Interview from Puerto Rico (Hurricane Maria)
A year ago, I received an e-mail that signed off, “Greetings from a reader in Puerto Rico.”
We exchanged e-mails back and forth and when the hurricane hit, we exchanged e-mails once again. I asked if our reader would mind if I asked some questions and she gracefully obliged allowing those of us who live well outside of Puerto Rico to get a glimpse inside.
From the age of 6 months on, Yamilette grew up in Puerto Rico, drinking coffee and listening to stories from her grandparents.
She grew up and lives in a small town called Toa Alta, one of the oldest towns on the island while being raised by her family and extended family specifically her hard-working mother, a guitar playing grandfather, and a clothes sewing grandmother.
She graduated from Puerto Rico Law School and became a licensed attorney where she does litigation of insurance, civil, and corporate matters.
Yamilette grew up in church but after an issue at her church was swept under the rug and her mom’s insistence that the church deal with it was not heeded, both Yamilette and her mother left the community. While her mother continued to walk in freedom and forgiveness, Yamilette took another path of life away from those she had been hurt and disappointed by. ‘If those who call themselves Christians say they love Jesus and yet could be so unloving, then why would I want a part of that.’ Yamilette’s mother continued praying for and hoping for her daughter and 5 years ago, Yamilette responded to an invitation to church from her mother followed by an invitation into the loving and welcoming arms of Jesus. She started attending Calvary Chapel and her life was forever changed. And now, Calvary Chapel, has become part of the forefront of those serving and bringing hope back to the people of Puerto Rico.
What was life like in the weeks leading up to the Hurricane Maria?
The weeks leading up to Hurricane María were rough because, just two weeks before the hit of Hurricane María, we were hit by Hurricane Irma, a category 5 hurricane. Although Irma's hit was not direct in most parts of the island, the situation was already weak when Hurricane María hit the island two weeks later. Some people have been without power and water since Hurricane Irma, which makes the situation now even more difficult.
What was life like the hours before Hurricane Maria hit?
Horrible. People were racing to supermarkets to get supplies and the streets were nothing short of chaotic. Also, we were all nervous and anxious because most of us had never been close to a hurricane as strong as María. The most recent strong hurricane to hit Puerto Rico directly was Hurricane George in 1998, a category 3 hurricane that also devastated the island. But we all knew that Hurricane María was stronger, with gusts heading up to almost 200mph.
Although my house is pretty safe, I was scared for my life too, and for the lives of the people I know. Text messages I sent and received just before Hurricane María hit are dreadful, it was like we were all saying goodbye to each other just in case we didn't make it through the hurricane.
What was life like as Hurricane Maria hit?
Scary. The sound of the strong winds is something I never want to listen to again, it was like a thousand lions were roaring outside the door. Even though all the doors and windows of my house were protected, water started getting into the house, which I was able to control with towels over the doors and windows. Thankfully, nothing got damaged. I also heard the sound of debris hitting the windows and I saw my neighbors' roof fly off. They're alright, they were not at the house as the hurricane hit, but they lost some of their possessions. The sustained winds went on for 16 hours where I live, it felt endless.
What was life like in the days after Hurricane Maria hit?
It was hard. We lost power, water, and all telecommunications during the hurricane. The only information I got was from a little battery powered radio with only one radio station working. But many people didn't even have that, so they were completely unplugged from the world outside. Many are still going through that same situation around the island. Through the radio I heard that the town next to mine got severely flooded because of the storm surge and I have friends who live there. Not knowing if they were alright or even alive was awful.
However, to this day, two weeks after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico, several towns are still without communication and many have not been able to get out of their towns and even their streets because roads are blocked by fallen trees, debris, and power lines that fell during the hurricane, creating an enormous security risk. Others have not been able to get out or go back to their homes because it is still flooded. Many people in towns in the center, west, south, and far east of Puerto Rico do not have food and clean water and it is an humanitarian crisis.
Also, many people have lost their jobs because their workplaces did not make it through the hurricane. Many people here who have a strong desire to rebuild the island and move on from this tragedy but they are unable to because they have nowhere to work.
How much were you and your community personally affected by Hurricane Maria?
In my case, other than having no power and no water, I'm alright. It was a struggle to find clean water and food for the days right after Hurricane María but supermarkets are stocking up and we have been able to get the supplies we need and to give to others. Also, I was able to get back to work within a week from the hurricane, and so was my family. My community was definitely affected by the hurricane. One family lost absolutely everything they had and four families were left with houses without a roof because they flew off with the winds of the hurricane. Nevertheless, we stand united as a community. We've helped each other in every way we can -- with food, water, supplies, lending phones with a little reception so people can call their loved ones who live in other parts of the island or in the US mainland, and rebuilding the houses that suffered damages.
What will change in your life and your community’s life following the Hurricane’s damage?
In my life, I have definitely learned to be thankful for the fact that I'm alive. Many people died during the hurricane, more than the government is officially reporting. Nobody in my community died either and even though some have lost everything, they're grateful to be alive after this disaster. This will probably sound all cheesy, but we also appreciate services like power and water even more now because we don't have them and we've had to come up with different ways to do things we did quickly with power and water. In sum, I think we've all learned to stick together, protect one another, and be grateful for what we have, whether it is a little or a lot.
What would you want fellow Americans to understand about Puerto Rico that may not be understood?
In my life, I've encountered many fellow Americans who either don't know that Puerto Rico exists or don't understand that we too are American citizens despite our territorial status. Therefore, we should have equal treatment. This is not even about statehood, which is a highly political topic, but about having access to the same amount of federal help and resources to get through this terrible period.
How has the response of the United States been to Hurricane Maria?
I think I can divide this answer in two parts. First, the federal government response has been too slow. We were almost at the edge of complete chaos when we started seeing more military on the streets trying to control the situation. FEMA has yet to reach towns that have not received any help at all and even on the towns they have been able to reach, the help hasn't been enough. I understand that what happened was a major disaster but logistics should have been better coordinated. They're making some progress, but very slowly.
But, second, the response of people in the United States has been amazing. I've seen the efforts that have been made and continue to be made by religious organizations, non profit organizations, artists, and many more who are trying to help Puerto Rico get through this, and it's overwhelming. We're thankful for all those efforts.
If you could tell the world anything about what it’s like to be you today, what would you say?
Once you get used to certain tools of comfort, it can become difficult to live without them, but it is not impossible. Nothing like a natural disaster to put in perspective what is really essential and what isn't. And while I don't have power, now I have more time to talk to my fellow neighbors, I don't have running water, but I've learned to cherish the rain when it falls. And many times I don't have reception on my phone or Internet, but I'm grateful when I hear someone through the phone and know that they're ok.
If you were to have answered that question a month ago, what would have been different?
A month ago, I would have cringed at that answer. I was very used to all comforts: reaching people quicky and being available to be reached rapidly, having a phone that vibrates with The Washington Post alerts to keep me updated, going from point A to point B without hassle, etc. Going through Hurricane María and surviving it has definitely changed my life.
Do you have any stories you would want to share? Things you’ve seen or heard? Stories that have given you hope or broken your heart?
There was one story that did both. Earlier this week, one of my clients came to my office. He didn't have an appointment, which is how I usually handled my schedule but since most phones are down, I saw him. Like I've been doing with every single person I talk to, I asked him how he was doing. This man lost everything he had during the hurricane. The fact that he is even alive is a miracle because his roof flew off while he was still at his house, and a neighbor rescued him during the hurricane. He even lost his mailbox, and he wanted to meet with me to tell me to send his letters to his temporary mailbox, and that he couldn't call me because he didn't have reception where he lives now. As he told me about his horrible experience during the hurricane, my eyes started filling up with tears but, by the end of our conversation, he said "don't you worry, we will rebuild our island, and when we're done, it will be even better than it used to be.” I will never forget those words.
Thanks for listening as Yamilette shared her story from Toa Alta. To follow along and help support the work of rebuilding Puerto Rico in connection with Calvary Chapel, you can visit, calvarychapelhurricanerelieffund.com, and follow them on IG @calvarychapelpr, and on FB at Calvary Chapel of Puerto Rico.
If you have more questions or would like to reach out to Yamilette to thank her or if you would like to hear further about how to get connected to the work of restoring hope to Puerto Rico, feel free to send me a note that I can pass along.