‘I Cry For Puerto Rico Every Day’

Damage at a gas station thanks to 155 mph winds in Caguas. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

[Leer en español.]

My gmail schedule was full of college events. After two decades of waiting to be able to do a master’s in the United States, I was finally on my way at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism in New York City.

I was at ease. Happy. A bit tired – it wasn’t easy returning to a classroom as a student after 17 years working in a newsroom. And, sometimes, I was homesick for my family in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean sun. Although some 690,000 Boricuas live in this city of 8.5 million dwellers, the motherland always rules.

By Sunday, Sept. 24, I would be meeting my professors’ deadlines thanks to the long Rosh Hashanah weekend, which marks the new year in the Jewish calendar.

However, my plans changed suddenly on Sept. 18. The news of Hurricane María on Fox News interrupted the quiet of my youngest brother Pedro and his family’s living room in the neighborhood of Astoria, Queens.

“Do you really want to travel to Puerto Rico tomorrow with María and with José on its way?” asked my sister-in-law Normahiram Pérez, lifting her right eyebrow higher than the iconic María Félix in a black-and-white film.

I did not answer.

Two hurricanes moving at the same time across the Atlantic Ocean were enough to persuade me to refrain from getting on a plane. So far this year, 10 storms have developed in an extremely active hurricane season.

Returning home

I could not sleep. I got up at 2:00 a.m., at 3:00 a.m., at 5:00 a.m. “Enough! Mami is alone, and Fidel (my son) will be nervous,” I thought, after seeing pictures posted by my friends on Facebook showing images of the devastation caused by Hurricane Hugo in 1989.

Mami worked with the victims of Hugo in the capital city of San Juan. For several days, my brother and I ate from the brown meal bags the military distributed. I only remember that we used to pour water into them to make the food inside the plastic wraps fluff up. One night, while we were still without power and sitting in front of my dear neighbor Maribel’s house, some five of us drank from one glass of ice water. In my mind, these memories foretold the magnitude of the aftermath of Hurricane María.

Three vehicles rest against a concrete home, following a mudslide in the mountain town of Utuado the day after Hurricane María devastated Puerto Rico. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

On that occasion, Hugo hit Puerto Rico – a U.S. territory since 1898 – as a category 4 with sustained winds of 140 miles per hour. This time, the headlines said that María was approaching as a category 5 and would cross through the island. Hurricane Irma had already wreaked havoc on Sept. 6, 2017, as a category 5 in the northwest. It left an estimated $1 billion in damages, according to what Gov. Ricardo Rosselló said in Washington.

Irma also left a trace in the memory of my husband Benjamín, who, as a correspondent in Cuba, had to report on those events from the neighboring country. He had previously written a Facebook post with advice in case of a category 5 hurricane that went viral in Puerto Rico.

At 18, my son Fidel had not lived through a hurricane this powerful. His routine – I candidly thought – will undoubtedly be altered for a few days. His obstinate passion for posting soccer games results on Facebook would be thrown out of whack, as I knew there would be no power or internet connection. Who better than his mother to right the new wrongs in his world ruled by Asperger’s syndrome, a type of high-functioning autism?

By the time my sister-in-law woke up the next morning of my sleepless night, on Sept. 19, 2017, I had already bought my roundtrip ticket. I would return to New York the following Sunday. My husband also decided to go to Puerto Rico after I told him that I was at JFK Airport. I had no idea of the deep pain I would endure for what turned out to be a stay of 19 days.

My mother, Gloria Almenas-Vargas, carried many stories in her heart of 77 years. She is a retired teacher, and her job allowed her to see the trials and tribulations of many of the island’s 78 municipalities firsthand. Her closeness with the poorest neighborhoods and public housing complexes provided my brother and me with the best survival lessons. Puerto Rico is a country with a high crime rate. By August of this year, the police had recorded 26,676 class 1 crimes, which include murders, involuntary manslaughter, rape, theft, housebreaking, raids and carjacking, among others.

Searching for gas

Hurricane María clouded that well-known fact after it hit the island on Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017. For instance, no amount of money or smooth-talking in the world would convince a passerby to sell me a bucket for gas, a “candungo,” which is what we call the five-gallon red plastic container required to buy gasoline, which costs around $30. My $60 offer was not tempting enough for anyone to let go of the thing we were all looking for: gasoline and diesel.

People lining up for gas in the town of Hatillo, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

With 155 mph winds, María’s eye landed as a category 4 hurricane at 6:15 in the morning near the town of Yabucoa, on the east side of Puerto Rico. It destroyed as it pleased.

Three days after the hurricane, I stood in line for eight hours to fill my car’s gas tank near 65th Infantry Avenue in Río Piedras. When it was close to being my turn, they announced to the nearly 20 vehicles waiting at the time that the station had run out of supplies. Half a mile away, after an additional four hours, I was able to complete the task at a different gas station.

The entirety of that hot day was dedicated to finding gas. I was unable to make the queues to buy some water or the remaining groceries available in the supermarkets, let alone to get some cash from an ATM, which is the only currency accepted in the absence of electricity.

Mami chose to wait for María by herself. She remained that way before, during and after the event. Her home did not suffer major damage. Like the rest of the 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico, she had no water (although it came back quickly), no power, no phone and was surrounded by debris.

People collecting spring water in the municipality of Utuado. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

“I am fine, Vanessa,” she kept saying. “This hurricane will make me fatter,” she said one day in her bittersweet humor. I was not the only one who brought her food every day. Two neighbors, each of her own volition, would bring her a plate of white rice, sardines or Vienna sausages. That was a privilege they were able to access thanks to the fact that they had electric generators in their homes, which have become the country’s new “electric grid.” One of the neighbors keeps her insulin in her refrigerator to avoid the high temperatures, which rose to over 90 degrees Fahrenheit.

Many times I went to Mami’s house after crying my heart out due to the cancellations of my flights to New York. Would I miss my semester at CUNY? Would I ever actually arrive in New York?

Returning to New York

“I am not going back to New York,” Mami told me, sitting in her living room on one of the 18 days in which I visited her to bring her chicken with French fries and a cold soda. Her stay in the New York metropolis in the 1960s, at a time when more than half a million Puerto Ricans had already migrated to the area, lasted less than a year. The cold and the discrimination were the two main reasons she refused to settle permanently in the city that is home to the largest number of Puerto Ricans of any city.

Norcy Ramos showed the backyard of her family’s house in Hurricane María’s aftermath in Salinas, Puerto Rico. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

I traveled back to New York in the late hours of Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, with my son and my husband. I have cried every day since.

The bafflement at the number of María-related deaths makes me question the transparency of the Puerto Rican government. The police say there are 48 confirmed deaths. They are evaluating the number of people killed by leptospirosis, a disease caused by a bacteria that spreads among humans who have had contact with rat and mouse urine. The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) via the Department of Health informs the public of the importance of boiling water and following mandatory hygiene measures, warning that epidemics of conjunctivitis, lice and diarrhea are almost inevitable.

CNN divulged that residents of the municipality of Dorado, in the north of the island, were consuming contaminated water, as it is scarce. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) confirmed that, indeed, a number of these wells are listed in a decontamination program known as Superfund.

The slow response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) pales in comparison to the dynamic and quick response of renowned Spanish chef José Andrés, who has distributed more than a million meals in Puerto Rico. To make matters worse, when it rains, it pours  ̶  literally. Heavy showers are further deteriorating the condition of rivers and roads after the 40-inch rains registered during Hurricane María.

Domi Leonaldo, 24, and Arnaldo Cruz, 56, beat the high temperatures with well water in the El Cocal neighborhood of Santa Isabel. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

“Puerto Rico has 2,400 miles of transmission lines and 30,000 miles of distribution lines with 300 substations across the island. An estimated 80 percent of the power grid was damaged during hurricanes Irma and María,” explained FEMA on its website.

It will be a slow recovery.

I have not spoken to Mami in two days. My niece called me today to tell me that the battery-operated fans arrived, 25 days after my brother sent them from New York via priority mail.

What needs to happen now

The city has not stopped sending aid to its compatriots on the island. Like thousands of other Nuyoricans, my brother, sister-in-law and nephew Diego descended into the boxing gym El Maestro in the Bronx as soon as they saw the destruction of Puerto Rico. They are helping pack donation boxes to send to the island, where telecommunications continue to be irregular. New York has welcomed students from the island in its public schools, and has sent police officers and experts.

At CUNY, I have received warm hugs and words of support from the faculty and my fellow students. In the city, I have seen T-shirts, ads on the train and posters with slogans of encouragement for Puerto Rico. My son, for the moment, is getting to know the neighborhood of Corona, in Queens, where we have been staying. He just took the train by himself for the first time from Corona to Astoria, something I would never have imagined were it not for the present situation.

Category 4 Hurricane María destroyed Santa Isabel’s seafront, which was under reconstruction. (Photo by Vanessa Colón-Almenas for Voices of NY)

For now, I am reintegrating among the 700,000 or so Puerto Ricans living in New York City. I know that I – along with the diaspora in New York City – will be able to help “deal” with the situation in the country, as us Boricuas commonly say.

In Puerto Rico, more than 75 percent of the country remains without power. A quarter of the population still has no water. Communications are erratic. The day-to-day is an uphill battle when traffic lights are not operational, when many businesses have not been able to reopen, when supplies are scarce, when you need to plan the day taking into account the time you will spend in queues, when corporations decide to lay off their workers using María as an excuse, when schools are unable to welcome back students, when doctors lose power in the middle of an operation and must continue doing their job under the light of their cell phone’s flashlight, when the information provided by the government is incompatible with the reality experienced by many towns in the country.

The diaspora has an unquestionable mission: “Puerto Rico cannot fall into oblivion.” Now more than ever, the words “oversee,” “denounce” and “reconcile” must be a part of the Decalogue of every Puerto Rican outside the island. It is our job to work tirelessly to write in the annals of history that the diaspora did not forget its people, that it helped in the reconstruction and that it denounced unfair indifference. It is our reason to exist!

Vanessa Colón-Almenas is a member of the 2018 class of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

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