By Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez
/ Published October 20, 2017
A flag hangs from a highway overpass that reads “Estamos de pie,” in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Oct. 2, 2017. “Estamos de pie” translates to “We are standing,” which is meant to motivate people to stay strong and overcome the disaster left behind Hurricane Maria. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
As I sat at my desk, devouring a turkey sub for dinner, I became embarrassingly engulfed into the Game of Thrones theory video I was watching.
Suddenly, the screen on my phone went black. I was instantly irritated.
“Who dares interrupt me right as the narrator begins to present me with the evidence that proves Bran Stark is the Night King?” I thought to myself. “How can he be the Three-Eyed Raven, while simultaneously being the White Walker leader?”
Although I was ready to have my mind blown, this irritation instantly became a hopeful panic as soon as I saw the name on the screen – Mom.
It was a phone call that I couldn’t answer fast enough.
On September 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico and wreaked havoc on the island, causing widespread devastation and destruction.
A destroyed, roofless house sits abandoned in Caguas, Puerto Rico, Oct. 1, 2017. Many citizens lost their homes after Hurricane Maria made landfall September 20, 2017. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
The Phone Call
“Are you guys okay?” were the first words I uttered in a concerned tone, even before saying hello.
Through the static, my mother replied with a barely audible, but calming “yes.” A yes that instantly relieved the built up anxiety from not hearing from her, or my family, for four days.
“Do you need anything?” I quickly replied, perplexed at how she was able to make a call given there was no power anywhere on the island. Because of this, I knew we didn’t have long to talk.
Not fully understanding the circumstances, deep down, I hoped her answer would have been “no, we’re fine” or “don’t worry about us, we prepared for this.” Upon not hearing those words I was desperately hoping were said, I decided to fly out to my island and take care of my struggling mother, brother and sister.
While asking for details on the wellbeing of other family members and what additional items they needed, we got disconnected. Immediately after the call dropped, I booked the earliest flight available and began collecting the items my family needed the most – totaling about 300 pounds, the limit allowed by the airline.
As the airplane touched down and the passengers began to clap, as is customary when flying into Puerto Rico, I felt a rush of pride from being back home. Although I wasn’t able to see the damage from above, I realized the gravity of the situation as soon as I exited the aircraft.
A fallen highway sign lays on the side of the road on Puerto Rico Highway 1, Oct. 1, 2017. Hurricane Maria damaged much of the island’s infrastructure, making difficult to travel. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
It hit me like a chilling-winter breeze that stings your face, making you question how anyone can endure such an environment. But instead of cold, it was a scorching heat mixed with a putrid, suffocating smell. No electricity meant no air conditioning. This, combined with glass walls that magnified each ray of light, intensified the heat and smell. Not to mention the thousands of people trying to catch flights off the island in hopes of escaping the hardships, which only added to the odor and heat.
After securing and loading my luggage into the car, I began the journey to my mom’s apartment in Caguas. What I saw along the way was equally disturbing and devastating.
What was once a scene full of robust landscapes that welcomed you with their unmatched beauty, was now a scene from a dystopian, apocalyptic movie. It looked as if fire rained down and scorched the island. What was once green was now brown. “It looks unrecognizable,” I exclaimed, as we drove through the debris-filled highway, dodging fallen trees and scattered street signs.
Further down the highway, traffic slowed down for what I assumed to be another obstacle on the road. But the reason for this traffic jam, however, was something far more heartbreaking.
A traffic jam forms as drivers look for an opening on the shoulder lane of Puerto Rico Highway 1, Sept. 30, 2017. This stretch of highway was one of the only places with a reliable phone signal. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
This stretch of highway was one of the only places with a reliable phone signal. People were driving to this location in order to park on the shoulder and contact their loved ones. As we drove by, I could see people crying in their cars, uncertain of their future. “This is where I was when I called you,” my mom pointed out, opening my eyes to what she endured just to get in contact with me and ask for help.
During the ride, I witnessed things that will forever be engraved in my mind, like concrete power poles snapped in half and crumpled on the ground, flooded neighborhoods, roofless houses, and debris and trash everywhere. I was no longer just seeing these unimaginable sights on television, but experiencing first-hand the inhumane conditions people were living in, which further emphasized that Puerto Rico was going through a humanitarian crisis.
The Quality of Life
After arriving to my mom’s apartment and unloading the 300 pounds worth of food and water, the sun went down signaling bedtime. But because of the hot, humid climate, I wanted to take a shower to cool down before bed.
First I needed a light, so I grabbed one of the three camping lights my mom had around the apartment. Then I needed the water, so I grabbed one of the 10 plastic water gallons my mom would fill up every day at a nearby creek. As best as I could, I emptied some of the cold water over my head, washed, rinsed, and managed to save some water to flush the toilet.
The next day’s mission was to find propane fuel for my mom’s camping stove.
Citizens of Puerto Rico line up to buy essential supplies in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Sept. 30, 2017. Due to the line’s length, people brought their own chairs to comfortably wait for an opportunity to purchase food and water rations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
Because of the scarcity of essential items, the remaining open big chain retailers were rationing goods as a way to prevent riots. This created absurdly long lines for everything. So much so, that people were bringing their own chairs knowing they would be in line all day, only to be permitted one case of water per person. To add to the problem, only a few banks were open due to the lack of electricity, which made acquiring cash to pay for these essentials items another mission in and of itself.
Reluctantly, we stood in line at one of the open retailers, because we needed gas in order to cook. We waited from 5 a.m. to noon before finally making it inside and buying four small propane gas tanks, along with other items.
On the way back, we stopped at the creek where my mom routinely filled up her water gallons, to do the same. As we drove back from the creek, through the winding mountain road, I noticed an elderly man holding a suitcase while looking down and contemplating. Interested, we pulled up closer and realized what he was looking at, which compelled us to stop and get out of the car.
“Are you okay, sir?” I asked, even though I knew he wasn’t okay. To which he replied by whispering “My house,” never looking at me, only at what was below.
The earth beneath his house had collapsed, causing the home to tumble down the side of the hill, landing on its side. “Everything I have left is in this suitcase,” he quietly informed us. I was paralyzed in shock. I couldn’t imagine his pain of going from having a home to losing everything in a matter of moments.
A man looks down at his collapsed house while holding a suitcase in Cayey, Puerto Rico. After heavy rainfall and strong winds from Hurricane Maria, the foundation underneath this house collapsed causing the structure to tumble down the hill. (U.S. Air Force photo illustration by Airman 1st Class Caleb Nunez)
“How long has he been standing here?” I asked myself. I was so heartbroken by this thought that I decided to help him. Just as I felt an obligation to help my family when I received that phone call, I felt the need to help this man as much as I could. We gave him some of the food and water we waited nearly all day for and took him to a shelter, where he was able to contact a family member.
Although I witnessed and experienced some horrific things while home, like the man staring at his collapsed house, I didn’t visit the roughest areas of Puerto Rico. I didn’t visit the towns only accessible by a bridge that collapsed during the storm, literally trapping people. I didn’t visit the people who live in the mountains, with no access to town due to landslides that covered up the roads. These are the people in need of the most help.
I am incredibly fortunate my family lives in the city, where yes, they are going through difficult times, but it’s nothing compared to the people who have no access to food or water and can’t communicate their needs to someone who might be able to help them.
In times of adversity, many of us turn to our families for support. Although I wish I could help all of those who lack family to lean on, I am grateful I was able to become a safety net and provide support for my family. Just as I did everything in my power to ensure the safety of my family, we need to come together as a country, and ensure the wellbeing of our fellow Americans in Puerto Rico.