The forecast-another word for warning-felt like the kind of news that accompanies a three a.m. phone call. It was bad. People on the island, people like the Apontes, a family whose island roots go back to before the first ground was broken for El Morro, the Spanish fortress that has guarded Puerto Rico since the mid-1550’s, could now only wait.
As "Maria," the name given the storm by the weather service, was growing in both scope and intensity and taking dead aim on Puerto Rico, the Apontes---mom, dad, their two children and 83-year-old grandmother, Amparo---could only hope and pray that Maria, somehow, would take another route. It would take a miracle for it to bypass Puerto Rico and Caguas, the Aponte’s hometown. But Maria was calling the shots and no prayers, from the Apontes or anyone else, were answered this time.
Like all Atlantic-born storms each year, Maria, predictably, began as nothing more than warm, moist ocean air; first rising high and transforming into clouds that either harmlessly create eerily abstract patterns before dissipating or build in strength and ferocity and go rogue, morphing into deadly storms like Camille, Andrew or Katrina, each "storms of the century." Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, Maria would join that club.
The Apontes were as prepared as they could be. Aluminum now covered the mountain vista they saw each day from their comfortable Caguas home; stocks of food and water were stored away; a generator in place for after the storm. But the question lingered; "had they done enough?"
As it turned out, very few on the island had or even could, such was the power of Maria, a "Cat 5," or Category 5 storm, the classification that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration labels the very worst of these storms. There is no "Cat 6."
Sitting recently at a Cherry Creek Starbucks, Ramon Aponte, sips his drink and recounts Maria. The 20-year-old, now in Denver for treatment of an intestinal illness brought on from drinking untreated water, as well as for a pause from the island trauma, recalled his family’s waiting on Maria and the shock of what they witnessed when it was finally safe to venture out.
“It was intense,” he said of the night when 150-plus mph winds blew across the island. The wind, he said, just “whistled.” He said it was louder than he thought it would even be, at a decibel level he had never imagined. Despite nerves that everyone in the house had, no one panicked. But “my grandmother, our strength, was saying her rosary” all through the night.
When it was safe to leave the house and venture out, no one was prepared for what they saw. “The park where I used to play was completely destroyed,” he said. And the mountain that just hours before had been lush with trees and tropical beauty was now unrecognizable. “Nothing was there.” It was now deadened landscape covered in what seemed to be a surgically eviscerated flora. “Brown and gloomy,” is how it looked now.
With Maria now history, rebuilding became the priority. But where to begin? “Nothing was working. We had no water, power or electricity,” said Aponte. The roads that might have taken them for food or rebuilding materials to begin their recovery, were unnavigable, covered by trees, branches “and portions of houses and buildings.”
Removing debris from the roads provided no immediate reward, either. “Traffic lights did not work,” he said, the result of the island’s electrical grid essentially being knocked cold. Lines for gasoline were endless serpentine curves of cars and people stretched beyond anything he’d seen before. Worse, after interminable waits, there was often no gasoline. And the same story---long lines, little to no food---was replayed at the few grocery stores that were open for business.
Stocking up before the storm with food and water was smart but not long term relief. “We were sustained by the food we had previously,” Aponte said, adding, that it was shared with neighbors. A meager supply of food was also gathered by scouring the fields of nearby farms for edibles the storm had somehow missed in its path of destruction.
Water was another challenge. When the stockpile of bottles and jugs of water that had been stored prior to the storm were gone, Aponte’s family, along with the community, was forced to rely on mountain runoff that had replenished and swollen the creeks. To store the water, “neighbors gathered and built a cistern system from materials that were blown by the wind from the hurricane.”
The improvised system worked for rudimentary bathing but drinking it proved problematic. One result, innumerable bouts of dysentery. Among its victims? Aponte. When he visits a doctor here in Denver, getting something to erase this memory of Maria is at the top of his list. Dealing with post-Maria trauma may be another issue. Experts warn that large scale catastrophic events like hurricanes, earthquakes or man-made disasters like 9/11 often trigger lingering emotional after-the-dust-clears issues.
And while the aftermath of Maria---getting food, water, and basic creature comforts---was challenging, there were other hurdles. “Overnight,” said Aponte, “Puerto Rico became a cash economy.” Electrical power to run the banking system was either gone or seriously compromised. “Banks were closed and money,” he said, “could not be delivered. ATM’s did not work.”
Now, only weeks after Maria’s brief, horrible visit, traces of normalcy are returning, at least to San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital. Most of the island, larger towns and out of the way hamlets, remain in dire need of basic everyday amenities. Normalcy remains just over the horizon and more than slightly out of reach.
Aponte, a budding photojournalist and community activist, believes his island will recover. But it needs help. Before he left home, he was part of Centro de Apoyo Mutuo, a community effort that provides those in need two meals a day. It depends solely on donations. Information on how to donate can be found at www.gofundme.com/communitykitchen-caguas or through PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Getting to Denver and having the opportunity to recover mentally and physically has been through the efforts of his Colorado family, Denver attorneys Angelina Irizarry and her husband, Ray McCall. But returning to his island home, whose recovery is open-ended, is unclear. “It’s a struggle right now,” said Aponte as he ponders his future. While he has left the island, the island has not left him. “My heart is with my people in Borinquen, mi tierra.”