Heartbroken and soul-shaken | Reflections on Hurricane Maria a year later

By Rosana G. Ferraro |

“They did not die in the hurricane.

They died in pain, at home, of kidney failure unable to access the dialysis clinic for weeks.

They died, gasping for hours near the end, when the oxygen tank they needed to breathe gave out.

They died in the dark and the heat of unsanitary ICU units, of burns or gunshot wounds received before the hurricane that they almost certainly would have survived otherwise.

They died, burning up with fever, of leptospirosis from being in touch with flood waters during the effort to save their neighbors.

They died in fear and confusion after being forced to go off their regular medication.
They died of heat stroke.

They died of diseases of antiquity, in a crisis of neglect unworthy the greatest, wealthiest and most powerful nation in human history.

They died. But we lived. And we remember.”

~ Eleazar David Melendez

Last night I already knew I would light a candle this morning.  Anniversaries are a confluence of closeness and distance to an event – a memory you see again.

I light a candle this morning because I did that morning a year ago, when I turned on the television and watched the moments right before Hurricane Maria slammed into the emerald green island in the sapphire of the Caribbean Sea where I grew up.

It has never been the same since.  And lest we forget, the United States Virgin Islands got hit twice in almost a week – first by Hurricane Irma, then Hurricane Maria.

We know now that the official death toll was almost 3,000, but in those early days, we barely knew what was going on at all.  The radar was knocked out on the island almost immediately, and communications went down quickly.  For many of us, all we knew was what we were seeing on television – but we could not call our families and hear their voices, we did not know if they were alive or suffering.

In those days after the storm, every Puerto Rican I know felt desperation, and we did what communities do – we reached out to each other.  We all tried to call our family members on the island three, four, five times a day, hoping that the cell signal would work on the other end.  Everyone sent packages, whether they would arrive or not, stuffed with batteries and Spam, granola bars and beans.  Regular people and celebrities mobilized to help in any way they could.

My parents and youngest brother happened to be Stateside for a family event when the storm hit – and then were stranded for weeks before they could get a flight home.

My family’s desperation was my grandmother in a nursing home, with an ulcer, Lewy body disease (a kind of dementia that includes body rigidity), no power, and no running water.  The nursing home is small, maybe ten to fifteen patients, nestled in the mountains of Las Piedras not five minutes from my parents’ home.  The caregivers and owners did the best they could in the conditions.

Me with my grandmother in healthier days

 

Once my parents were able to get back to the island weeks later, it became clear that my grandmother absolutely would not receive the care she needed if she remained on the island.  We mobilized our family across the mainland and scrambled to figure out a way to evacuate her.

We finally realized that the only way to safely move my grandmother would be by air ambulance.  Base cost for that which her insurance would not cover?  $30,000.  To guarantee her life, it cost $30,000.  The Paciv Foundation’s Diego Relief Project generously helped my family, and many other families, to cover the cost and get our medically fragile family members medevaced Stateside.

This would be a permanent move for my grandmother, because moving her was inadvisable in almost all circumstances – except in this circumstance, where the health system was barely operational, help did not seem to arrive, and her life was at stake.

We were not the only frantic family members.  What happened to my grandmother happened to many families, to those who relied on electricity, or medication, or treatment to live.  Then there were those who suffered post-storm sicknesses from lack of food, clean water, and sanitary conditions.

This past January, I sat in a large ballroom at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, DC, attending a plenary session of the Families USA Health Action conference.  The presentation opened with footage of the storm, and I felt my heart twist, my stomach tighten, as again I saw the clips I had seen over and over last fall.

The presentation focused on the catastrophic failure of the health system on the island.  Presenters told stories of the struggles of doctors and hospitals trying to care for the ill and injured, deliver babies, keep patients alive with little electricity or water.

The natural disaster that was Maria was followed by a disaster of human suffering – it is hard to conceive what would happen in any community when the most basic of necessities dwindle, help is spread thin, and hope is thinner.  And for those whose health was already compromised before the storm, and those who’s health was compromised by the catastrophic conditions – it was all more than the island could bear.

I heard a news report this morning that said the island was working towards a “new normal” – things will never be the same, and the fight continues.

My co-worker sent me a thoughtful email today:

“I remember this time last year…

Worrying about you…whether or not your parents would be able to catch flights here for your [event]…and what they’d face upon their return…

I was also worried about your island…you grew up there…how would it change? Would you recognize anything after the level of devastation predicted?

I am still praying for the island that gave birth to ancestors who gave me my daughters.”

~Stephanye R. Clarke

Hurricane Maria has left Puerto Ricans everywhere heartbroken and soul-shaken – and despite the distance of the year, that day and the days that followed persist in demanding our attention, and our hope for sustainable, resilient solutions.

Note:

For those Puerto Ricans who migrated to Connecticut after the storm, I would be remiss if I didn’t remind you to register to vote.  Our voices must be heard, and voting is one important way to be heard.

More:

Sunrise Melodies and Tearful Reflections: Puerto Rico a Year After Maria (New York Times, Luis Ferre-Sadurni)

Hurricane Maria: 4 ways the storm changed Puerto Rico — and the rest of America (Vox, Eliza Barclay, Alecia Fernandez Campbell, & Umair Irfan, 9/20/2018)

A Year After Hurricane Maria, School Closures Make Trauma Worse For Puerto Rico’s Children (Huffington Post, Carolina Moreno, 9/19/2018)

Most Powerful Photos of Puerto Rico’s Devastation (Newsweek, 9/20/2018)

David Begnaud reflects on covering Hurricane Maria, one year later (CBS News, 9/20/2018)