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Our Houses Became Boats

Surviving Hurricane Maria and saving my career in its aftermath

Photo by Bryan Minear on Unsplash

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We were unprepared. The night before landfall I madly uploaded my lab’s data to the cloud. Sent a flurry of emails. Stay safe over there. See you on the other side. The adrenaline set in as the usual moisture laden northern breeze shifted south. Cool and dry and energetic.

The morning was a blur of buckets and rain. Our house, like most houses in Puerto Rico, was designed for ocean breeze ventilation. Not for horizontal wind and rain, turning our living room into a waterfall mist zone. I spent the first twelve hours of Hurricane Maria mopping up water. Mop, towels, bucket, squeeze.

The exhaustion set in around noon. Our dog, Marbles, whimpering, swaddled by her ThunderShirt, watched me wring out one last towel. Water immediately rushed in behind. I put the mop down and resigned.

My husband and I stood silently in the living room, enveloped by a fine mist. The two-story cement house trembled. Without saying anything we retreated to the bedroom. Marbles, never allowed on the bed, tucked in between us. We held our ears against the pressure. Trying to shut out wind and metal.

We weren’t supposed to be in the eye’s path. Before the radio went dark, the forecast placed the eye 50 miles east of us. But when the wind stopped suddenly, we instinctively held our breath, waiting for the next gust, hoping the house would brace for it. And then, sunshine reflecting off peeled back tin roof panels, now quietly frozen in an open tuna can position. At first, confusion, then the realization that for an eye ten-miles wide moving at ten miles per hour, we had one hour.

One hour to scramble. One hour for the neighborhood to throw buckets of water from balconies. The rhythmic sound of water slapping asphalt echoed across the neighborhood.

Mop, towels, bucket, squeeze.

Hurricanes have two phases: the approach and the exit. Twelve hours of northern winds meant twelve hours of southern winds. Our house was built on the compass line and the one-hour eye gave us time to prepare the back of our house for the approaching wall of wind and rain.

Exhaustion sets in again and as night falls, sleep is negotiated between the last of the wind and tin roof panels against metal and concrete.

The morning after.

We knew we’d be targets. The only people employed in our neighborhood. With jobs that pay cash instead of welfare credit on now useless electronic cards. The rest of the working class had long ago moved to Florida with their Disney dreams and job promises.

We didn’t leave the house those first few days. At night we laid low, candles off. Listening to fighting neighbors. A fight that ended in gun shots and burning tires. Every few nights our car alarm would force us to scramble to the balcony. The guys would go running, our flashlights trailing them down the street.

Standing in line.

My favorite was the grocery story line. Cold Cokes and Pringles. Anything to break up the canned cuisine. There was a six can food limit so some days we would go twice. The generator powered grocery store was cooler anyways. We lingered in the dairy aisle cooling our now sunburned faces. Watching sadly as things began to spoil. The meat went first. When it was thrown out, the stench lingered. One aisle after another, cleared or sold out.

Garbage day.

We had a routine. In the morning, a little cleaning. The restaurant downstairs was a disaster. All the water from upstairs poured into the restaurant during the hurricane. Equipment in feet of water. The freezers filled with rotting food. Food that would have been income, feeding tourists driving two hours from San Juan to a restaurant in the middle of an abandoned neighborhood, recognized by the New York Times. All now slowly decomposing.

In the afternoon, we would read. Fading in and out of heat-induced sleep. Dreams of ice and shadows. Once, I woke to the sound of garbage trucks. It couldn’t be. There had been no sign of government life. But there they were. We watched from the balcony as they passed by. A parade of overfilled trucks, trailing water the color of muddy river. It was now or never. We raced downstairs to the restaurant. Grabbed the trash cans, took deep breaths, and dived into the freezers. The stench will sting your eyes. We watched those garbage trucks take it all away and we laughed and shouted, intoxicated by this new glimmer of hope. There’s something bodeful about rotting meat and its removal seemed to signify an end.

Tsunami rumors.

At night, we huddled around a small handheld radio. No news really. The governor is asking all mayors to report to San Juan. The Mayaguez hospitals are open but will need diesel soon. Luisa from Orlando is asking for anyone with news about her parents in Cabo Rojo. The names become a rhythmic roll call between the hours of 8 and 9 pm. Hurricane lullabies.

Then it was the Guajataca Dam. It supplies our town directly. We had water intermittently. Enough to shower and wash clothes by hand every few days. But the news became a game of telephone and the compromised Guajataca Dam became a tsunami. Cars and people raced to higher ground. Screaming in the streets. No logic. No topography. The Guajataca Gorge would absorb everything and pours straight out into the ocean with little people in its path. We were all going crazy.

Satellite phones and evacuation.

I broke. I was sick of canned food. One mouthful and my gag reflexes kicked in. I was sick of the survival routine. I had to get to Mayaguez. What if my students ran out of food? What if someone broke into my office? What if my lab was ruined? My family must be worried. We were low on cash. I was losing it. We had just enough gas for a one-way drive to the airport. With cars lined up for blocks at every gas station, Mayaguez, and my lab and students, were a world away.

Word on the street was that FEMA was taking applications at the stadium. We walked the few miles and waited in line. Anything to pacify the growing anxiety.

Crazy Legs.

The hip-hop legend. Charters a private jet. Loads it with water filters, medicine, and food, and flies from New York to Aguadilla. He’s carrying a satellite phone. The first aid of any kind on the west coast of Puerto Rico, Crazy Legs connects us to the outside world. I use the satellite phone to call my parents. At first, they didn’t understand when I explained they had to buy us airplane tickets. They thought we needed their credit card number. They found us the last seats on a humanitarian flight scheduled for the following week.

We were out.


Sometimes you don’t have time to think before jumping. The following weeks were an avalanche of emails and phone calls. Colleagues in San Juan fared alright. My students evacuated. One to Colombia in a show-de-force fleet sent by the Colombian Air Force. Another, fearing re-entrance to the U.S. from Cuba under the new Trumpian regime, flew to family in Florida instead. My students were alright. I called in every favor. We need resources here. Send your solar panels there. Cancel all plans for the rest of the year. Yes, I know, that peer-review is late but you’re shit out of luck. Do you realize where I even work you heartless for-profit journal piece of shit?!

Most of our projects were destroyed or sent flying so far off-track that I would spend the next few months redesigning projects and cutting my losses. This would become my second wave of resignation. Resigning projects that took years to develop, to build momentum, to gain headway, setback after setback.

When the University of Puerto Rico required faculty to return to campus in an effort to salvage its accreditation, I had a choice. Return to no electricity, no water, a now dangerous hour-plus commute. Or abandon ship. And my paycheck. Any faculty not returning were required to submit a request for non-paid leave of absence. With a position lined up in January, could we manage until then? A two-person household with zero income?

Imagine losing your research program. And then your income. Combined, my husband and I estimated a loss of $120k in income and investments. When your life has been outlined by not having enough money, this is a blow that takes years to recover from.

The decision not to return to Puerto Rico was followed by waves of guilt. The personnel committee declined my request for a leave of absence. At the time, I thought this had major implications (like, ‘I could be fired’ implications), but it was no more than an abuse of bureaucracy. The University was a mess after a student strike just months before the hurricane. It split the community right down the middle. That strike made it clear there was no place for a career in Puerto Rico.

Floating and Florida.

The University of Florida offered displaced faculty a four-week paid visiting position. For four weeks, I rested, recovered, retreated into that Spanish moss-covered Florida wilderness. Florida gave me a place to glue my research program back together. To start looking forward. To selfishly take care of my self for the first time in a long time. The research projects that survived the hurricane survived because of Florida.

Winding roads.

How do you salvage a research career? Slowly. Intentionally. A new position with a generous start-up package makes all the difference. I moved to Puerto Rico wide-eyed, naïve. I met my husband. I received my first NSF grant. But I also lost my ambition. Three years of fighting to do research. Fighting the machismo. Fighting an outdated administration. Outdated infrastructure and an outdated salary. Hurricane Maria forced a full stop. Kicking everyone’s life onto a different trajectory. It nearly destroyed me.

But it gave me something back, too.

Catherine Hulshof, PhD

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