~By Pamela Hammond~
This is my friend Marlene. Originally from New Jersey, Marlene has lived for many years in Utuado, a municipality of Puerto Rico located in the remote mountainous region, where she rescues horses, street dogs and stray cats.
I met Marlene in 2009 when my husband and I rented a one room cottage on her property. The cottage was a horse stable that Marlene had turned into a B&B. It was one room, just big enough for a futon bed and tiny bathroom behind a beaded curtain. Utuado was lush and lovely, thick and green—very, very green. We stepped outside our door and picked a papaya for our breakfast, or maybe it was a mango. Whatever it was, it was fresh and delicious. In the afternoon, we read novels while lying in a hammock next to the river and we visited the site of ancient Taino petroglyphs. At night we sat on the little porch and listened to the coquis, those tiny frogs whose songs echo through the mountains. Utuado was the most remote place we had ever stayed, and we spent our time exploring, enjoying nature and sharing stories with Marlene.
When Hurricane Irma roared through the Caribbean on September 7, 2017, it stayed just offshore and did not make a direct hit on Puerto Rico. A good portion of the island lost power and water, structures were damaged, and lives were lost. It did one billion dollars in damage. It was bad, but it could’ve been worse, and they knew it. They had no idea what was coming their way.
On September 18, two days before Hurricane Maria made landfall, the national weather service issued a hurricane warning for the entire island. Maria was strengthening at an unprecedented rate. An Air Force hurricane-hunter plane clocked wind speeds of 160 miles an hour. The prime minister of Dominica sent out a message saying that the storm was causing “mind-boggling” devastation. Shortly after that, there was only silence from Dominica.
On September 19, the Puerto Rican government opened 500 buildings to be used as storm shelters. Donald Trump sent out a Tweet, “Puerto Rico being hit hard by new monster Hurricane. Be careful, our hearts are with you—will be there to help.”
Marlene took refuge in her barn. She surrounded herself with hay. On Wednesday, September 20, at 3:30 AM, Marlene wrote a Facebook post:
“We all moved to the cement barn. A friend told me to get behind cement. Robinson, the barn cat, is delighted to have me share my blanket in the hay. It’s just starting – have I said this before? – and we should be in the thick of it in the AM. I remember the sound of George in ’98. It sounded like a freight train passing over. It’s going to be strong and frightening for 12 hours, which seems excessive. I hope not. We just made it in time, the rain is lashing. I ran over to the house to check on felines and all was well.”
It was the last her friends would hear from her for many days.
Maria made landfall at 6:15 AM, the first Category 4 storm to hit the island since 1932. The storm was just shy of reaching Category 5. CNN and the Weather Channel had showed us the devastating pictures of a flooded Houston when hurricane Harvey dropped 30 inches of rain over three days. We had few pictures coming out of Puerto Rico but parts of the island saw that same 30 inches of rain in just one day. Winds destroyed the National Weather Service’s observing sensors. Some towns lost 80% of their structures. The island’s entire power grid was destroyed. The population lost access to clean drinking water which was dependent on electric powered pumping stations. Half of the sewage treatment plants were out of order. Raw sewage began to contaminate rivers and reservoirs.
A resident of Rio Grande described his experience in a public Facebook post:
“…The experience was akin to a 7.0 earthquake that lasted 28 hours. The whole house shook. We could hear things hitting the house, trees falling down in the yard. The next door neighbor’s house had a zinc roof, which was ripped and slammed against our house. Our shutters (heavy metal storm shutters) on the lower level were hit by the zinc and one corner came loose. From this corner, the wind ripped our shutters one by one. The doors were pushed open, glass smashing everywhere. I fought against the wind to close the doors again and pushed a multitude of boxes and furniture against the doors, to try and contain the wind and rain…”
Marlene also had a frightening day and night. In a January 4th Facebook post she wrote of her experience:
“…The four of us huddled together, (Marlene, her two dogs and a cat) shivering and soaking wet – or rather I was – together under a blanket behind a hay bale in the barn when the roof blew off. The wind (had blown) the gate across the doors sort of trapping us in. I panicked and tried to push them open again, duh, to no avail, and got drenched. Cold cold night!…”
On Thursday, September 21 the rains and the flooding continued. Donald Trump said that the island had been “obliterated.” He promised to begin rebuilding “with great gusto.” He made a pledge to help local officials, before spending the weekend golfing in New Jersey.
On Friday, September 22, people of the island began to emerge from their homes. In the more populated areas a few gas stations opened but they soon ran out of gas. Banks were closed and without power no one was accepting credit cards. Long lines formed at ATM’s which quickly ran out of cash. Store shelves were emptied of food and supplies.
People went from place to place trying to find a cell phone signal. Sometimes they got lucky. Most of the time they did not. Communication towers had been ripped down. Eighty-five percent of the island’s cell towers, and most internet and telephone lines were gone or didn’t work. Somehow, Marlene managed to get out a message. Facebook friends knew only that she was alive. Nothing more. The island was isolated from the rest of the world. Utuado, and Marlene, were isolated from the rest of the island.
Utuado was in shambles. The highway in and out was destroyed. Houses had slid down the sides of mountains. Homes at the bottom of hills were filled with sliding mud and debris. Roads were impassable. People could see neighbors calling out for help further up the mountain, but there was no way to reach them. No one had power. Even more critical was the lack of drinking water. No one came to help them. Aid workers had their hands full in parts of the island that were easier to get to.
The one-room cottage where my husband and I had stayed on our vacation was the only structure on Marlene’s property that was not destroyed. It became Marlene’s home. She was lucky to have that. People who’d lost houses moved in with friends lucky enough to have theirs still standing. Others built makeshift shelters with whatever they could find.
Neighbors used chain saws and old fashioned muscles to cut and clear fallen trees and debris from the roads. People did whatever home repairs they could manage. Helicopters flying over the island took photos of the many bright blue tarps that covered the broken roofs of so many houses. In areas like Utuado that couldn’t be reached by roads, helicopters dropped water and simple food boxes. It wasn’t nearly enough.
Finally, on October 14, the long awaited Facebook post from Marlene appeared:
“Me, six felines, my two equines, and one (belonging to) neighbors, Rio Pancho and Charlie (the dogs) are all alive. Utuado and my house and stable are destroyed, devastated, but we’re all alive.”
Day after day people salvaged for food and water, searching the jungle for native fruits and sorting through wreckage for surviving canned goods and other things they would need to live. A manual can opener became a critically important household tool. They rapidly flew off store shelves and those who didn’t already own one had to find other ways to open the precious metal cans. People emptied their refrigerators of spoiled foods. Without garbage pick-up the smell of rot throughout many crowded neighborhoods grew worse each day.
Marlene’s first instinct was to leave the island. A mainland friend started a Gofundme account for her but it didn’t take long to find that moving the horses would be cost prohibitive. Marlene would not abandon them. Donations allowed her to buy basic supplies and fuel for her generator which she ran only sparingly. Fuel was scarce and expensive and Marlene had lost not only her home, but also her income.
On October 23, about five weeks in, Marlene made her way to a nearby town, found a cell phone signal, and posted pictures of her devastated home. While the walls were standing, the roof was gone and there was no way to tarp it. Days of heavy rains poured in.
For most, the most pressing crisis was a lack of water. In Utuado, someone ran a pipe from a mountain spring to the roadside to make it easier for people to collect water. All over the island people lined up at springs, streams, and rivers to fill containers, bathe, and wash clothing. Lake Carraizo, a reservoir that provides drinking water for half of the metropolitan San Juan area was contaminated with raw sewage because of inoperable treatment pumping stations which lacked diesel fuel for generators. Other parts of the island were suffering the same problems.
Marlene’s entire water system was destroyed when the highway collapsed. The river that runs past her property was now unsafe, brown and muddy with silt stirred up from a nearby lake, thought to be polluted. She was forced to haul water in barrels for herself and the animals. She started to search for the tubes and piping she would need to repair her own water lines, but everyone else in town was searching for the same supplies so they quickly became scarce.
Marlene wrote in a Facebook post:
“I fill drums in the truck, and bucket it for washing (and flushing the) toilet. This should make my arms strong, right? Cause the cottage is a long haul away, and to the two equines, plus this kid’s horse that has been here since before Maria. But yeah, ok I don’t do it for the kid. I do it for the horse. Rowdy son of a so-and-so! Likes to bite – but I like him.”
“Six weeks after Maria, not that much change here. The roads are bumpy mud paths bordered by mountains of debris, one car passes at a time and the national guard is trying their best, but they don’t have much to work with. It’s an hour to get to town and most days no cell or internet service – our AT&T tower has come down – heavy rains now daily.
“I’ve registered with FEMA. I know people have sent address markers to animal service rescue but no one has come – deep in the country we’re not at the top of the list. So many in need. Before Maria I was surviving. Animals in the street were eating too, mostly pregnant females and some males. I’ve 12 mouths at home to feed now (Marlene plus 3 horses, 2 dogs, and 6 cats). It was a joy to give comfort to the homeless street dogs. Now I find myself in their position…
“Everything is gone here. I have to take one day at a time. I have no idea about tomorrow, I just live to get through the day. Living without water is the hardest thing to do. But you know me, no time or energy for tears. I wish I had better news for you. I can’t run away. I’ve lost my income, and I have no idea what’s next…”
Much of Marlene’s clothing was destroyed or blown away. She salvaged what she could and took them to the mountain spring to wash. On November 8 she wrote:
“My laundry is done and I mustn’t dawdle – the line was and is long – and impatient, but if I can save more clothes from the house, I’ll be a regular here.”
As roads were slowly cleared, it opened the way for more volunteers to make their way to Utuado. From FEMA and local sources residents received water, peanut butter, jam, rice and beans. It was the non-profit organizations, Christian mission groups, private citizens — the good hearted individuals on the ground — who did the most in the mountainous areas. A group called No Spiritual Surrender arranged for someone in New Jersey to send 400 feet of flexible PEX tube for the mountain water system that would serve Marlene’s home. Another volunteer brought Marlene and her neighbors a carbon filtration system allowing her to filter her water. Rumors of corrupt local officials hoarding government food and water were heard all over the island. Donald Trump’s tweets now made it clear that he thought the government had already done enough. For the people of Utuado, many who had yet to see any government aid worker, hurricane Maria might be over, but they still had plenty to fear
The day to day effort to survive began to take its toll. Something as simple as a headache or sore back became a major annoyance without available over the counter medications. Heavy rains increased the mosquito problem but repellants were hard to come by. The sound of generators hummed throughout dark neighborhoods each night. People used their expensive fuels to power their fans so they could keep the insects away long enough to get a few hours of much needed sleep. Daytime temperatures rose but without power and with the high cost of generator fuel, few could afford to run daytime air conditioners or electric fans. The suicide rate began to spikeEmbed from Getty Images
On Nov 10th Marlene writes:
“I was super sick last night. Doctor took my blood pressure – head pain – and it’s good but I’m overwhelmed – who would not be – and so goddamned tired. Also understandable.”
November 22 was Thanksgiving Day. While those of us in the states enjoyed turkey and pumpkin pie, many in Puerto Rico had no such feast. Marlene sent out a Facebook post to all of her friends.
“I want to express my gratitude to all who have supported me, in big and little ways. It’s meant more to me than I can say, you’ve lifted me when I’m down. Just knowing you think about others gives joy! You darlings, you. I am hoping strongly that things are about to change. More on that as they happen! But the day after Thanksgiving a group is coming to clean up, inside the house, and maybe start work on the water system. Pray it so!
“Yesterday a boots on the ground NGO, World Vision, gave boxes of food while I was filling my water drums. Inside was organic brown and red rice with kale and chia. I had the best dinner!!! Added to that, peas and organic baby food (two years and up). Real red veggies, squeezed from an envelope. We’re struggling here, all of us, but don’t worry – and don’t frown. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for us all. Wishing you a mighty fine Thanksgiving Day.”
On December 5 Marlene writes about her experience with FEMA:
“How FEMA works. First you register, whenever you have access to phone or Internet or go to a FEMA disaster site. It took me 39 days to accomplish this first step, mainly because we were waiting over two weeks to be dug out of our isolated street by some heavy duty equipment.
“Then FEMA investigators appear in a couple of weeks, by now time has little meaning, in big black SUVs, very nice, comforting because it says this government is spending loot…and they take notes and say things like ‘ok, you need a water system, house, and a shiny new life.’ All good. Comforting. You then work on that pesky virtue called patience.
“Finally you meet a FEMA Houston person lost in the mountains, looking for someone’s house, clutching a scrap of paper with an address and I am reassuring her that it – the mud trail – I’m about to take her on to get to her assigned destination will be okay, more or less.
“I ask her how she does assessments. They use a computer program to rebuild structures. And come up with an estimated cost to rebuild. She, this sweet lady has been sent from pillar to post. They don’t work section by section, it’s from here to there. Not so efficient, Mr. President, expensive in time, gas and effort.
“Then photographs of what’s left of your home and life are sent to another department where your home and belongings are tallied and they come up with THE NUMBER. And hopefully you will be able to put the pieces back together again.”
Christmas and New Years came and went. Without power, they were dark holidays in many Puerto Rican homes.
On January 2, Marlene wrote:
“Water, water, water. I think about it all day. I dream about it at night. My whole existence revolves around getting water, filling these drums for me and my four-legged family of eleven, from the mountain spring, hauling water, bucketing water and cleaning water.”
Now, six months after Hurricane Maria tore up land and lives — as Puerto Rico begins to recover, not much has changed for the people in Utuado and other outlying areas. Electric workers have powered more populated tourist areas and visitors can return once again to San Juan and other popular beach towns. Workers are finally making their way to the mountains, attempting to install new electric poles in the rugged terrain. Progress is slow.
People still struggle to find food and water. Because so many businesses were destroyed, either by Maria or her aftermath — such as the high cost of trying to do business by feeding generators with expensive fuel, or from the total lack of tourists on an island dependent on tourism dollars — many have lost their income. It makes it difficult to purchase food, water, and other necessities even as necessities once again start to appear on store shelves. Without jobs, people can no longer make their mortgage payments. Banks are foreclosing, making their shattered lives even worse
FEMA food and water has been scarce in Utuado. The food box that Marlene received in mid-February was the first she had seen since November. It was hardly worth our government’s efforts to deliver it as it contained only water (very much appreciated) candy bars, cookies, Doritos, and (perhaps a stab at providing some nutrition) peanuts
I’ve heard some politicians trying hard to explain away the slow recovery by portraying Puerto Rico as a third world country. It wasn’t. Visiting there prior to the hurricane was much the same as visiting a state on the mainland. Like all other places, Puerto Rico has their poor. But the island also had one of the highest standards of living in the Caribbean. There were paved highways, hotels, car dealerships, banks, schools, traffic lights, JCPenneys, health spas, fast food, Walgreens, video games and all the other things you might think are necessary for a place to be considered “civilized.” I read that only 54% of Americans understand that Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. Perhaps that’s why it’s been so easy for our government to ignore their plight. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory. Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens. We have as much of a responsibility to come to their aid as we did Florida and Texas. Using Puerto Rico’s debt and infrastructure problems as an excuse to not send them adequate aid was just that – an excuse. What state doesn’t have financial and infrastructure problems of its own?
No one knows what the real death toll from hurricane Maria was in Puerto Rico. In the beginning, officials tried to keep the numbers down. Who knows what their logic was behind that? The first official reported number of 16, conflicted with the number of bodies taken to funeral homes. No one considered the many people who died in the days that followed, perhaps from injuries suffered, disease caused by drinking contaminated water, stress induced heart attacks, or not having access to necessary medical treatments such as dialysis or needed prescription drugs. Stories of people burning their dead have trickled into the headlines. Analysts now believe we may never know the real number of lives taken by Maria. They suspect it could be more than 1000.
In a public Facebook post on February 23rd, a citizen of Vieques, a tiny island off the coast of Puerto Rico, writes:
“5 months and 3 days ago this is what I experienced on Vieques. 150+ miles per hour winds took every leaf off every tree. It shook all homes to the point that everyone knows the time around 3:30 am that we all woke up from the shudder. And so many who lived in homes made of wood held doors shut with sheer body force and hope that it would pass. As roofs flew off, doors pushed in and walls exploded. It rained for days and people lived without shelter. And they still survive. Without light. Many without water. Life in Puerto Rico is tentative and we need attention. It’s hard to grab attention in the current news cycle. Please don’t forget about the 3.5 million citizens still living under impossible situations. We need help too.”
And now it is summer. Marlene is still living in the one room cottage. She is still without power. She cooks her meals on an outdoor grill and in a microwave oven that volunteers left with her but only when her generator works. After a few failed attempts, volunteers have managed to bring water to Marlene’s property. It required thousands of feet of plastic tubing and some Rube Goldberg technique. One end of the tubing was placed into a natural water source on the mountain. The water runs through tubing down the mountain, into a 30 feet tall tree, over a highway, down the rest of the mountain, and across a river to finally reach Marlene’s holding tank. Some days it works. Some days it doesn’t and she must go up the mountain looking for a break and repair the line. Marlene is still trying to get her home rebuilt. Obtaining materials has been a trial. Local shortages have made sourcing materials impossible. Marlene is now working on getting the materials she needs from the U.S. mainland. Volunteer groups are lining up to do the labor. Through it all, Marlene struggles to maintain a sense of humor and a normal life in an environment that is nothing close to normal. She laughs at the antics of the animals living in her care. Kindness makes her cry. But Marlene continues to have strength. And Marlene has hope.
There are ways you can help. It’s not too late.
Please help Marlene rebuild her home. I know she is a stranger to you. But sometimes we need to help a stranger just because it’s the right thing to do. A crew is willing to volunteer their time and talents. Marlene just needs help to pay their air fare to the island and purchase materials. Fortunately, because Puerto Rico is a mild climate, homes don’t require as many materials and aren’t as expensive to rebuild as they are on the mainland. If you are willing to help a stranger today please donate. Even a small contribution to this Youcaring fund can make a big difference.