring in every crack. We put the kids in the small upstairs bathroom with a mattress and a bunch of blankets and pillows. I stood outside the bathroom door, keeping it open a crack so I could hear them. They played cards and ate snacks.

Not ten minutes later, the wind ripped the door open, the handle flung to the floor. Rain flying by. Wind jeering at us.

It went on for hours. Finally it calmed enough that Joe could tie the door shut. We ventured downstairs for food, brought it back to the kids. Pre-cooked potatoes, peanut butter, bagels, chips. Hurricane food.

We ate cold baked potatoes and watched the water pour in through every seam of the front door.

We watched the water dripping down the walls.

We listened to María sing her song of cleansing and destruction, the force of her energy stripping the world bare, bare, bare.

We finally slept, hours later.

We woke to a stripped-bare world, an angry, crying newborn world in need of such care.

The world was green; now it is brown.

The trees were tall and sheltering, high and proud and generous with their shade and their fruits. Now they are broken, laid down on their sides, roots dangling in the humid air, branches tossed to the road, the fields, anywhere.

The careless hand of the hurricane moves without thought. She doesn’t care where the pieces fall.

Everyone with a machete or hatchet or ax or chainsaw went out early, into the gray and brown morning. First the driveways, then the side streets, then to the main road. Now we can drive, weaving around the stumps, too big to move, the broken poles and signs, the dangling power lines.

Everyday, the first thought is water: Do we have enough for the day?

Everyone you meet, you ask the same questions: You okay? How are your people? How is your home? Have you been able to call out?

Then: What do you need? Do you have water? Food? Okay.

Everybody needs gas: gasoline, diesel, propane to drive cars and run generators and fuel stoves and grills.

Everybody needs cash. No matter how much we thought we’d need, it’s not enough. ATMs have no connection. Local banks, if they’re open, are limiting withdrawals. The line for the bank is a long, desperate maze.

So many people we know are leaving, have left.

There are so many moments.

Making shadow puppets with the kids and their little LED lights. Hand-washing our clothes in a river inlet. All our electronics piled up, a very expensive and useless paperweight on my desk. The iguanas making so much noise in the piles of dry, dead leaves. Trading generator repair for clean, dry towels. Piles of avocados, blown off the trees; we can’t eat them fast enough, a problem I never thought I’d have.

My sister’s voice breaking when we finally talk.

A grown son sobbing as he sees his mother safe.

The sound of generators and coquís at night.


Maria made landfall early Wednesday in the southeast coastal town of Yabucoa as a Category 4 storm with winds of 155 mph (250 kph) winds, and it was expected to punish the island with life-threatening winds for 12 to 24 hours, forecasters said.
Zinc roofs were already flying and windows were breaking as the storm approached before dawn, with nearly 900,000 people without power and one tree falling on an ambulance. Those who sought shelter at a coliseum in San Juan were moved to the building’s second and third floors, reported radio station WKAQ 580 AM.
Maria ties for the eighth strongest storm in Atlantic history, when measured by wind speed.

October 2017

Hi friends and family.

So, there was a hurricane. You may have heard. A crazy powerful devastating hurricane that ripped through this island and tore people’s lives apart.

We are all okay. The home we rent was undamaged (amazingly) and kept us safe and (mostly) dry.

The kids got a 2-week vacation from school and had a great time playing and building a fort in the big mango tree that fell over the fence from the neighbor’s yard.

They started school back this week and are glad to have the routine in their lives.

The farms are devastated. It’s difficult to find fresh produce.

The supply chain is disrupted and everything takes longer. The fuel delivery has regulated a bit now, so it’s no longer a big problem to get gas. But the grocery stores are mostly picked clean: they’re not getting their regular deliveries. Some restaurants and businesses are open — the ones with generators and big water cisterns — but most are closed.

Everyone is getting past the initial shock of seeing our world stripped bare.

(The first morning after the hurricane was surreal. It was as if a giant machete came through and chopped all the trees off at about 12 feet high. Huge trees were just laid down on their side. Everything was brown. Now there are tiny green leaves coming out on all the broken branches. Life cannot be stopped.)

Now we are all thinking about how we do this long-term. Many people can’t work. (I’m one of them; no reliable power and wifi means I can’t connect to editors and publications.)

All of your love and prayers and thoughts mean so much to us. And your donations and care packages lift our spirits so much. We feel that connection, that friendship, that love you are all sending us. We are all one world and here in this part of it, we need help.

Our family has food, water, a safe and dry home, and fuel in our car. Joe has been working almost nonstop, fixing generators and chainsaws, so that is bringing in a little cash. (Not everyone is able to pay, but they give what they can. Sometimes we barter. Joe fixed one generator in exchange for clean, dry towels and batteries.)

Two days ago I did dishes in the front yard in the pouring rain. We have a long PVC pipe hooked up to one of the downspouts. You know what that means? RUNNING WATER TO RINSE THE DISHES IN!

It started pouring and I ran out with all the pots and pans. Super exciting.

It’s the little things in life. It always is.

Yesterday I used some of that rainwater we collected to do laundry. Zeke and Lily helped. Zeke likes the “agitator cycle” — we dump detergent on some rainwater in a bucket, add clothes, and then swish and slosh and spin them all around, yelling “AGITATOR AGITATOR AGITATOR” the whole time.

I’m sure our neighbors enjoy it, too.

We filter rainwater so we can use it for drinking water, or we go to the nearby spring and fill up all our containers. I like the spring water better, but it’s good to have multiple sources. We have a 300-gallon cistern, and it has about 60 gallons left in it. We use that water in our outdoor shower that Joe rigged up, and he’s setting up a way to collect more rainwater in the cistern.

Today we drove to Mayagüez to find power and wifi so we could plug in our laptops and connect to the rest of the world.

This is a long post, but I’m not sure when I’ll be back to wifi. I’ll try to update weekly but no guarantees.

Our town, Rincón, is doing okay. The main issue is a) inability to work, which means no way for people to make money and b) the difficulty in getting the basic supplies of life. In our neighboring town, Añasco, an entire community was flooded and the people lost everything.

One lady said she could see her house but she couldn’t get to it because, “It’s in the ocean now.”

The hurricane moved her house into the sea.

People in Rincón are gathering donations for our neighbors in Añasco, businesses are donating food, and the communities are helping each other.

We saw FEMA for the first time last week. 18 days after the hurricane. I have no idea what’s happening with any of the major relief organizations or government assistance. On Sunday and Tuesday, FEMA was taking names (there was a long line) and giving out some canned food. There was a van with a Red Cross sticker on the back, so I guess they were here, too.

For the most part, though, what is making things happen is the people who live here helping each other.

On a typical day, we all wake up around the same time, usually around 7, from the combined energy of the sunshine and the music of the roosters, dogs, and chainsaws starting up for the day. There’s a mechanical music rhythm: chainsaws in the morning, generators in the night. But the coquís drown out the generators, and the roosters drown out the chainsaws.


Lyman Stone, an economist working with the Puerto Rican Financial Oversight and Management Board to develop population projections, said his early analysis of airline data from the US Department of Transportation shows 179,000 net airline travelers left Puerto Rican airports for the states between September and November.
Stone estimates the island’s population will continue to shrink. If the island rebounds relatively quickly from Hurricane Maria — which he terms a “weak Maria” effect — then perhaps the population will stay closer to 3 million in the next decade. If problems on the island snowball, pushing more people out — which he terms a “strong Maria” effect — Stone estimates Puerto Rico’s population could plunge below 2 million by 2040.

November 2017

YOU GUYS.
YOU GUYS.
YOU GUYS.
WATER.
WE GOT WATER.
WATER’S BACK.
WATER.
I LOVE WATER.

Yesterday morning, this miracle occurred. Coincidentally, yesterday was Day 50 since Maria. And on this day, let it be noted, God above in great beneficence and the Autoridad de Acueductos saw fit to open the floodgates and send in the water. I think it’s a combination of all your WATER ENERGY, on our behalf, going up in wave after wave until it was too much to resist, and — thanks and praise! — the water came to us.

So: thanks, friends!

I mopped the floors, washed the dishes, filled up all our empty gallons, cleaned ALL THE THINGS, and took three showers.
THREE GLORIOUS COLD AMAZING SHOWERS.

The kids smell a lot better, too. They were getting a little ripe.

(Oh my goodness, just kidding, we washed them with buckets of water and copious amounts of soap on the regular, but showers make it a lot easier.)

The water’s still low-pressure, but it’s enough for the downstairs bathroom and the kitchen to be water-functional. Hopefully it will stay with us, but I’ve heard many stories of water on for a few days, then off, then on a few days later. We will enjoy it while it is here, and keep all our gallons and buckets filled in case.

Plans for the weekend:
Wash dishes
Wash my hands a thousand times
Wash all the things
Mop all the floors
Shower
Shower the kids
Shower again
Filter the water
Drink the water
Hand wash some laundry
Rinse some buckets
Fill the buckets with water
Shower again, just for the heck of it
Wash something else

And maybe, after that, I”ll write some words, read some books, and take a nap. Go to the beach. Then come home and take a shower.

Have a great weekend, friends. Life is good, water is a blessing. Whatever you’re facing today, the universe is on your side.


Happy Thanksgiving week, friends!

We are planning a get-together with friends to be thankful and stuff our faces together. No power means no oven means I have a flawless excuse for ordering two smoked turkeys rather than roasting them myself.

Last week we hooked the generator up to the washing machine and I did three loads of laundry at home. That was fabulous. And much easier than hauling laundry elsewhere. Our water is back on at full-pressure. I’m still THRILLED every time I turn the tap on.

There’s been a lot of work happening on power lines in our area, but I’ve heard no news or predictions or even rumors about when we might get power on. I think it would be a fabulous Christmas gift.

But… whatever. I have water. Running water. Power? Meh. Who needs it.

Just kidding, power would be great.


The rate of suicide increased to nearly a suicide a day in Puerto Rico in November, according to a recent report released by The Commission for the Prevention of Suicide. At least 227 people committed suicide on the island last year, a 16 percent increase compared to 2016, according to the report released Tuesday from the commission, which is part of the Department of Health of Puerto Rico.

December 2017

OH, THE NEWS I HAVE.

It looks like light, bright bright light. It sounds like a fan blowing, a refrigerator humming, music playing.

That’s right.

It’s POWER, baby. (Well, it’s electricity. The real power is in us, you know.)

This miracle occurred last night. We drove home after a long day of doctor visits, x-rays, and errands. I was feeling depressed about not being able to light up a Christmas tree…

The neighbors were out in the road, talking. We stopped to find out what was going on. “Power back on. Tonight or tomorrow,” they said.

What????

We sat outside on the driveway and watched the AEE workers doing their amazing, hard work at the end of the road. I went inside, using a solar lamp to light my way upstairs to the bathroom… and came back down to lights! lights! lights! and cheers from the whole street.

That’s right, I was in the bathroom for this miraculous moment.

Last night we slept with air conditioning on. Today we drank cold water from the refrigerator. Our refrigerator currently houses cold water, fruit, and rum. And about a dozen water jugs. Nothing like getting back to basics to see where your priorities lie. Ours, apparently, are divided between cold water and fruity rum drinks. NOT FOR THE KIDS. Geez. What kind of person do you think I am? No rum for the children. They prefer vodka.

ALSO KIDDING.

I’m slightly delirious, maybe, from all the cold water? I’ve gotten used to room temp, tepid water. This cold water’s got me happy and relaxed. Go have a glass of cold water. You’ll feel more tranquil about everything.

So, I guess, life is back to normal? Except for this: normal’s never been an aspiration of mine. And this: you can’t go back. You can’t. You’re always going forward, one way or another. You’re learning, I’m learning, we’re all in this together, each in our own experience but collectively sharing something pretty amazing, that we casually call life.

Tonight let’s recognize it for what it is. I don’t have words for what it is. The adjectives fall short. What would you call it, this life, this daily small miracle we hold in our stardust hands?

I’m glad to be alive together.


The Harvard survey conducted among 3,299 households suggests 4,645 more deaths occurred between the storm’s Sept. 20 landfall and Dec. 31 than would have been expected under normal conditions. The researchers said the figure was a conservative estimate; when they tweaked the data to adjust for possible shortcomings in the sample, they produced a result of more than 5,000 deaths.
That would make it the deadliest storm since the Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900, which killed an estimated 8,000 people.

From the survey data, we estimated a mortality rate of 14.3 deaths (95% confidence interval [CI], 9.8 to 18.9) per 1000 persons from September 20 through December 31, 2017. This rate yielded a total of 4645 excess deaths during this period (95% CI, 793 to 8498), equivalent to a 62% increase in the mortality rate as compared with the same period in 2016. However, this number is likely to be an underestimate because of survivor bias. The mortality rate remained high through the end of December 2017, and one third of the deaths were attributed to delayed or interrupted health care. Hurricane-related migration was substantial.
This household-based survey suggests that the number of excess deaths related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico is more than 70 times the official estimate.