Hurricane Maria: What I Saw on Puerto Rico

I was in Ponce, on the south coast of Puerto Rico, when Hurricane Maria struck.

We had thought of everything – strong house, food, stored water, generator.  But we hadn't considered overall infrastructure, especially communications.  Besides there being no electricity, the municipal water system was out in our neighborhood; gas stations were closed or wrecked; and among perhaps the most critical things, radio stations were off the air, there was no internet, and there was no cell phone service.

Outside knowing we had been in a terrible storm, post-Maria life in Ponce might as well have been the aftermath of an EMP attack.

Twenty-four hours earlier, we had been in a world of the internet and powerful computers in our pockets, both able to accomplish things almost beyond imagination.  Indeed, a few hours before the hurricane was expected to arrive, my son, Nathan, and I watched the computer model that predicted that the bulk of the storm would be to the north of us, that we would have winds no more than perhaps 60 to 85 miles per hour.  No picnic, to be sure, but certainly not the Category 5 storm we experienced.

After the storm, we were in the pre-telegraph early nineteenth century.  Our flashy modern communications system was a house of cards that fell down all over the island.

We had no idea of what was going on.  Where had Maria gone after leaving Puerto Rico?  There was talk of a Hurricane Jose – was it coming this way?  And people were anxious to get word to friends and family mainly back in the States.  But how?

Seeking some form of communication, Nathan, whose avocation is sailing, rigged up a marine radio powered by a car battery.  He heard the call of a man whose sailboat had been disabled while outrunning the storm.  The man then limped his boat to just offshore of Ponce, with no sails and almost no diesel fuel.  Upon radioing Ponce, he was shocked to get no response – it was as though the world had blown away.  Happily, Nathan had gotten his radio on, and he instructed the sailor how to use crankcase oil to fuel his diesel to get into port.  The sailor helped us in turn by proving radio information he had received that Hurricane Jose was not coming our way.

I'll not go into the details of the next ten days I was in Ponce – of our bad water pump, our broken water cistern, our propane-hungry generator, of having to boil water for drinking, and of taking a sponge bath using just a few ounces of river water.  We had it so much better than many others – the house was intact, we had adequate food, and were able to secure water.  We heard stories – of rural houses crushed in an overnight mudslide, of corpses decaying in a hospital without electricity.  And there was the stretch of major highway where I saw a construction zone and signs telling people not to stop.  Yet there were people pulling off the road anyway in order to fill vessels with water coming from mountain springs.  No one made them quit – water became the most essential commodity.

Two things I learned from the hurricane.  First, our razzle-dazzle communications system is incredibly vulnerable.  After the storm, Nathan repeatedly asked: "What would we have done in the 1980s?"  I replied: "We would have used our reliable old landline telephones and gotten information from our phone book."  The old infrastructure was simple, but it was durable.  Given current threats of terrorism, war, and hackers, not to mention extreme weather, the little electronic marvels we base so much of our lives on are incredibly vulnerable.  If it all crashes, whom are you going call?  And how?

Secondly, part of the curse of the Puerto Rico situation is related.  No one still knows what all is going on.  We were in Ponce, at 166,000 the second city to San Juan.  Yet despite an urban environment, we felt isolated, as if no one cared.  Admittedly, my perspective was limited, but all I saw with respect to aid to Ponce was a fuel barge docked in the harbor a few days after the storm.  Otherwise, it seemed to be nothing more than helicopters continually flying overhead.  How much more difficult is it in the rural areas and in the smaller towns, where roads are out, power is down, and there is no communication?  What are they doing for water, food, medicine?  What happens if it doesn't rain, and the whole place goes up in flames?  Or if it does rain and the mudslides take over?

Michael Brewer of the American Volunteer Emergency Response Team (AVERT) fears that there may be a substantial death toll due to so many people being isolated from the supply chain of basic necessities.  He and others are doing what they can to provide help, but the job is overwhelming.

People are desperate to get off Puerto Rico.  Originally scheduled to leave September 26, I had two flight cancelations, and it looked as if I wasn't going to get out until mid-October.  But I prayed, and God sent an angel.  True, it was in the form of a Boeing 767, and it said "United" on the side, but that was fine with me. 

Upon arriving home to Arkansas and running water and operating gas pumps and Facebook, I noted that while I was gone, my wife had placed a telephone book in the trash.

I reclaimed the book.  Memories of Maria are too fresh.

Mike Landry is a retired professor of marketing and supply chain management.  He can be contacted at writelandry@hotmail.com.

I was in Ponce, on the south coast of Puerto Rico, when Hurricane Maria struck.

We had thought of everything – strong house, food, stored water, generator.  But we hadn't considered overall infrastructure, especially communications.  Besides there being no electricity, the municipal water system was out in our neighborhood; gas stations were closed or wrecked; and among perhaps the most critical things, radio stations were off the air, there was no internet, and there was no cell phone service.

Outside knowing we had been in a terrible storm, post-Maria life in Ponce might as well have been the aftermath of an EMP attack.

Twenty-four hours earlier, we had been in a world of the internet and powerful computers in our pockets, both able to accomplish things almost beyond imagination.  Indeed, a few hours before the hurricane was expected to arrive, my son, Nathan, and I watched the computer model that predicted that the bulk of the storm would be to the north of us, that we would have winds no more than perhaps 60 to 85 miles per hour.  No picnic, to be sure, but certainly not the Category 5 storm we experienced.

After the storm, we were in the pre-telegraph early nineteenth century.  Our flashy modern communications system was a house of cards that fell down all over the island.

We had no idea of what was going on.  Where had Maria gone after leaving Puerto Rico?  There was talk of a Hurricane Jose – was it coming this way?  And people were anxious to get word to friends and family mainly back in the States.  But how?

Seeking some form of communication, Nathan, whose avocation is sailing, rigged up a marine radio powered by a car battery.  He heard the call of a man whose sailboat had been disabled while outrunning the storm.  The man then limped his boat to just offshore of Ponce, with no sails and almost no diesel fuel.  Upon radioing Ponce, he was shocked to get no response – it was as though the world had blown away.  Happily, Nathan had gotten his radio on, and he instructed the sailor how to use crankcase oil to fuel his diesel to get into port.  The sailor helped us in turn by proving radio information he had received that Hurricane Jose was not coming our way.

I'll not go into the details of the next ten days I was in Ponce – of our bad water pump, our broken water cistern, our propane-hungry generator, of having to boil water for drinking, and of taking a sponge bath using just a few ounces of river water.  We had it so much better than many others – the house was intact, we had adequate food, and were able to secure water.  We heard stories – of rural houses crushed in an overnight mudslide, of corpses decaying in a hospital without electricity.  And there was the stretch of major highway where I saw a construction zone and signs telling people not to stop.  Yet there were people pulling off the road anyway in order to fill vessels with water coming from mountain springs.  No one made them quit – water became the most essential commodity.

Two things I learned from the hurricane.  First, our razzle-dazzle communications system is incredibly vulnerable.  After the storm, Nathan repeatedly asked: "What would we have done in the 1980s?"  I replied: "We would have used our reliable old landline telephones and gotten information from our phone book."  The old infrastructure was simple, but it was durable.  Given current threats of terrorism, war, and hackers, not to mention extreme weather, the little electronic marvels we base so much of our lives on are incredibly vulnerable.  If it all crashes, whom are you going call?  And how?

Secondly, part of the curse of the Puerto Rico situation is related.  No one still knows what all is going on.  We were in Ponce, at 166,000 the second city to San Juan.  Yet despite an urban environment, we felt isolated, as if no one cared.  Admittedly, my perspective was limited, but all I saw with respect to aid to Ponce was a fuel barge docked in the harbor a few days after the storm.  Otherwise, it seemed to be nothing more than helicopters continually flying overhead.  How much more difficult is it in the rural areas and in the smaller towns, where roads are out, power is down, and there is no communication?  What are they doing for water, food, medicine?  What happens if it doesn't rain, and the whole place goes up in flames?  Or if it does rain and the mudslides take over?

Michael Brewer of the American Volunteer Emergency Response Team (AVERT) fears that there may be a substantial death toll due to so many people being isolated from the supply chain of basic necessities.  He and others are doing what they can to provide help, but the job is overwhelming.

People are desperate to get off Puerto Rico.  Originally scheduled to leave September 26, I had two flight cancelations, and it looked as if I wasn't going to get out until mid-October.  But I prayed, and God sent an angel.  True, it was in the form of a Boeing 767, and it said "United" on the side, but that was fine with me. 

Upon arriving home to Arkansas and running water and operating gas pumps and Facebook, I noted that while I was gone, my wife had placed a telephone book in the trash.

I reclaimed the book.  Memories of Maria are too fresh.

Mike Landry is a retired professor of marketing and supply chain management.  He can be contacted at writelandry@hotmail.com.

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