Yesterday was the third anniversary of Hurricane Maria. I wanted to share a piece I wrote while reminiscing the tragedy with my family. To my fellow survivors: I hope you find comfort in knowing you are not alone.
The wooden fence behind our house finally relented and gave in to the unstoppable winds. The sound of its collapse caused my mother to find a seat on the couch and pray for our safety. It felt as if the island itself was being pushed and taken to a far-off place. One of my sisters held the front door to our house while the other was tying a rope on the handles to hold it in place. I was in charge of securing the other end to the massive dining room table. My mother’s boyfriend parked his car in the gap between the balcony walls, so our door wouldn’t get the worst of the winds and fly away. As for the garage, my father had persuaded me to pressure my mother and sister into using their cars to pin them in place from the inside. He was already getting calls from his friends who had lost theirs and were gone with the wind.
I woke up to my mother screaming and crying because she saw the fallen fence had broken her window. My steps were silenced as I walked out and into the dark room. We had lost our phone signal and electricity three hours into the storm. From the corner of my eye, I saw my twin sister forcing my mother to drink agua de azahar to calm her nerves. I rushed over and grabbed as many towels I could carry while my other sister grabbed the mop and various buckets. We worked hard and fast, eventually getting wet due to the rain and wind. The sound of our conversation was drowned out by the mighty thunder and wind that loomed over the house. Leaves, sticks, and chunks of wood managed to come in, making the matter more frustrating. Her furniture still ended up getting damaged because of our lack of resources to cover the hole. However, I found she made the best of the situation.
There was a moment when things had fallen into a rhythm in my home. Although our anxiety was at an all-time high, we found ourselves making jokes to distract our thoughts. The storm was beginning to move farther and farther away from the island. My mother’s boyfriend thought it would be good to check the broken window from the outside. I do not recall how we got outside, with the car blocking the main entrance, but my sisters and I followed him. It was dangerous and quite nerve-racking, but the hum of the wind in our ears and caress against our skin was thrilling. Our laughs were hungrily swallowed by the wind, and with our arms spread open, we felt as if the wind would grant us flight at any moment. The short moment of ease showed us we will persevere and move on from the unfortunate position we have been placed in.
It is essential to remember we were one of the lucky ones. When I was visiting the town where I attended university, I saw the road split right in the middle. Many homes in the mountains were covered in rubble, trapping people inside of them. Another friend who went there with me said he heard authorities took too long to rescue them and found that people had died. Day by day, the death count increased because the government and president refused to give us the help we desperately needed. The newspapers said it stopped at 4,645.
When I tell people I was in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria happened, I get looks of pity. I find myself ignoring those looks and getting frustrated. They were not there when we did not have water, food, or electricity for many months. They did not suffer the things my people or I suffered through. Most important of all, they did not care. Their façade did not fool me. We were in the news for barely a month, and then everyone forgot about us. It is similar to what is happening right now to the BLM movement. They turned it into a trend, jumped on it, and forgot about it when it did not benefit them anymore.
My frustration still arises when a minor inconvenience happens in the United States that has to do with Americans losing electricity for a couple of hours or days. I laugh when I see them complain about it in the news. I would like to see them taking cold “showers” with buckets or crying at night when you could not sleep on inflatable mattresses because the generator was too loud. I was one of the lucky ones that still had their house. My grandmother’s house was filled with water, so we had to replace all of her furniture and belongings. My mother did not have a job and barely any income, so we could not continue to pay for our house and later had to move in with my grandmother. We were six people living in a three-bedroom house.
My memories from the aftermath are a blur. My mind decided I would forget those endless days to protect me. However, I remember the first month I spent in New York when I arrived at my aunt’s apartment with my twin sister and grandmother. I remember sobbing while I took my first proper hot shower in many months. I remember lying next to my sister and telling her I could not sleep because it was too quiet. My ears had grown used to the generator’s sound in the background. We slept on a sofa bed, but it was the best sleep I have had in months.
My sister and grandmother had to go back to be reunited with my mother and little sister. My university informed us our school will be starting again. Still, I decided to stay in New York because I wanted more for myself. I left my life behind, and still continue to feel the guilt that comes with it. I have learned to embrace it because I needed to discover myself and my place in the world. There are moments when my mind remembers short moments, like staying up late with a flashlight to read my books when I could not bear to shut my eyes. I treasure them because it pushes me to make something of myself and value what I have today.
4 thoughts on “Remembering Hurricane Maria”
I felt your words sink to the bottom of my heart. The way you described the chaos that reined down on your family, yourself, and many others in Puerto Rico, so vividly, gave us a glimpse of what it must have felt to have been there. Thank you so much for sharing.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read it, Sharifa.
Thank you for sharing your experience with those of us who haven’t lived through a storm that fierce and situation that desperate. The details and way you depict the moments make it seem so clear, so present. You have such perspective and strength born in such a tragedy. I’m sad that you had to go through it, and also grateful that you’ve made the choices you have, to be here, and to be part of this group of leaders.
There are so many lessons in your writing, Alex. The main one is survival which begets adaptation. The second is perspective and how we see things differently, especially when we are knowledgeable of far worse circumstances. You took me back to my junior high school teacher who used to say something like, “I used to be sad because I had no shoes till I met a man with no feet.” For those without feet, the cries of the shoeless fall on deaf ears. I totally get it, especially when “I Can’t Breathe” was appropriated for people who don’t want to wear masks. I still laugh at them because they will live to tell their story.
Honestly, like many, I am detached from Hurricane Maria for different reasons. The only hurricane that I have experienced didn’t do a lot of damage. Therefore, it is important that you tell your story and remembering those who didn’t survive (4,645) and still recovering because you have the opportunity to shed a new light. Thank you for sharing, Alex.