Hurricane Maria Showed Us That Community Is Our Greatest Resource
On Tuesday, September 20, 2017, millions of us woke up to a new, unwelcome reality. In the pitch-black hours early that morning, Hurricane Maria, one of the strongest storms in recorded history, had torn through Puerto Rico. On my island home of Vieques, a tiny tropical paradise about eight miles off the east coast of Puerto Rico’s main island, trees were suddenly bare, houses were levelled, and the sense of security that comes with essential services like electricity and running water had vanished.
The days, weeks and months that followed were an exercise of will, but if you ask anyone on Vieques how we got through it, the answer is usually the same: “We helped each other.”
When I think back on this past year, it’s the seemingly small yet monumental moments that, linked together, tell the story of survival.
In the day following the storm, we gathered in the town plaza for impromptu meetings to answer questions and keep us informed. We learned that the pharmacy had insulin in stock, but with no electricity or connectivity to run a credit card, they wouldn’t distribute it to patients. Without hesitation, a friend who runs a hotel spoke up, saying that the hotel would pay for the medication.
“Just give the people their f*cking insulin so they don’t die,” she pleaded. That simple act of humanity was one of many that reinforced the island’s strong sense of community — perhaps our greatest resource. It was a powerful moment that reminded me, and many others, that we were in this fight together.
Unsure of when outside relief would come, we shared what little we had with those who needed it more.
With a house on its side in the middle of the street in one direction and a downed tree in the other, I wasn’t going anywhere. That first day after the storm, a friend who lives nearby had walked over and under branches and downed power lines to make sure I was okay. His life was just as devastated as mine, but he put his needs aside to see if I needed help. I will never forget that.
Once my road was passable, a few of us drove around to survey the damage and make sure our friends were okay. Returning home, I saw that my landlord had hung a tarp under my porch and built a makeshift shower using cistern water and a hose. “I just thought you’d feel better if you could take a shower,” he told me. He was right. When that cold water hit my skin and washed away layers of dirt, sweat and bug spray, I felt normal again, if only for a few moments.
Days later, a leap of faith changed everything for me. With all of our communication systems down, we had no way to tell people we were alive and in dire straits. The few satellite phones on the island were unavailable to most of us, but I had heard a rumor that there was cell service in San Juan. I hitched a ride on a friend’s plane for the day and, as it turned out, the rumor was true. As I made my calls, I learned that another friend had started a GoFundMe campaign the night of the storm. At that point, less than a week later, $350,000 had been raised to help Vieques, and a plane was on its way with satellite phones and medical supplies. I was elated and overwhelmed. Cut off from the world in those difficult days, we felt alone and abandoned. In that moment, I knew that people cared. A lot of people. We would be okay.
At the last minute, a seat opened up on that plane’s return flight, and they offered it to me. What I witnessed when I got to the States was truly amazing. A group of people, scattered across the country, with almost no experience in disaster relief and tied together only by a shared mission of keeping Vieques alive, were making things happen.
As donations poured in from across the globe, the team sourced and delivered diesel fuel to keep the sewage plant and other vital facilities running. They secured medication and supplies and arranged for private transport to Vieques, all without being able to communicate with the island’s airport. The team on the island told them what was needed, and they moved metaphorical mountains day and night to make it happen. Every setback, and there were many, was met with a new plan. The people in need were our husbands, our mothers, our daughters, our friends; giving up was not an option.
With limited communication with the island for months, it was impossible to know what was happening day to day. In bits and pieces, I experienced many more humbling moments as I learned about the ways that people were taking action to support each other. Some gave their clothes away to those who no longer had any. Others invited strangers into their homes to offer hot meals and comfort. Citizens with medical experience went door to door doing wellness checks and scoured the island to find medicine and other critical supplies. Restaurants opened their kitchens to feed the hungry. People with pickup trucks used what little gas they had to haul debris and clear the streets. In a million different ways, the community saved itself.
Things are much better here now, but, as it always has been, island life is challenging. Recently at a party, some friends were venting about our daily frustrations. An excursion to Home Depot, for instance, means getting on the 6am ferry, being grateful if the store has 70 percent of what you need, and hoping that your return trip isn’t canceled. Another friend thought for a moment and said, “we don’t have the best of everything, but we have the best of everything.” We heard the ocean waves crash on the shore a few yards away, saw the sky lit by constellations, listened to the coqui frogs chirping their hearts out. But as we looked around, we knew that what she really meant was the people. The resilient, kindhearted survivors that make this place so special.
Amy Gordon is a writer in Vieques, Puerto Rico.