Documenting Disaster Folklore in the Eye of the Storm: A Retrospective 6 Months After María (Part 1: Before)


Has it already been half a year since Hurricane María? Sometimes it feels like decades have passed and at other moments as if it has only been a couple of days. As I sit in front of my computer in Bloomington, Indiana, I remain fully aware of the passage of time, of the continuing news of power outages and the people who continue to live without home security, job security, or wondering if they will have anything to eat the following day. The six-month benchmark also marks the first time when I can finally sit down and write about documenting folk knowledge as it was applied within the context of a natural disaster without freezing or panicking. Reading Ruth Behar’s book, The Vulnerable Observer, on the vulnerability of exposing one’s own participation in ethnographic documentation, has helped in processing the flowing boundary between lived experience, identity as a community member, and trauma.

My husband, Miguel A. Cruz Díaz, and I have been working towards our PhD’s in history and folklore respectively over the last four years at Indiana University in Bloomington. We completed our qualifying exams and defended our proposals by Spring of 2017 and decided to spend the following months conducting our dissertation research. The plan was to spend a few weeks over the summer in Amsterdam where Miguel would conduct archival research and then we would fly directly to Puerto Rico. Miguel would stay with me for a few weeks before heading back to Indiana and I would then spend then next four months, from July to October doing ethnographic fieldwork and site documentation for my dissertation on the traditional uses of domestic spaces. The plan called for documenting houses and their marquesinas (open aired carports) in the city of Arecibo, located on the northern coast of the island where I would stay with my in-laws, Carmen and Miguel Sr. From there I would have the opportunity to occasionally visit my mother and brothers in Aguadilla, a coastal town only a fifty-minute drive away.

From growing up in Puerto Rico, I knew going into the trip that I would not only be on the island during hurricane season, which lasts half a year from June to November, but that I would be there during peak hurricane season, between August and October. In particular, the most intense period in the season takes place during the middle of September, a period when most hurricanes and tropical storms have landed on Puerto Rico. Miguel, who was born on September 17th, would often remark about how he spent more than one childhood birthday boarding up the house for a coming storm or unable to play with his presents in the solitude of a dark and windy day. Nevertheless, hurricanes are an accepted eventuality for people living in the Caribbean along with earthquakes, tsunamis, flash floods, and droughts.

Marquesina with hammock. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña


It seems almost foreshadowing when looking back, but hindsight is twenty-twenty. The first person I interviewed after arriving in Puerto Rico during this particular trip was my grandfather. Known fondly as Abuelito Cico, Francisco Braña Nieves, at 90 (at the time of the interview) had a clear mind, a sharp cutting wit, and a strong character. I asked him about his memories in the house where he grew up in in the mountains of Bayamón. Abuelito went on to describe the structure and sleeping arrangement in detail: it was a large wooden house in the mountains of Buena Vista, Bayamón, coffee and tobacco growing country, built with strong ausubo columns that dug deep into the earth, and a building large enough to have a private room for his parents and space for twelve children to sleep in. However, the conversation quickly changed to his first powerful memory, with the passage of Hurricane San Ciprián in 1932 when he was five years old and how the house survived the storm due to the amazing strength of the hardwood columns. Staying in the house, however, was never considered an option. Although Abuelito considered the house stronger than most of the neighboring bohíos, the traditional thatch and palm houses that housed over 80% of the population at the time, the family had a specialized building on the farm called alternatively the barraca (barracks) and la tormentera (the storm shelter) that was carefully maintained for the eventuality of a storm. The tormentera, a low lying triangular structure that was often built partially underground, was often made of the same renewable and organic materials as the bohío, but with a geometric design that allowed for the aerodynamic flow of air over the building, protecting those inside.

Traditional barraca or tormentera used as storm shelters. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

In 1932, storm tracking technology was still in its infancy and people living in rural Puerto Rico relied mainly on knowledge of the land and subtle changes in the weather to recognize an incoming storm and enough time to reach the closest tormentera before the crushing winds began blowing. The saying “Red sky at night, sailor’s delight. Red sky in the morning, sailor’s warning” has variants in sources as old as the Bible and has been used on both land and sea to forecast weather. Growing up, I remembered my father telling me that before a hurricane the sky sometimes turned red. I only witnessed this once before, with an unnamed cyclonic formation early in the morning. I still remember how not just the sky but also the landscape, trees and house became tinted in red as if I were wearing red shades for a few minutes before the sky turned slate grey.

Red sky and a red landscape. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

My grandfather and great-grandparents would have looked for similar cues in the sky along with subtle cues such as the leaves becoming very still and the air hot and heavy in the days before a cyclonic event, as the hurricane sucked the surrounding air over a radius of hundreds of miles. The main telltale sign was the lead grey cloud with its smaller light grey clouds dashing underneath that would slowly replace the fluffy towering cumulonimbus clouds that usually paint the bright blue skies. If it was indeed a hurricane rather than a tropical wave or storm, a strong gust of wind lasting between two and ten minutes would come gusting in, turning the leaves upside down and formally announcing the quickly approaching storm. After the first gust, there might be anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours before the high winds picked up. It became imperative to reach safety and secure the entire family and neighbors as soon as possible. Abuelito also mentioned looking out for el ojo del buey which literally translates to bull’s eye but refers rather to a larger circular movement in the ponderous clouds as well as other sensory cues such as the smell of brine and fish miles inland.

During the storm itself, there was not much to do but wait and hold tight, the men would hold on to the central beam, either with their hand or pulling down on ropes during the peak of the storm, as gales tried to pull the roof upwards, even with the aerodynamic design in place. The family exited the tormentera almost a full day later to find crops and homes destroyed and a long slow reconstruction process awaiting them. The rice crop was flattened but was somewhat salvageable and so were many of the tubers such as yams and cassava, whose roots were protected underground, staving off starvation for the time being.

In summary, my grandfather gave me a detailed account of the strongest hurricane that he could remember. A hurricane that tore through the island 85 years before, at the beginning of the 2017 peak hurricane season. Even at the moment of the interview, the irony of the timing was not lost on me, but like anyone else who lives in a hurricane-prone zone, this was just a potential reality that had to be factored in as part of a daily reality. I concentrated on my research and hoped for the best.

Storms on the Horizon

The season was beginning to pick up in mid-August and almost out of the blue, from one day to another I was glued to my phone wondering if my extended family in Houston was safe as Hurricane Harvey parked itself over the city. I would check in every few hours as reports came in of rising water asking my mother if tío and cousins had been in contact yet. At this point it became customary to check the NOAA maps of the Atlantic Ocean just to see what was developing off the coast of Africa.

Even then I continued moving between the beach town of Aguadilla on the northwest coast of the island where I grew up and where my mother still lives and Arecibo where I was living with my in-laws and conducting research. I happened to be in Arecibo when Hurricane Irma began developing in early September. Even at a distance the storm was quickly becoming large in mass with what seemed like impossibly strong wind speeds. The trajectory sent it near enough to Puerto Rico that any shift southward would prove catastrophic. My youngest brother, Santiago, called and asked if I could help with preparations at home. An hour later we were on our way to Aguadilla, recounting the checklist we already knew by heart. Did we have enough canned foods, batteries, candles, working flashlights, bottled water? Was the battered old radio and the analogue phone for the landline still working? How could we secure the large glass windows? Was it even possible to secure them at all?

Supplies and the mental checklist. Illustration by Gloria M. Colom

The following day the sky was slate grey, the low-lying clouds speeding by underneath, but the weather services gave us over 12 hours before the situation became dangerous, so we went ahead and secured as much as we could, cleaning and storing any loose patio furniture. We also harvested all the fruits from the trees that we could such as quenepas, the still unripe papayas, coconuts, and way too many avocados. I grew up hearing that there was a direct correlation between the number of avocados and the severity of hurricane season. The more abundant the avocados, the worse it would be.  September 2017 proved to have one of the largest bounties of the fruit that I could remember. There were so many avocados that we ended up eating them up to three times a day.

Because none of the hurricane prediction models placed the most dangerous part of the storm crossing the western coast of Puerto Rico, we decided to concentrate on mitigation rather than boarding up the whole house. We emptied out the bedrooms, covered the beds in plastic, and relocated to the living room and mom’s bedroom while waiting next to the radio. Hurricane Irma, the strongest category five that I could recall, completely decimated many of our neighboring islands and did considerable damage to the eastern towns of Puerto Rico, yet due to its distance the damage in most of Puerto Rico was minimal. However, the storm became a stress test on the already fragile electrical, water, and communications infrastructure. Electricity failed with the first gust of wind and soon after we lost water and phone services. By the next day most of the island was without electricity, and some people never regained power to this day. If a storm that barely grazed us could obliterate most modern systems, what would a direct hit imply? With this new unease, I continued to refresh the Atlantic Ocean maps at least once a day. There were way too many huge clouds for my liking with mid-September fast approaching.

Life, of course, went on, and the following weeks were dedicated to documenting buildings and collecting interviews. It was also a time when Puerto Ricans mobilized ships and donations to the US Virgin Islands towards the east and watched Irma’s destructive movement as it headed towards Cuba and Florida. 


My field notes for Sunday, September 17 indicate “Another hurricane is coming- this one is of normal scale but it is going to flatten us. The internet jokes and memes had commenced – the new hurricane’s name was María and José was still circling around. We have had devastating hurricane years but I don’t remember so many coming so quickly.” That Sunday was a lovely if incredibly hot day with the humidity index above 110°F in Arecibo. Nothing indicated yet that a storm was approaching yet Miguel spent yet another birthday worrying about another potential hurricane. Ada Monzón, a Puerto Rican meteorologist who gained an almost cult-like following due to her accurate if terrifying updates of hurricane Irma, was now comparing the American and European hurricane prediction models. Both models showed María coming in through the south which common knowledge on the island indicated would be more dangerous than a northern path. One model predicted a tropical storm and the other a category 5, but both sent it on a path that crossed the full island around Thursday, September 21st.

Obligatory María and José, Mary and Joseph in English, meeting up at the pesebre, which means manger in Spanish, memes appeared on September 17 and 18. Illustration by Gloria M. Colom Braña

All of us had plans for the coming week. I was wrapping up my field documentation with only Barrio Islote on the coast of Arecibo left to document and was already making plans to do primary source archival research at the University of Puerto Rico and the General Archives in San Juan. The following weekend I was planning on kayaking with my brothers and possibly doing a river tour with my comadre and best friend Elegna afterwards. Carmen, my mother in-law, was set to sign her work renewal contract on Wednesday at 2 pm and both Carmen and Miguel Sr. were excited about going to see the movie ‘Broche de Oro’ at the local cinema in the next couple of days.

Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

By the next morning, September 18th however, the hurricane had gained incredible speed and continued to become more and more powerful as the hours passed by. Each three-hour bulletin only offered consternation and a deepening sense of dread and urgency. María was not going to make landfall on Thursday after all, but instead on Wednesday, maybe even Tuesday night. Even with high levels of technology the window for storm preparations was shrinking very quickly. Time was running out. Most of our provisions were already stocked up, or so we thought. There were plenty of batteries, camping lamps, bottled water, and there was a 400-gallon cistern on the roof.

At this point, we cleaned the house as thoroughly as possible, carefully sweeping and mopping the floor, and making sure that all of the outside furniture was safely stored in a neat, clean fashion. There were memes mocking the gendered aspect of cleaning the house before the storm, implying that María was an honored guest that had to be pampered, but the reality was much more pragmatic. We didn’t know when we would be able to clean again and the space had to be as open and safe as possible in the darkness of closed windows in case we needed to run during the storm. My in-laws live in a relatively privileged location because we didn’t have to worry about flooding, landslides, or the stronger winds that were a bigger concern in the mountainous region of the island. The house is built of concrete blocks with a reinforced concrete roof. This, however, didn’t mean that we could afford to be careless.

Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

I chose to stay with my in-laws this time around since Miguel, an only child, was in Indiana at the time. My brothers Santiago and Guillermo were helping mom board up the house in Aguadilla as much as possible, and all I could do was hope that they would be safe. I had lived through hurricanes Hugo, Hortense, and Georges along with countless waves, depressions, and tropical storms. This was the strongest hurricane that I would experience as of yet in my lifetime and the first I faced as a decision-making adult. It was also the strongest hurricane to land on Puerto Rico in the era of social media and cellphones, a detail which would become relevant later on.

The air was hot, still, and cloying in the days before the storm. By Tuesday morning, as the sky became grey and the air refused to move, we could hear the hammers and drills in the distance as our neighbors dismantled the small patio roof and stored their plants indoors. Unlike my grandfather who relied on the historic barraca of his childhood, most people were going to weather the hurricane in their concrete homes or pack their belongings to evacuate to a shelter or a relative’s home.

By Tuesday evening, with provisions in tow, and the house as clean and secure as we could make it, we had a final meal with fresh meats and produce. This was the moment for printing any final documents that required hard copy (including Sudoku puzzles to combat boredom) and storing most of the things that we would not be needing during the next few days. It was also the time to say our final goodbyes to friends and family before we lost connection. I called my mother, grandparents, siblings, and friends. I sent out a final message on Facebook telling people not to worry about me before logging off. The house was as sealed as it could be, but I could still hear the early gusts of wind outside. As I chatted with Miguel curled up in the living room, the house was suddenly plunged into darkness. I told him that I would call later in order to conserve battery. When I finally settled down in bed with our Chihuahua and tried calling him back to say goodbye, the phone service was already gone. From now on we would have to rely mainly on our accumulated knowledge, lore, and creativity to keep us alive during the next 28 days.

Gloria M. Colom Braña is currently a doctoral candidate in folklore at Indiana University. Her background is in architecture and historic preservation and she is currently exploring the cultural uses of traditional and contemporary spaces.