The Bold Faced Blog™

October 26, 2017

When Normalcy Collapses

Posted 1 years 354 days ago by Lianabel Oliver

Ashton Associate Lianabel Oliver lives and works in Puerto Rico. She shared this recent post that we now share with you.

My life started to change on September 5th. On that day, my 89-year old mother and 84-year mother-in-law came to live in my house seeking a safe haven to weather hurricane Irma. With an emergency generator and a water tank, my husband and I were well-prepared to face a category 1 hurricane. We took out cash and filled the gas tanks. Although power went down almost immediately, we never lost water or telecommunications. Damage to our home was minimal. There was no shortage of gas, fuel, or diesel and once the power was restored, 10 very long days later, it seemed life would get back to normal. Then came María….

Since 1928, Puerto Rico had not suffered a Category 5 hurricane and this time, coming back-to-back with Irma, people were scared. Once again, storm shutters went up and anything that could become a projectile during the storm was moved or removed. My mother and mother-in-law returned to our home with the firm belief that it would be a short stay and things would get back to normal within a couple of weeks.

On September 20th, God opened the floodgates of hell on the island. We were unprepared for the devastating force of the storm and how it engulfed the whole island, not just a part of it. Power went down almost immediately with the first winds, as did Internet and cable TV. Next to go, telecommunications. You have probably seen more of the devastation than I have, as I have not had access to any TV at all since September 20th and very limited Internet access.

But this story is not about the storm, but the aftermath. The first day, it was not safe to go outside, electricity lines were down, trees blocked passage by foot and by car, and major highways and roads were flooded. No water and no power. All communication lines were down. On the second day, people started to pick up the debris and clean their homes, very difficult when you do not have water. My house had some damage, but nothing compared to people who lost everything, people whose roofs were blown away, homes flooded, doors exploded, or windows shattered — all in the middle of the storm.

The neighbors all came out and we started to tell our stories and assess the damage. We came together as a community, helping each other out, picking up debris, providing a glass of water, and making sure the elderly were okay and had food and water. In my neighborhood, the devastation shocked everyone. Fallen trees were everywhere, and in some cases blocking the passage of cars.

The digital world collapsed. You could have money in the bank, but no way to access it because all the ATM machines were down and the banks were closed. You had no way to communicate with your family or friends to see if they were ok, if they had food, water, or a roof over their heads. Over the past weeks, we have operated in a total cash economy. Gas lines have averaged 6–8 hours and initially were rationed to $10 — $20 per person. There were no supermarkets, pharmacies, restaurants, or entertainment. Traffic was a mess and you risked your life every time you got into the car.

It has now been almost two and a half weeks since María ravaged the island. There is no normal yet, with little hope of normalcy returning in the near future. The digital world is barely recovering and Internet access is still limited. It almost seems like a bad joke when FEMA and insurance companies tell you to file your claim on the Internet. Over 50% of the island does not have telecommunications. Traffic lights are almost non-existent. However, gas lines have gone down, ATM machines are working, and some supermarkets have reopened. Fifty percent of the island now has running water, myself included. The San Juan Metro area has slowly started to be receive power in key areas, mainly hospitals, airports, and centers of commercial activity. Yesterday, however, a strong storm caused the power grid to collapse, and highways and roads were again flooded. Traffic was chaos.

We have been told that the restoration of the power grid may take anywhere from 4 months to a year. Many businesses have laid off their employees because they cannot operate without power, cannot generate a profit operating on diesel, or their facilities suffered significant damage. Telecom is still unstable and communications outside the San Juan Metro area almost non-existent. Many Puerto Ricans have left the island in search of greener pastures with a one-way ticket and no plans to return. One day blends into the next. People with special needs are suffering and some have died for lack of medical attention or inability to power the special equipment needed to keep them alive. The official count is now 43, but when all is said and done, it will be much higher, because María has caused many indirect deaths, heart attacks, strokes, etc. which will not be attributed to the hurricane. Again, the digital world has collapsed and we have no formal way to tally all the deaths. The death count is understated.

In every crisis, there is always a silver lining. We have learned to be resilient. We can endure long lines, eat a lot less, and live without Internet or telecom. We can sleep without air conditioning and live without cable TV. We have gotten to know our neighbors and have shared what we have: food, water, gas, and in our case, our emergency generator. We have learned that every drop of water is precious and how you can recycle water, which normally just goes down the drain. Children have rediscovered board games and the simple pleasures of riding a bike or playing outdoors. We have taken care of our family, particularly the elderly and those with special needs who are most vulnerable in a crisis.

We have seen the best and the worst. There are always people who steal, loot, and try to take advantage of a crisis; however, I choose to believe these people are in the minority. Citizen brigades have organized to clear roads, provide relief aid, and help the most hard-hit communities. More than 600 volunteers, students, faculty, and the community-at-large, helped in the cleanup efforts at the University of Puerto Rico.

Whatever happens, we have witnessed history in the making. Puerto Rico has changed forever… hopefully in the long run for the better. It will be an island with less people, and hopefully less poverty and a more egalitarian society. We have a Spanish proverb that states “when God gives you lemons, you make lemonade.” That is what we are trying to do here. Looking for the silver lining every day and hoping that it will get better.

Here is a grassroots organization, that is also a 501c3 that can use all the help they can get. They work with a very poor community in San Juan. Also, here is a GoFundMe campaign where even a small donation will go a long way.

Tags: Hurricane Irma Hurricane Maria Lianabel Oliver Puerto Rico

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