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‘Estoy bien’

Living without power in Puerto Rico

‘Estoy bien’

A woman left homeless by Hurricane Maria uses her cell phone at a school-turned-shelter that does not have electricity in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico. (Ramon Espinosa/AP)

Ten weeks after the Category 4 Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, half of the territory’s 3.4 million residents are still without power. Joe and Bev Fitzpatrick, PCA Mission to the World missionaries there, were very helpful in showing me around for a WORLD cover story on Puerto Rico (Dec. 26, 2015), so I asked them how they’re getting along—and they were able to respond on Monday after their “newest bundle of joy arrived—our long-awaited generator.” Here is Bev’s report. —Marvin Olasky 

Fifty percent of us are still without power. In the San Juan Metro area, where we live, that also means that many traffic signals are not functioning. In my opinion, a few intersections seem to work better without lights, but the added concentration needed to maneuver through busy traffic can take a toll. And it’s dark at night without street lights.

As for life at home, there are varying degrees of impact, mostly based on personal resources. Some folks, once they could find fuel, got their whole house up and running on a generator. Others, especially in rural areas, were plunged into the 19th century and are still without running water, electric, or cell phone service. If you add impassable roads or bridges and fewer options for obtaining supplies to the mix, it remains a critical situation. Church and civic groups are assisting government agencies in reaching these areas, but as one elderly woman lamented, “The dark nights are the worst.”

Our home is somewhere in between—we have running water but for two months did not have power. Nights are hot. Three weeks after the storm we finally received the battery-operated fans we had ordered after Hurricane Irma. It felt like Christmas morning. Thankfully, we had lights and fans during the daytime by way of an extension cord to the generator of our neighbor. Most everyone would say that they are better acquainted with their neighbors after Maria. In those first days of isolation—no power, water, cell service, or internet—we stuck together in our newly formed club of survivors.

A month after the storm, my son and I went to Delaware to stay with my sister while catching up with his schooling. Joe stayed at home and continued in camping mode. He ate nuts, eggs, oatmeal, and protein bars, and he hung out at the seminary where he teaches. (They returned to classes two weeks after the storm, even without power.) Due to the scarcity of emergency items on the island, I sent him a Coleman stove along with solar chargers and lights. And I bought and sent the generator with hopes for its speedy arrival. Upon my return to Puerto Rico a few weeks ago, it still hadn’t arrived. Joe remarked that he had finally stopped his futile flipping of light switches as he entered a room. Some habits are hard to break. 

Life without power takes more money, time, and energy than we anticipated. Fuel for a generator costs more than our former high electric rates. Textured washboards are being sold in the street to wash clothes by hand. Many businesses are still only taking cash. Meal prep takes more creativity. Ice can be hard to find. But there is a silver lining in the camaraderie that we’ve had with others, whether a conversation while waiting in a long line (no phones!), someone offering the use of their cell phone on the street (ours didn’t work for weeks), or worshipping at church with our sometimes weary but always welcoming church family. Churches and stores are providing rest stations where people can charge their phones or access the internet. I even saw a photo of a woman blowdrying her hair while at the mall. 

Actually, none of the inconveniences we’ve had compare with the sadness of losing friends who’ve moved to the states. With some public schools still not open and services curtailed or unavailable—medical specialists are moving also—we understand. We now have our own decisions to make regarding the welfare of our teenager.

Gerald Herbert/AP

Residents line up gas cans as they wait for a gas truck to service an empty gas station in Loiza, Puerto Rico (Gerald Herbert/AP)

The general welfare of the island has everyone concerned. We were already in a 10-year economic crisis when Maria hit, and now businesses are shuttered and tourism is down. Many have lost their jobs. Along with the personal trauma of the storm itself—losing a loved one or a home—is a collective trauma. We will need help with recovery for a long time. Our family has raised funds for emergency items for the elderly in subsidized housing and nursing homes, but the needs are overwhelming.

However, there is a resilient spirit here in Puerto Rico. When the 80-year-old grandfather of a friend had to be rescued from his roof after the storm due to flooding, he came to live nearby with his daughter. When I marveled at his ordeal and asked how he was, he minimized it away with an “Eh” and a wave of his hand. “Estoy bien.” (“I’m OK.”) He just wanted to go home, and he was back at his house a few days later cleaning up the mess. Another friend who lives in the states told me that it was on the third post-Maria phone call with his parents, who live in the mountainous interior of Puerto Rico, that they mentioned the roof blowing off during the storm. “We’re fine,” they kept saying.

We know that the Lord is at work in us all in our time of recovery and reflection, even amid dire predictions of when power will be completely restored. In the dark, everything looks gray, but the colors are coming. In the meantime, we’ll keep proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness into his marvelous light.” (I Peter 2:9b)


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  • infohighwy
    Posted: Wed, 12/06/2017 05:11 pm

    That experience there has reminded me how blessed we are in the mainland to have the infrastructure and fast response we have gotten used to. Back when Hurricane Celia in South Texas destroyed part of our apartment, and totalled our car, and we were without electricity for ten days, I read that every single telephone pole subsequently made in the US for many weeks after went to South Texas to replace all those that had been destroyed. But we had railroads, highways and many airports in the area to bring in the needed things to get us back up and running soon. There are no railroads or highways to Puerto Rico, and their infrastructure was, so I have read, already very fragile and at the tipping point of collapsing on its own before the storms. Having experienced and lived for 10 days without lights, refrigeration, or air conditioning in a partially destroyed apartment, my heart and prayers goes out to the people there. With proper management and leadership there, they can perhaps use future tourism (once things get back to a realm that might attract tourists) to bring in much needed money to keep the island from ever becomming as bad off as it had deteriorated to before the storm. Tourism is often a win-win for any area, but does take a lot of very careful management and marketing to make it work in the long run and get folks to want to come back.