Documenting Disaster Folklore in the Eye of the Storm: A Retrospective 6 Months After María (Part 2: During)


I woke with a start; the room was completely dark. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings before realizing that a strong gust of wind combined with a fine mist of water hitting my face had woken me up. The bed was just underneath a set of aluminum Miami style windows that had been rolled shut but which we hadn’t boarded up. What time was it? Was it three a.m.? Five? Eight? The gust felt like hurricane winds but these weren’t supposed to arrive for hours. My first instinct was to bolt from the room, which suddenly felt unsafe, but instead I slowly got up and turned on my new trusted friend, the small plastic battery operated lantern. I rummaged around the room until I found my field notes, computer, hard drive, and any other scrap of research material, then placed most of the paper documents in a zip lock bag and then put everything into my book bag.

In the darkness and with the wind already roaring outside I moved my things to the next bedroom over, a small room that had gotten blocked into the middle of the house during an expansion project years before. This isolated room was usually used for storage and sometimes for guests but was considered to be the hottest room of the house as it had no outdoors facing windows. However, during a hurricane of this magnitude, it suddenly became the safest place in the entire house. Carmen and Miguel Sr., my in-laws, were already up and about. It was roughly six a.m., they told me, and were just getting breakfast and coffee ready in the dark kitchen. Carmen had set up what would be our makeshift cooking station over the next few weeks, placing a small portable gas stove with two burners on the kitchen counter and two coolers with the required ice bags on the floor. She prepared coffee as usual and we kept up the daily food routine as much as possible.

The entire house was boarded up, except for a small acrylic window over the front door which had slipped under our radar. This window however, was partially protected by the balcony walls on either side and provided the smallest amount of light without the danger of blowing in. The three of us found seating areas between the living and dining room and placed the radio and a lantern on the dining table. I settled down with my field notebook, a map, and a high difficulty Sudoku puzzle to pass the hours. The next twelve to twenty-four hours were going to be spent in a combination of boredom and the high adrenalin caused by being in a state of constant alertness. Writing down everything said on the radio that stood out to me and plotting down coordinates during the weather update every three hours would serve as my only distraction from thinking of my mother, brothers, grandparents, aunts, cousins, and friends who were going through the same experience in their own isolation. Hopefully, the windows in mom’s house were holding up, my grandmother hadn’t tried walking through the exposed corridors of her nursing home, my friend was up to date on his dialysis, my brothers were safe indoors. It was better not to think of the things my mind was insistent on rehashing like an endlessly looping checklist of things I was powerless to do anything about.

During the storm there is not much to do but wait on high alert, plot the course of the storm on a map, and write down any news we heard on the radio. Illustration- Gloria M. Colom Braña

After scolding Miguel Sr. for stepping into the marquesina, the open-aired carport, to take a peek at the storm and get a breath of fresh air, Carmen decided she wanted to see what all the roaring fuss was about for herself. She placed a step ladder by the door in order to look out through the small acrylic window. The curiosity was understandable. We were in dark isolation, accompanied by the constant roar outside which would be punctured every once in a while, by a clang or a bang of something being torn away or loudly clattering down the street.  We kept the step ladder near the door after this and roughly once an hour we would step up, take a peek and I would film about a minute at a time on my cellphone. I considered whether it was worth keeping my phone turned on for documentation. The ornamental palm trees on our front neighbor’s yard were bent at around a 45º angle northward but would bend further when a ráfaga, a stronger gust of wind and rain would blow through. It was still morning and we were isolated even from our next-door neighbors. At 9:30 a.m. I wrote on my notebook: “Las paredes de cemento vibran. Se seinte como un temblor. Está temblando la casa. 9:30 a.m. y ya se siente como que todo se va a romper.”  The concrete walls are vibrating. It feels like an earthquake. The house is shaking. It is 9:30 a.m. and it feels like everything is going to shatter. And a little later: “Todo cómo que se quiere caer. Un monstro que ruje. Mi corazón está con mami y con mis parientes. Mi alma está con Miguel. Cómo hacerle saber que estamos bien… cómo saber que mi familia está bien. La radio es como un ancla a la humanidad.”[1]

Everything seems to want to fall. A monster roars. My heart is with mom and my family. My soul is with Miguel. How can I let them know that I we are well… how can I know if my family is well.

“My Father in-law and Che (the Chihuahua) listening to the radio” – Sketch from the field notebook, Gloria M. Colom Braña

I worried about my family. Having no contact during an emergency is painful. The three of us in the house trusted and hoped that our preparations for the storm were enough. It was only 10 a.m. and time was becoming sluggish. I wondered how the communities I was researching were holding up, worried for the people I had met and interviewed, about their families and friends. How were their houses holding up? Were the zinc sheets flying over us traveling miles and miles all the way from Barrio Dominguito? According to the radio, the rivers were breaking flood records. There were reports of whole communities flooding and Ada Monzón, the now famous meteorologist said “está lloviendo sobre mojado,”[2]

translated literally to “it is raining over wet,” referencing the over saturation of the of the ground, the rising rivers and record-breaking floods that were occurring throughout the entire island.

The temperature within the house had changed as well. The Summer and early Fall of 2017 had so far been extraordinarily hot, with the humidity index as high as 116ºF in Arecibo during the day. These extreme temperatures had only become normal in the last ten years or so. The heat had been exacerbated in the days before the storm as the air stilled around the house; the temperature had been further aggravated when we boarded most of the windows up, leaving very little air to circulate in the building. During the storm however, as the pressure went down and the wind picked up, we could feel cool rivulets of air snaking around our feet as if María was trying to get a feel for everything that was inside the building. The closed aluminum windows were shaking and Miguel Sr. spent much of the morning going from one window to another, trying to reinforce the window frames with transverse placed sticks and metal bars.

The strongest winds were supposed to strike Arecibo at around 2p.m. when the hurricane’s eye would begin its exit from Puerto Rico somewhere over the north coast. Even with the advances in technology hurricane tracking and prediction continued to be challenging. It was still morning when most radio stations began going off air. Ada Monzón and the three-hour bulletins went quiet when her radio station, WKAQ 580, lost connection due to heavy damage to their infrastructure.  The eye was predicted to exit somewhere between Aguadilla and Dorado, a stretch 60 miles wide and we were right smack in the middle with less and less information coming in. We would later find out that Puerto Rico’s Doppler radar had been completely destroyed earlier in the day and that our friends and family outside of Puerto Rico lost information as well.

El Ojo

At this time, with less and less information trickling in and the terrifying winds growing steadily outdoors, we became more dependent on folk knowledge that provided expectations of what we would be witnessing and what we should do and avoid doing over the next few hours. Carmen, Miguel Sr., and I knew that the eye of the storm should be crossing either over us or near us in the early afternoon. It was of no surprise then, that after some of the strongest winds yet, the wind suddenly became a light breeze and the torrential rain turned into a trickle. The sky was still a heavy lead grey, but the noise and destruction had stopped. It was el ojo, the eye, the center of the storm and a period of deceptive calm. I had heard cautionary tales growing up, warnings against becoming overconfident when calm came after the roaring wind as it could prove fatal. The desire to go out and look was very strong, and Miguel Sr. and I ventured out into the marquesina which was at least partially protected by three walls.

The main danger of the eye is that the seduction of calm after experiencing terror for hours would draw people outside where they would be caught as the wind speed accelerated from zero to over 100 miles per hour in a matter of minutes. There was no way of knowing if the calm would last twenty minutes or two hours, whether the eye had spit in two as had happened before, if it had a small or large radius, if we were right smack in the middle or only going to experience a small corner of the calm within the storm. Miguel Sr. and I ventured out into the marquesina which was at least partially protected so that Che the Chihuahua use the bathroom. Our neighbors let their dogs into the yard and were able to call them back in just as the winds began picking up again.

El Virazón

One of the reasons why the eye is considered so treasonous and dangerous is because after the eye comes el virazón, the 180º turn in wind direction when the opposite side of the hurricane strikes. This is due to the circular motion of the storm. If the wind was hitting us from south to north in the morning, it was now coming north to south at maximum velocity. Buildings, trees, and any other structure that has already weakened by the onslaught of wind would often be ripped apart at this moment. Tornadoes often form around the eye as well, so another few hours of high alertness were to be expected. The one radio station we had left, WAPA 680, provided snippets of news throughout the island such as the 19 police officers stranded on a roof in the town of Ciales, a family crushed in their homes by a boulder, drownings in Toa Baja, the first birth in Cabo Rojo in almost half a century. Miguel Sr. speculated that the entirety of Arecibo’s downtown was flooded due to the combined rising waters of the Arecibo River and the marejada ciclónica, the storm surge, that always flooded the region. The extent of the flooding, it would later be noted on the news, was record breaking. Puerto Rico’s topography was changing with potential long-term consequences.

The wind changes direction 180º during the course of the storm. Top image: the wind hits the palm tree from south to north. Center image: rain falls vertically during the eye of the storm.  Bottom image: wind blows north to south during the virazón, the second half of the hurricane. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

By late afternoon the winds began winding down slowly. The governor issued a curfew beginning at 6:00 p.m. and extending into the morning. At that hour Arecibo was still getting hurricane winds and it was hard to conceive of anyone wanting to loot in those conditions, but the strongest winds had already begun abating in the eastern side of the island. Reports of break ins and looting were starting to crop up in the metropolitan area. Ironically, my main reaction to that news was not concern over the potential looting but rather curiosity on how people in San Juan were able to complain when we couldn’t even get a message to our next-door neighbors.

It was even darker now as night began setting in, we ate dinner by the light of various small plastic lanterns. Carmen preferred them to candles which could fall over and cause a fire. It was a warm dinner, cooked on the gas stove top and there were leftovers which we put in one of the coolers afterwards. This is a small detail but we learned to only prepare enough food for the moment during the following days unless we could give the leftovers to our neighbors.

With the sound of the waning yet still strong winds and rain lashing on the windows there was little else to do. I played Sudoku for a bit, marked the latest coordinates over the Atlantic Ocean, and went to bed. The house had withstood the storm. Tomorrow we would know the extent of the damage and try to contact our loved ones. For now, all I could do was rest, and that I did.


[1] Dissertation field notes, September 20, 2017.

[2] Ada Monzón, WKAQ 580, September 20, 2017

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.