Sunday, October 8, 2017

Hurricane Journal

I am composing this journal as we go along but I don't know when I'll be able to post it. Excuse the rough editing. I've seen internet, anywhere, just once in the last three weeks and then for thirty minutes. When you see this, it will mean I found an internet connection somewhere again and had a chance to post it. I apologize to all those I've not been able to contact.

Monday, September 18. Zero Minus Two. My wife finds passage on the internet, two tickets to Panama for herself and our ten year old son with the hopes of escaping the storm altogether. I don't have the credit available on my card to buy the tickets. I call the credit card company to ask if I can pay using my savings account. No, I'm told. I ask them for an extension on my credit and they transfer me: to fraud. Trying again, this time I'm connected to the right department. After a woman takes all of my information, she says our credit will be extended: in five days. She says she will send a new card by mail. I tell her there won't be mail in five days and cancel the extension.

Tuesday, September 19. Zero Minus One: Most stores are closed, the rest will be closed by noon. We've gathered up supplies and prepare to brave it out in my house. Five five-gallon tanks of fresh water, much more water for washing up. Perishables in the freezer with two bags of ice. Canned goods, nacho chips, other ready-to-eat food. I grab a couple of bags of popped popcorn, figuring that we won't be able to pop any any time soon.
We have an expensive flashlight that is supposed to last for 39 hours before recharging. We have candles. We have extra batteries for the radio and flashlights.
I believe we are ready.
Like most houses in Puerto Rico, ours is built like a bunker: cement walls, flat roof. Luis Ferré, ex-governor, cement manufacturer and philanthropist, preached the importance of build tough housing to survive hurricanes and got rich doing it. However, if we lose our roof, the cement walls will be little comfort.
Final NHC report at 11 p.m.. Maria is 165 mph with possible strengthening and is expected to make landfall over the southeastern part of the island and slice across the whole of the island, hurricane everywhere. It is expected to pass north of Ponce at approximately 11 a.m. Wednesday.
Ponce is a moderate-sized town, about 180,000 people sixty driving miles from San Juan. We are on the south coast.

Wednesday, September 20. Day One. Three in the morning. We are awakened by furious gusts. Soon, the electricity cuts off. My wife notes that she has no cellular service. This surprises me, seems too early. And why the cellular? Four a.m., the winds have picked up to a constant tropical storm force. Six a.m., with "daylight" we can look out the front windows and see the wind whipping the trees. Hurricane force. Eleven a.m., the hurricane is at maximum force, winds still coming from the north. A huge tree topples on to the neighbor's house. The tree in front of our house has lost half of its height from broken limbs. A tree in the vacant lot in back of our house is lashing our roof, making loud banging sounds. I'm afraid the back room might be breached and move everything out.
We have two street-rescue dogs, both Chihuahua-miscellaneous mixes, Max and Chloe. Max is the kind who feigns valor who has used his voice to protect from many mailmen-assassins. He is part kangaroo and loves to jump on to the sofa cushions up to the back of the sofa and then fly through the air. Chloe spins in worried circles, always counterclockwise. Both are terrified and huddle close to us.
At about 1 p.m., the winds have died down, an unnatural drop-off. The eye? Could it have come here? My neighbor shouts to me that he needs my ladder. He climbs to his roof and unstops the drains which are clogged with leaves. I do the same on my house. A flat roof, there is about six inches of standing water. The drain pipes releases water in explosive gushes.
The wind returns, coming from the south. It continues with hurricane force for about three more hours. Then comes tropical force winds with frightening gusts. On this part of the island, I would estimate about four to six inches of rain: nothing terrible.
At six p.m., shortly before dark, we go out to explore. The street connecting to ours is a jungle, so many toppled trees that we have fight our way through to make a path and then go on all fours to crawl beneath toppled trunks. We make our way to the main drag and then head back.
Night falls. We eat bologna sandwiches for dinner.
We discover the nacho cheese dip has jalapeños. The bags of popcorn are jalapeño-flavored. It seems that the last things which I'd grabbed from the store shelves were those with jalapeños.
Remarkably, the water is working and we take drip-showers.
We moved my son's mattress to our bedroom. His room doesn't have any kind of breeze. We barely do, even with the windows open.
Our next door neighbor has an emergency generator which roars like a jet engine and then goes into a coughing fit. It fires off several rounds of M-80s and then dies. He tells us he turned it off because it was too loud to permit sleep.

Thursday, September 21. Day 2. The water stopped. We designate a wastebasket as the chamberpot. We take showers using a bucket and a bowl.
No electricity, no cellular, no phone, no internet. No communication with the rest of the world. One radio station, AM, crackles and pops and talks about the hurricane and gives no useful information.
My wife, Ana, is distressed that maybe she will not be able to get her art to Florida in time for an exhibition.
We go out to explore. Weaving our car between fallen trees we find that, not only are the stop lights not working, most of them are not there. The poles are gone and the wiring is in a tangle across the street.
The fire station looks fine. The first floor business across the street from it has lost its windows, glass and aluminum frames.
Most of the major streets are blocked by fallen poles or trees. The few drivers who have been on the road have worked out the puzzle of which streets are clear enough and we can follow their muddy tracks. An auto parts store has lost its wall. A church is completely trashed.
I see the guard in front of my work, the university. Some buildings are okay, some were damaged.
A huge tree behind a statue commemorating the Taino Indians has fallen. I snap a photo.
At five p.m., we find a restaurant with a generator. The owner is cooking and selling his perishable foods. An hour's wait and we snag the last pizza.
My neighbor has been tinkering with his generator and tonight it sounds like killer bees attacking a nuclear power plant. The bees go silent and die.

Friday, September 22. Day 3. I drive into a gas station that's open. It doesn't have gas and has most of its foods cleaned out. I buy a Diet Coke and a bag of bubblegum. My family has a bubble blowing contest with the next door neighbor kid, who wins.
I clean out all of the broken branches from the trees in front and in back of our house. I have only a handsaw, but it's a well-made one and the effort is good exercise.
I pull a fan out of the back of a scrapped desktop computer. I attach it to a 9-volt battery and hold it front of my face. It works and I have a breeze for about fifteen minutes before the battery dies.
Exploring we find that WalMart is open. A forty-minute line, cash only. An employee personally escorts us as we shop. We buy ice, fruit, some items that are moderately perishable such as bologna. I figure the ice will keep the bologna edible. They have portable fans, D batteries. I buy one but they don't have D batteries. No one does.
A trickle of water today. It shuts off by nightfall.

Saturday, September 23. Day 4. Disorienting. Still no communication with the outside world. No cellular, no phone of any kind. No news. Now there are many more radio stations, but they are maddening in that they say nothing. Various people over the airways describing their plights. They have taken up making pleas to whoever can talk to the outside world, telling them to call families in the States or wherever and provide names and numbers. A man rants that there is no way all of the cellular service and internet could go out unless it was a conspiracy. Donald Trump is using Puerto Rico as a guinea pig to test his future plans for information blackout.
No one has working phones and yet the radio regularly gives out emergency phone numbers.
No cloud cover tonight. Without electricity I was told to expect a remarkable display of stars. I see hundreds. I was promised billions and billions.

Sunday, September 24. Day 5. Have I mentioned our neighbors are great? We drop by on one another bringing snacks and morale. Come evening, groups cluster in the cool evening air and chat. A stone's throw away (–literally, a few year's back we had a problem with someone chucking stones over the wall), there is a massive low-income housing project. It is vacant. I suppose they are all in government shelters. Who wants to pass their time in apartment boxes without electricity? I wonder about those who live on upper floors of buildings, no elevators. I hear a few generators. In my middle class cul-de-sac, we have exactly thirty houses and three have generators.
My neighbor's generator tonight sounds much quieter: like a Harley convention. It sputters and fires bullets. It dies.

Monday, September 25. Day 6. I wonder about FEMA. I guess they are running shelters. I don't see much of them present. I see quarter-mile long lines of people waiting for ice. I do see a lot of locals cutting up trees in the roads along with the Army Reserve. The police have to act as traffic cops at every major intersection. I don't see any car accidents, probably because everyone is looking every direction at once while driving. I also suspect a relative lack of crime. I don't hear police car sirens as often as before the hurricane and few gunshots.
We wash clothes by hand and hang them out to dry.
I work at the Ponce University of Health Sciences. I don't know how we are going to continue the semester. The medical students need to be prepared for the boards, not just given shadow puppet shows as lectures (if we had electricity for light to make the shadows).
Volunteers including me and my son go around cleaning up the damage to the school. The building with the new neuroscience laboratories is trashed: it lost its roof. A half-million dollars to set it up and they moved in Friday before the storm.
My school has a generator, most importantly to preserve valuable biological specimens. They are having trouble finding diesel and are working the generator ten hours on, ten hours off. I go to my lab to recharge devices with rechargeable batteries.
I've given up on finding ice and tossed the perishables from the freezer which now smells bad. 
The water is on with enough strength to take a shower in the shower.
My neighbor's generator sounds like a raid by Pancho Villa.

Tuesday, September 26. Day 7. I drive my family over to visit friends. Don't have to call ahead, no one has a phone. My gas gauge tells me I have 69 miles remaining so I decide today's the day to get gasoline. I tell my wife I'll be back in two hours. After two hours, I can see the station at the end of the line. After four hours, I turn the corner. After five hours I pull in. Cash only. While waiting in my car (air-conditioning on!) I finished the final two hundred pages of a Len Deighton novel and I am eighty pages into another.
I have twenty dollars remaining. I meet someone else who tells me they spent only two hours waiting for gas at a different station.
I find a newspaper, the first time in a week having outside news. (I've listened for hours to radio and there is nothing approaching coherent news.) Hurricane force winds have damaged all of Puerto Rico. Tens of billions of dollars in a place that lives with bankruptcy from not being able to pay tens of billions of bonds. 95% are without electricity or cell phone. Months before electricity will return. Months of these long dark nights. The newspaper includes basketball news but nothing of the baseball standings.
We find a Burger King open. Cash only. They get the order wrong and I protest. When I look at the receipt I realize I don't have money to pay for the correct order. I tell them that and not to change the order to the correct one. They take pity on us and bring the missing hamburger, the one I didn't pay for, to our table. 
While driving home we see a line outside an ATM machine. Those waiting tell us that the machine is going to open in 30 minutes at 6 p.m.. We join them. Others come and the line becomes hundreds long. Six p.m. passes. We wait ten more minutes and then give up, figuring that we'd been suckered by a rumor.
My neighbor's generator sounds like elephants tap-dancing on firecrackers.

Wednesday, September 27. Day 8. My goal today is to find an open bank or ATM. I have two dollars on me and most everywhere demands cash only. I've heard that my bank will open. I pass WalMart and notice their lot is nearly full. It isn't for WalMart, it's for the nearby bank.
I have an idea: I know where my bank has two branches, one across the street from the other. Wouldn't that divide any line in two? I pack water, an umbrella for the sun and a book to read.
The line at the bank isn't horrendous and even better, nearly the entire passage is in the shade. It only took 50 minutes. The bank provided a maximum of $100 and said I could take a hundred more out tomorrow.
Tonight the generator next door sounds like early rocket launches from Cape Canaveral. It blasts out pops before experiencing mission failure.

Thursday, September 28. Day 9. I go back to the bank with high hopes and no umbrella for the sun, after all, yesterday I had to wait less than an hour and mostly in the shade. This branch is closed. The other nearby one has a long line and hours in the sun.
Before going back to the house to get an umbrella to protect me from the sun, I stop at the nearby K-Mart which has just re-opened. I find some size C batteries and also buy a mosquito screen to hang over our front door. Keeping the doors and windows open is a must at night to catch whatever little breeze. The C batteries will operate our boom box, so we won't have to rely only on the pathetic short-wave, AM-FM radio. Cash only. They take all but two dollars. It is 1 p.m. and I believe plenty of time to get some money from the bank.
I get an umbrella and camp out in front of the bank. After two and a half hours, a bank employee announces they will be open for fifteen more minutes. I count 28 people still ahead of me, and I think I might have luck. There are a hundred behind me. Two minutes pass and the bank teller comes out and says there will be five more minutes.
I surrender.
At home, my wife asks me why I blew all of the money at Kmart. I blow up at her yelling it's because I'm stupid. My son, surprised by the outburst, runs to his room and cries.
I try to change a five gallon tank of drinking water and lose hold of the bottle, breaking it and starting a minor flood. Ana's paintings are caught in the flood.
My neighbor has been tinkering with his generator all afternoon. Now it sounds like a Rocket '88: much quieter than any previous incarnations. It purrs along for several hours and then begins popping and dies.
About midnight, I hear his truck turn on. He is sleeping in the air-conditioning of his truck.

Friday, September 30. Day 10. My goal today is to get money from the bank. I have money in the bank. It is mine if I can get it. I am a hunter, a caveman. I must chase down the money for my family. I bring an umbrella for the sun and some water. It is a hot day, no clouds. I get in a line behind about four hundred people, this time starting at 10:30 a.m.
I finish the water in the first hour. There are many elderly people and I wonder how they can survive this wait. We talk to each other. We agree that we have money in the bank and it must be more difficult for the poor. Or maybe, since we can't get our money, we are the poor.
Two hours have passed. In spite of the umbrella, I believe I am getting sunburnt, reflection off of the asphalt. People drop emptied soda cans wherever and they are swarmed by bees. All of the flowers have blown away.
I have the physique of Donald Trump, tall and portly. I also suffer from the heartbreak of tiny hands. The Puerto Rican elderly are thin and tough: beef jerky made human.
Three hours pass. Still about 100 people in front of me. I am dehydrated. I lean against a palm tree while others save my place. Nice folks. I advise one on getting into medical school.
Four hours pass. The line seems to be moving more slowly. I count 58 people ahead of me. Maybe it was a jinx to count: the bank announces they are shutting down early.
I go home. I am exhausted and nearly in heat shock. I climb into bed and sleep.
At five p.m. my wife tells me that she heard of a grocery store that allows you to pay with ATM. We drive there to find it is closed.
On the way home, we pass an ATM with about 30 people in front of it. I think that this is due to another rumor that it is going to open. My wife convinces me to investigate. It is giving out money, the maximum, $500. I'm sure it is going to close before I get to the front of the line. Success. It is 6:30 p.m., dark-dark. We see a line at a Burger King drive-thru and celebrate with warm food. When we return past the ATM we see hundreds waiting in the dark.

Note: I have more, I'll try to edit and post soon. No electricity, no internet, spotty cell phone (October 8).

Part Two.


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