Broken Pieces: The Aftermath of Hurricanes Maria and Irma in the Caribbean

by Kristen Sawyer - Kristen Sawyer is a teacher, writer and traveler currently based in Cuenca, Ecuador. She loves using words to capture moments. She works for National Geographic Student Expeditions as a trip leader, and writes for various sites, including the cultural community magazine La Revista Zero.

Utuado, Puerto Rico -- Emily Munoz receives food water and commodities, including batteries from Duracell trucks brought in from U.S. to distribute batteries. Music Artists, Private Sector, FEMA and National Guard come together to deliver water, food, batteries and other need commodities in Utuado. FEMA/Photo by Andrea Booher - Oct 27, 2017

The fear has visited most of us before: If something were to happen to my home–a fire, a tornado, a hurricane, a flood–what would I take? What would I leave behind? And how would I rebuild my life?

It’s a question that one can stew over in the leisure of daily living. Natural disasters feel far away; a fire feels impossible, a flood feels removed. One moment, a family is gathered around the dinner table, laughing and passing shared plates, talking about their plans for the next Saturday. And then, expected or not, a disaster arrives, banging at the door. Everything changes. Even if a city or country is located in a disaster-prone area, like Hurricane or Tornado Alley, preparation cannot fully prevent disaster.

When Hurricane Harvey pummeled Texas, the geography, blocked drainage systems, and overdevelopment made Houston vulnerable. Fifty levees and floodwalls failed to protect New Orleans when Katrina arrived in 2005. When Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico two months ago, it raged across the island; some reports claim it was the fifth most deadly storm to have ever hit the U.S. That type of natural power can’t be anticipated. When watching a natural disaster approach, there is only the long wait as the disaster is observed. Humans are reminded of their helplessness in the shifting course of nature.

From June until November, the Caribbean islands prepare for hurricane season, but the past few months have delivered more disasters than ever before. Hurricane Irma arrived on September 7th, Hurricane Maria on September 20th. A country can prepare for the worse–stock up on medical supplies, send out warnings to residents to evacuate, strengthen floodgates, request government assistance– but there’s only so much that can be done. When Hurricanes Maria and Irma sliced through the Caribbean, affecting the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic, along with dozens of other islands, millions watched their lives change, instantly.

Hurricane Irma hit as a Category 5 storm. It charged through Barbuda, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. Though it didn’t cause as much damage as was feared in some islands, the reality of the damage inflicted cannot be understated. In the Dominican Republic, houses were toppled over, buildings ripped apart, flooding rose steadily. Over 5,000 people evacuated. In Puerto Rico, over 1 million Puerto Ricans lost power. In many ways, the damage that Hurricane Irma inflicted was the precursor of what was to come; it weakened systems and infrastructures that already weren’t terribly strong. The Caribbean islands were still recuperating when suddenly, they were forced to survive another disaster.

When Hurricane Maria landed in Puerto Rico, 60,000 people still didn’t have power due to Irma. The storm raged through cities; it hit densely populated areas. Houses, buildings, lives were broken into pieces. Financially, the estimates range between 45 billion and 95 billion in damages to infrastructure and power grids. In the weeks that followed, most of the island remained without electricity. Even now, two months later, only 46.6% of the country has power. Without electricity, there is no power to pump water into homes, no water for bathing, no water for daily necessities. Water shortage has led to significant health concerns. One in ten Puerto Ricans still do not have potable water. The electricity shortages also affect the hospitals, which are running on generators. Communication is limited; telecommunication abilities and cell service are operating between 65% and 75%. Imagine not being able to call, text, or communicate with loved ones during this time. Death tolls have risen to 51, but estimates could be in the hundreds as difficulties continue. This is the reality on the island, today.

Utuado, Puerto Rico — Monserrate Gonzalez, whose home was severely damaged by Hurricane Maria walks the hill to her neighbors home.
FEMA/Photo by Andrea Booher – Oct 29, 2017

Puerto Rico is not the only island where people are suffering. The island of Barbuda was completely abandoned after Hurricane Irma. 27 people died on island of Dominica, off the coast of Puerto Rico. St. Martin, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands were all affected by Irma, Maria, or both. The Dominican Republic, a country known as a popular tourist destination for Americans, continues to deal with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding. Hurricane Maria left 38 communities abandoned. Over 20,000 were stranded, without power, displaced after the hurricane arrived. The aftermath of a disaster must feel even more unreal that the hurricane itself. Lives were turned upside down. Loved ones were lost. And now, the survivors are faced with the daunting task, the only task that matters: rebuild.

The real effort with a natural disaster comes after, in sustained doses of generosity, assistance, and innovation. As of mid-October, more than 14,000 National Guard troops were in Puerto Rico to help, as were thousands of FEMA members. But Hurricane Maria essentially affected the entire island– millions of inhabitants–and specialists claim that 50,000 troops would be needed to make the difference necessary. There are private and public organizations rallying to raise funds and gather volunteers for support, but unfortunately, the momentum has slowed. For those not living in the aftermath of natural disaster, it feels like the danger is over. Many of us in the United States are immune to a reality without potable water, to a home flattened by winds and rain, to daily life depending on the generosity of others, to the decimation of a professional path. But for millions in the Caribbean, as well as in Florida and Texas, the real work of surviving is just beginning.

Utuado, Puerto Rico — A bridge washed out, cut off a community. A zip line was built in order to get commodities to the community in Utuado, Puerto Rico.
Photo by FEMA – Oct 27, 2017 – Location: Utuado, Utuado

Pictures and testimonies reveal the apocalyptic reality: business broken and closed, houses scattered like skeletons. The possessions of families washed away into the rivers: the splintered kitchen table, a grandmother’s favorite cooking pot, hand-sewn blankets wet and torn, thousands of shattered glasses. Throughout the islands, these mementos, items that carried special significance, have been deposited, buried, and lost. The memories, and shared moments, disappeared into the night. The question lingers for those looking on the disaster from afar: What would I have brought if I was living there? What would I have taken if I had had to flee?

This question, and this reality, is what millions live today. They gather around borrowed or broken kitchen tables, sharing meals from care packages, unable to cook without electricity or gas. The topic of conversation has shifted from plans about the next weekend to plans about the next chapter of a life. Uncertainty lingers. Hesitation is heavy on the tongues of family members as they silently eat their meals. For now, it is still a time of waiting. They will remember the night that washed away their sense of security. And with months, hopefully they will have received enough support and empathy that they can begin the process of rebuilding their own futures. One day, sometime in the near future, laughter will be reintroduced, probably through the youngest member of the family. A kid giggling, a toddler laughing. And with more time, a favorite family dish will be prepared for a holiday or a special Sunday. Everyone will gather around and share stories, passing the plate from hand to hand.

To help the families get to this point, the point where they can live in a sense of tradition and comfort, requires help and support. That assistance can come in many ways: volunteering, donating, supporting groups working on the affected islands. It can come by partnering with people who are raising money through organizations, like World Vision. Now is the time to remind the survivors of natural catastrophes that they are not alone, that they will continue to receive support. It’s a time to remind them that they will have the opportunity to sit down around a kitchen table, share a favorite dish, and laugh together as family.








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