Documenting Disaster Folklore in the Eye of the Storm: A Retrospective 6 Months After María (Part 3: After)


Writing the final blog post in this series has proved to be slower and harder than the previous ones. I began writing this last installment so that it could be ready by the beginning of the 2018 hurricane season in June.  

It is a year since the storm today but when I finished this blog post on August 1, there were still thousands of households without electricity, and many others continue to suffer constant power and water service failures. The emotional and psychological toll are a continuing factor. Each time I read the news on the growing death statistics or heard from friends and family that there is a long power outage, I needed to set writing aside and prioritize both my own health and that of my family.

The following text recounts the first 28 days after the hurricane, up until the time I left Puerto Rico. After the first day after the storm, the topics are divided by theme rather than following chronological order. Thank you for reading this testimony of my experiences, as viewed through the lens of both a folklorist and Puerto Rican woman.

Day One (Going Outside)

The silence outside was the first sign that the danger was passing: no more wind and just a very light rain. It was time to open the windows we could, survey the damage, and help out our friends and neighbors. The first day after a hurricane is one of assessment and caution. Hurricanes are so large that there is often cloud coverage for days after the storm has passed along with the threat of one final violent downpour or strong wind before the sky begins to clear up.

The rivers were swollen and remained so for days; the oversaturated earth was unstable and roads impassable due to fallen trees, posts, and cables. We knew that after a storm, it is more common than not for services such as electricity and water to be out. Growing up in the 80s and 90s meant that we could rely on the old school landlines to contact emergency services and find out how our family was holding up. However, this was the first hurricane to strike Puerto Rico in the time of smartphones. Most people had switched from traditional landlines to cell phones via Internet connection in recent years with the unintended consequence that communications had virtually disappeared when most cell phone antennas were destroyed or mangled along with internet and cable services. Even the few surviving landlines were out of service that first day due to the severity of the damage to the light posts. We were completely disconnected from the outside world and had little way to gauge the scale of the damage from within our protected home.

The house was dark. All of the windows were still closed and the tormenteras, the storm shutters, were still in place. Carmen, my ever patient mother-in-law, prepared coffee as she did every day before the storm – and would continue doing each day after. The small gas operated stove top became a fixture in the kitchen. All she really needed was ground coffee, water, and heat to prepare the coffee and milk to make café con leche. The delectable morning drink has been a staple of the Puerto Rican diet that predates conveniences such as electricity and modern stoves. In order to prepare our most important drink of the day, she brought out what we call la media, the stocking, which isn’t really a stocking but more of a cloth funnel made sturdy with a metal rod, a filter traditionally used in much of Latin America. On a normal day, Carmen turns on the electric coffee maker, heats up milk on the stove and pours the milk into the coffee. Now the process that once took five minutes would take half an hour. Storing the leftover box milk to prevent it from spoiling became another issue as well. All the little daily processes that we once took for granted became time-consuming projects. After the hurricane, we had to plan all of our activities around daylight hours – of approximately 6:00am until 6:00pm – and shift our priorities around to use our limited time efficiently.

Coffee preparation with the coffee “stocking” and the coffee maker’s glass carafe. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

Even with this in mind, everything looked normal and unchanged inside of the house. Curiosity got the better of me, I grabbed my umbrella and camera and stepped into the front yard to survey the damage. If we were to rely on our specific street in Vista Azul, Arecibo as a gauge of the hurricane disaster, everything looked normal and unaffected. There were some zinc sheets strewn on the ground, some plants toppled over and the street was slick with hojarasca, a mix of leaves and water, but the buildings looked intact as did the ornamental bushes and palm trees. However, I could hear the buzzing of electric saws and people shouting at each other nearby. Just twenty steps over to the next street, the scene changed completely. One of the older trees had fallen and was blocking the entire street. A large group of neighbors were cutting the trees into smaller pieces with a combination of electric saws and machetes. I walked one street over and the same scene repeated itself, and so on in every street. We were in no hurry to leave and at that point, leaving would have been impractical but de facto impossible until the roads were cleared up. At the moment, other neighbors were exiting their houses, seeming disoriented and a bit flustered.

I quickly returned to the house and helped Carmen and Miguel Sr. clean the yard of debris and fallen plants. We had zinc sheets in the backyard and were never really sure where they came from, if they were from our next door neighbor or from two towns away. Our next door neighbor Esther and her son were outdoors cleaning as well.

Many concrete homes have a second wood addition and these often suffered severe damage from the storm. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

Still early in the day, Miguel Sr. and I were itching to see if anything was open, get some fresh food – and a better idea of the devastation – so we headed out for Barranca Bakery, literally a two minute car drive away. This was our first real glimpse of the extent of the devastation that surrounded us. Most light posts seem to have fallen. Small wooden buildings, los altos, were either partially or completely destroyed, trees had fallen over on the road, cables were strewn everywhere. Traffic was slow, mainly due to the hazardous driving conditions, but even with the devastation, we made it to the bakery relatively quickly and found a line of people outside. This was our first line, in what would become a tradition of standing in lines. The bakery was actually in production mode as the family had weathered the storm inside their business, finding it safer than staying home. In fact, they weren’t even sure at the time if there was a home to go back to, but there was diesel for the generator and stores of water and flour to make bread.

It was good to know that at least one bakery so close to us was open and heartbreaking to know that it didn’t assure food access to those nearby. Later on, the newspaper El Nuevo Día reported about a woman walking hours on end to find food for her children and the local radio would report there was a woman walking two hours each way to get a warm meal for her family at Arecibo’s main plaza.

By chatting with people in line to pass the time, I gained a more comprehensive idea of how dire the financial situation was becoming for so many people on the island. Not only would cash be required for any sort of food/resource shopping in the foreseeable future, but many people, due to the economic crisis, were living check to check. Hurricane María hit a day or two before payday, leaving people cash strapped and with no source of funds, system to retrieve their money, or even knowledge of whether or not they even had a job to return to afterwards. Informal communication with people in line became the staple for knowledge transmission and a form of communal therapeutic bonding at a time when long distance communication was all but nonexistent. It was a space of tension, grief, exchange of information, and sometimes joy when friends or family members bumped into each other. This would be a recurring theme that served as a survival mechanism over the next month.

That first day, we began creating the routine that would be used during the next month. We got up with the sunlight early in the morning, had café con leche and headed out with the car to a carefully chosen destination, usually to get a resource, whether it was food, water, cash, or gasoline. If we had time in the afternoon after having completed the line of the day, we would check up on family members. Throughout the day, I would take my phone off airplane mode and check for a signal, quickly putting it back on airplane mode when I got the ‘no signal message’. At around 4:00pm, we would each take a gallon of water and bathe before the sun set. Once the landlines were reestablished about a week later, I would trek to Titi Neri’s house (my husband Miguel’s aunt) to use the landline and try to call my husband or my mother in Aguadilla (who weathered the storm in her home about fifty minutes away by car). We would have dinner in the dying light of the evening and then listen to the radio, play sudoku, and chat before going to bed at around 9:30pm. The first nights after the storm were unbearably hot, because apparently the tradewinds take a break from 8:00pm to 2:00am, or at least that’s what it felt like! The process would be repeated the next day until it felt like an unending cycle of despair.

There was a curfew that day, which we promptly broke by standing in the middle of the street in the darkness chatting with all of our neighbors. That night, we all knew each other and knew who the people around us were. There was less fear for our own safety than concern for our loved ones in the distance. Everyone was still shaken up by the hurricane winds from just twenty-four hours earlier and were not concerned with word of potential looting in San Juan where people somehow had enough phone service to complain to the police. We were on our own, millions of people seemingly stranded on a desert island.


During the first week after the storm, we began getting a clearer image of just how much devastation had been wrecked on our beloved island as well as an idea of the slowness in which help was trickling in. Lack of communication was still a huge issue. I did not know if my mother and brothers were okay, I could only assume that the house wasn’t too heavily damaged and that they had been able to hold tight. I didn’t know how friends with grave health concerns were holding up or how my extended family was doing. My grandparents were in a nursing home in the city of Ponce, located on Puerto Rico’s southern coast. Radio commentators worried about the lack of information coming from the southern city, but they also worried about lack of communication from Arecibo, and I knew that those who were around me in Arecibo were more or less okay. I was almost more concerned about Miguel, my husband, who did not know that we were in good health and spirits in those first days. Regardless of how concerned we were for our loved ones, we had to continue churning away with the new routine, honing it down to a science as the days went on. We had to be careful with food and battery consumption. We couldn’t store leftovers and we only had our battery stores to rely on.

It turned out that our food stores were based on our preparations for Hurricane Irma –  which did not strike the island one week before Maria – rather than preparations for María and would not hold up to the long-term scale of our emergency at hand. Our local Hatillo Cash and Carry supermarket was closed and had been hit hard according to the employees standing outside, but according to them, their other store one town over was open for business. Traveling to another town became an excursion. The main artery, State Road #2, had no street lights. In fact, most were completely wrecked on the ground, buildings were completely flattened all over the place; the movie theater where we had been planning on watching a movie just 60 hours prior was missing two walls and we could see the ocean right through it. Various gas stations looked like crumpled paper, their light metal structures completely destroyed. Just like before, there were cables strewn all over the road, the light posts that hadn’t completely fallen over were dangling precariously over fearful drivers. People were driving extra slowly and carefully. It seems that most people were aware that if there was an accident, there would be no way to call for help and no assurance that hospitals would be operational.

The supermarket itself was brightly lit, getting its power from a diesel-operated generator and seemingly well-stocked. There were crowds of people replenishing their provisions, enjoying the respite from the heat, some finding each other for the first time since the storm hit and sobbing, telling each other stories of loss and destruction. People sitting outside had brought multi-plug extension cords and were charging their phones. The space was crowded and even with the hustle and bustle, the conversations felt muted compared to other days. I was able to see a good friend and was relieved to hear that her family was well. This was maybe the only time we went to the supermarket in the first month without having to make a long line. The rules hadn’t been set just yet, the pre-storm food stock was still plentiful; we had cash and gasoline. The ride back was uneventful.

Not long after returning to the house, I began writing Miguel a letter, letting him know that we were doing well and that I missed him in hopes of sending it via mail in the next few days or so. Just as I was finishing up, I heard someone call my name outside. I had no idea who it could be, most of my friends were far away. A young woman I had never seen before jumped out of the back of a van and asked if I was Gloria, Miguel’s wife. She quickly told me that she was a childhood friend who went to school with Miguel since Kindergarten and had come down from San Juan to check up on her father, taking the opportunity to check up on us as well. She couldn’t stay long, but took a picture of all of us and of my letter before heading out again. All of our neighbors came out with small notes with their names and the phone numbers of family members to contact as the van started to pull away. It was our first contact with the outside world and we were left feeling both relieved and extremely emotional. I would get to see the photo on Facebook about a month later; and seeing it in the digital context would be as emotional as the moment it was taken.

A few days later, I got a bit of signal on my phone as two or three bars appeared. I dialed and dialed until I got Miguel…or was it Miguel? There was someone on the other line sobbing and asking “Mami? Mami?” I called again and heard someone ask about where to get ice. Then the signal was gone again. When there was a bit of signal, the lines would often be scrambled and distorted with haunting voices echoing many of the same anxieties that I felt. Cell phone signal didn’t really appear until a few weeks later and even then the lines would often be crossed and I would have to dial about 10 times before there would be a tone.


Water, clean drinking water, is one of the most precious resources that until recently have been taken for granted in much of the United States and to a certain extent in Puerto Rico. Many people such as my parents-in-law have cisterns on the roof of their house, not just for hurricane season but as a safeguard for the increasingly more unreliable water supplies. This is without taking into account the extensive droughts of the last few years which led to strict water rationing in large parts of the island. As in other aspects of our lives, we were lucky that the cistern survived the raging winds unscathed, other people were not as lucky and lost their large plastic cisterns due to wind damage or falling trees.

Most of Puerto Rico’s landscape, especially on both the north and eastern regions, is considered lush and rainy. Fresh water was traditionally accessed from rivers, streams, wells, and natural springs or collected in stone and concrete cisterns called aljibes. A series of man-made lakes were built during the twentieth century that provide most of the water to Puerto Rico’s population in a mostly dependable manner. As I mentioned before, it is normal for people to lose water service during or after a hurricane. Some pumps run on electricity and the systems can receive storm damage as well. The night before the hurricane rolled in, I talked to a good friend of mine who is currently living in Japan. He wanted to check up on me and my family and told me that at least he was relatively calm about his own family in the mountain town of Utuado. The had “secured the horses and checked the natural springs”. It sounded a bit melodramatic at the moment but these landscape-based preparations proved to be essential for survival. Many places in Utuado were later cut off due to landslides, collapsed bridges, and flooding.

Residents of Arecibo’s urban and suburban barrios didn’t have the advantage of pure spring water or even rain during the first week or so. Hurricane María was so large that it sucked all the air and moisture over an incredible expanse, changing the weather patterns for roughly a week. Even with the cisterns, there were rumors that our area in Arecibo would not get water service until October or even November. Our neighbors became our first sources of rumor and gossip on the possible locations of water distribution. Three days after the storm, one of the radio stations transmitting from San Juan officially announced distribution centers in different towns including ours. Miguel Sr. and I headed out to find water and instead found blocked roads and helpful yet very confused policemen. There was nothing where the radio station said there would be something. Dejected, we returned home having wasted just a bit more  precious gasoline on a fruitless mission.

Our next door neighbor later told us that she heard that there was water available at two official places, the first about 10 miles away in Barrio Hato Viejo – where the main water company plant is located and the second about 3 miles away at Sector Rodríguez Olmos – where most of the city’s sporting arenas were located. There was a church allowing people to fill up their water receptacles and maybe a government sanctioned pump in the area. Rodríguez Olmos, it turned out, was one of the very few places in Arecibo that never lost running water. Ironically and tragically enough, it was also one of the locations that was completely devastated by the flooding of the Río Grande de Arecibo. Most people who lived in the area lost most if not all of their belongings but they had running water. We eventually found a large water pump with trucks lined up behind it. One of the trucks was being filled up and they were allowing people with small canisters and jugs to get water from a spout on the back of the truck. The line was short, but people were getting anxious. This was a somewhat new experience for everyone. We were eventually able to fill up our milk gallons and other jugs and were told that they would be there again the next day.

When we returned early in the morning a few days later, there was a different man standing near the pump who kindly explained that this pump was only going to be used for large cistern trucks and not for individuals. He had no idea who told us or the other people in line that water would be available for individuals and that we should check elsewhere (without actually providing an alternative). A local man walked up and chimed in that if we wanted water, all we had to do was go to the men’s bathroom at the basketball stadium just a little ways behind, and so after giving each other apprehensive looks, we did.

We parked the car on the caked river mud and saw people making lines at two different places so we headed to the nearest one. There was indeed a line to the men’s bathroom consisting of Arecibeños from all walks of life carrying bottles, gallons, and even plastic kitty litter jugs to fill with water, any serviceable container worked at this time. Some creative people used shopping carts and in a show of solidarity, an off-duty police officer who grew up in the neighborhood brought his own garden hose to connect to one of the pipes in the men’s bathroom and was coordinating the inflow of people. The building itself was heavily damaged from the storm. The interior had a crust of dried mud that was becoming mucky from the sloping water from tubs, cans, tins, and semi-open jugs being carried back and forth. The roof was partially gone and we had to tread carefully to avoid cutting ourselves with the zinc panels strewn on the floor. I volunteered to go into the men’s bathroom to minimize the amount of people entering what had become a noisy, muddy cavern. The four sinks had their in-lines disconnected and were freely pouring water on to the floor or whatever receptacle was put in underneath. The jugs filled quickly but would also get messy if we didn’t hold them carefully or if they fell to the ground. People were quiet, helping each other and trying to avoid confrontation even as the heat increased throughout the morning and bees buzzed all around us. People who knew each other chatted and those who didn’t know each other also chatted until they did. We carried between eight and ten milk gallons of water to the car which would be used for washing laundry, flushing the toilets, and bathing. We also helped another person who had his own amount of water to carry. We arrived home exhausted, muddy and sweaty with the knowledge that we’d have to repeat the process in the next few days. Repeat it we did, but never in quite the same place.

A few days later, we heard from another neighbor that there would be water distribution in the town plaza. Miguel Sr, Carmen and I arrived early, again with our plastic milk gallons and a five gallon paint tub. Eight days had passed since the storm at this point, and it was the first time that we had seen the city government present and actively supplying food and water. We waited in the prescribed line after some initial chaos (there were separate lines for cooked food, FEMA food packs and potable water). Again, people were relatively calm, although slightly more impatient than before. The water truck arrived a few hours later than had been announced and it took a while before a distribution system was devised for smaller and bigger water receptacles. It was hard to know who was in charge but even as the threat of quarrels brewed, people generally helped each other and made sure that everybody left with their water containers filled. We didn’t get in line for either the warm foods or FEMA food packs because we felt that other people needed that food much more than we did. The hot food, mainly rice with picnic sausages turned out to be the only hot meal many people around us had had in days. Not everyone could afford to have an electric generator or even a small gas stove like ours.

It became an almost daily routine to wait patiently in line for provisions, often anywhere between three and ten hours. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

The FEMA packs themselves consisted of mostly expired canned foods but people took them gratefully, as it was the only food available for many. The supermarkets were slowly opening, often with very long lines and limited food supplies. Without electricity and what felt like 100 Fº heat, storing perishables was not an option. Furthermore, supermarkets required cash, which was in low supply, even for people who were still going to work or had savings. Most banks had been heavily damaged and even the banks that had working generators didn’t have working internet or even a steady supplies of cash. The bank line could last anywhere from two to 16 hours. We began to joke that we were becoming so used to lines that we would miss them when normalcy was reestablished.

Arecibo’s ice factory, located in the historic city center eventually opened. That was one line we never made. We drove by early in the morning, saw the longest line we had seen in our lives, we speculated over one thousand people, and went home. We would continue drinking our water warm and using canned foods for as long as necessary.

It didn’t rain during the first week, but eventually we began getting our more normal afternoon thunderstorms with tropical pouring rain. This meant that we didn’t have to guess where water might be distributed every other day. We cut the drainage pipes and would put buckets underneath each one around the house when the sky began getting cloudy. They would fill up quickly once the skies opened up and we would then pour the water into the more protected plastic gallons to avoid mosquito infestations. All of our neighbors had variations of this system with any available container, be it large trash bins or paddling pools. It was not ideal drinking water but it was water nonetheless.

Washing — Cleaning & Laundry

Water is precious not only for drinking but also for maintaining both one’s own hygiene and cleanliness of space. This became a critical priority at a time when we were hearing reports of deaths from leptospirosis and the ever present threat of contagion. Water had to be used judiciously even when we were able to fill our gallons at a designated oasis or when pouring rain was bountiful. Only the cleanest water was used for drinking and cooking (we would switch out two or three bottles every day at Titi Neri’s house as her fridge was connected to a generator eight hours a day so that Carmen could drink her medicine with cool water each night), and oasis and rainwater were used for bathing and washing the laundry (leftover laundry water could be recycled for mopping the terrazzo floors.) Like in most other parts of the world, women traditionally washed clothing by hand, often at the river’s edge until electricity and washing machines became accessible to almost everyone on the island during the mid-twentieth century. Due to the high electric bills, many people prefer to air-dry their clothing as the tropical sun and cool tradewinds quickly leave clothes feeling warm and toasty. When making one of the many interminable lines, I met women  who told me they were going to the river to wash but neither Carmen nor I dared take the risk of leptospirosis and instead relied on two five gallon paint tubs to wash laundry instead. We used one to wash and another to rinse, then would wring the clothes between the two of us or sometimes three if Miguel Sr. was around. Carmen has always air-dried her clothes and had the system pat down, always watching out for clouds in the distance. We could see our neighbors doing the same, washing in their backyard and filling up the clotheslines during the sunny mornings. Many women moved the cleaning operations to the marquesina, the open-aired carport, when the sun was beating down too hard or the threat of rain hung in the air.

Five gallon paint tubs and clean new designated plungers became a faster way for cleaning favored by many people and spread through verbal communication. Various families began making wood and PVC washboards to sell and make some income. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

The lack of water and electricity brought about the creative reintroduction of washing traditions throughout the island. There were news reports of families that were making and selling PVC washboards in order to sustain themselves. People in the lines would also share washing techniques, such as using a five gallon paint bucket as we were doing but also moving the clothing around with a clean plunger dedicated exclusively for laundry purposes. One woman attested that clothing came out cleaner than with the washing machine and it was slightly less work than washing by hand. In a similar manner, Neri recommended that we put our designated bathing water gallons under the sun for two hours in the afternoon and we could bathe with nice hot water. The informal system of sharing advice, knowledge and information through casual encounters often became vital in making life a little easier when other forms of communication were minimal.


Communication was slowly being reestablished. There were multiple radio stations, including a local one, by the end of the second week. These stations provided information about what was happening in the greater world but it was a one-sided type of communication. I kept my cell phone turned on but  on airplane mode and would check for a signal every few hours. There was ‘no service’ during the first few days. Helicopters of all types were flying right over us multiple times a day but they never stopped anywhere near Arecibo’s urban or suburban areas. I later learned that many of these helicopters were either moving between San Juan and Aguadilla or taking supplies to inaccessible communities in the island’s interior. When people wanted to talk to us or we wanted to talk to them, they had to come to us or we had to go to them. I was not able to talk to my mother until her landline began functioning again over a week after the storm, and even then I had to walk to Titi Neri’s house and use the oldest and only functional landline in the house. We began getting spotty cell phone service about two weeks in, the lines would get garbled and tangled but progress was slowly being made. I would have to dial twenty to thirty times before getting a ring tone. Neighbors and friends would indicate a particular spot on the highway or by the hospital or a store where there was signal. These spots didn’t always prove functional for getting phone calls out but the rumors spread and there would often be ten to twenty cars parked on either side of the road along these ‘miraculous’ spots. I still remember crying the first time Miguel and I were able to talk on the phone. He was in the car with our friend Jeff in Bloomington, Indiana and I heard him say “Glory? Glory?” before we both burst into tears. It was days and often weeks before I was able to contact other family members and it would be 40 days before I was able to talk to my grandparents. There is little to prepare you for the profound feeling of relief when you hear a loved one’s voice after weeks of tragedy, a feeling that ironically enough can be as acute and painful as the tragedy itself.


Animals, Helicopters, Deaths, and Jokes

Every aspect of life was affected down to the smallest details. The loudest noise every day was the passing of a series of helicopters over our neighborhood going to destinations unknown. The many helicopters were the only sign of external help during the first few weeks and they never stopped near our location. The local fauna was impacted by the storm. When trees fell and leaves ripped away, birds, bees, and iguanas struggled to find shelter, often leading them to neighborhoods and houses. We quickly learned that bees are attracted to coffee, regardless of whether the coffee has sugar or not. The sure sign that large invasive iguanas, often measuring up to four feet in length had entered someone’s yard or porch was the piercing sound of yells and laughter. The large reptiles are mainly vegetarian but have a mean tail whiplash. When they appeared in or near our yard, Carmen would call her neighbors who would shoo the large lizards with a broom away from our street. Everyone would come out and it would be occasion for gossip, laughter, and consternation. The iguanas were a source of fright and humor, as were the the bees, who simply wanted to find shelter sooner rather than later.

“Mad Max: Lizard Road” -Sketch from the field notebook, Gloria M. Colom Braña

Humor, especially improvised humor made up of witty commentary and sarcastic responses, was critical in diffusing situations and making the intolerable livable. Finding our drabbiest clothing to clean the roof could easily become a fashion show while making other people in line giggle at some silly observation became an icebreaker. Humor, and even gallows humor, provided relief from the almost daily news of the death of a close loved one, neighbor, or acquaintance. With the lack of communication and so much tragic news, the feeling of impotence and psychological pain only grew. Either through word of mouth or by friends visiting the house to bring the sad news, we would find out, usually days after the fact, that an older family member had passed away, or that people were dying from lack of dialysis in the region. There was no way to commemorate the deceased through funerary observances because funeral homes were inaccessible and people were being quickly and quietly buried or cremated.

Epilogue (Leaving)

We left Puerto Rico 28 days after Hurricane María hit Puerto Rico with it’s full force. Leaving was hard for many reasons. I had not been able to complete my dissertation research, there were communities I did not have time to document, archives that were left unexplored, interlocutors (informants) I was not able to meet. My mother-in-law was anxious to return to work and her normal routine, but there was uncertainty of when and if her work would even resume. The only way to convince both my parents-in-law to leave was to set a return date for one month later. We lived in one of the first communities to get electricity back in the entire island but there was no water or even the assurance of getting water in the following weeks. My husband and I wanted his parents to relax and recuperate after the compounded traumatic events of the storm and of the near post-apocalyptic living conditions we had been struggling through. Receiving almost daily news of loved ones and acquaintances dying and suffering through extreme health circumstances made the matter of leaving all the more pressing. The stress alone of waiting for hours in line under the sweltering sun and carrying pounds of water every day was enough to precipitate a heart attack or a stroke, either of which could prove mortal with the healthcare system impaired by the storm.

Over thirty phone calls, multiple battery charges, and resounding headaches later, we were able to get flights out of the island for three humans and Che the chihuahua. Carmen, ever one to be fully prepared, made sure that the house would be watched over, medicine refills would be up to date for the next months and transportation secured to the airport. These simple tasks were each made exponentially more complicated by the still-spotty communication that was available. Miguel would meet us in Newark, New Jersey, where we were going to be staying with his loving and ever anxious extended family. The Newark-based family had, like much of the Puerto Rican diaspora, been sending huge care packages to the island since the passage of the storm and were coordinating as much help as they could from what felt like an impossible distance.

Traveling to San Juan gave us the first glimpse of how the hurricane had completely changed most of the landscape, as this was the first time we left the region since the storm had passed. San Juan itself looked almost normal compared to the rest of the island…almost. Military vehicles, trucks with FEMA provisions, and convoys were a common sight heading out of the metropolitan area. The Luis Muñoz Marín Airport in San Juan itself felt like it was located in another time and place, simultaneously similar to the airport I knew all of my life and yet completely different. There was electricity, air conditioning and water. The floors and ceilings seemed to gleam, even with some storm damage evident. It almost felt like a slice of normalcy until one paid attention to the people coming in and out. Half of the people in the airport seemed to be ripped straight out of an action movie or war zone news clip, many military and militarized looking men and women from the US and other places. The other half were Puerto Rican families and their pets packing as much as they could, leaving the island amidst tears for uncertain futures. There were more elderly people than I had ever seen at the airport, more wheelchairs than I had ever known were possible. At our Gate, the airline employees were struggling to find enough people who spoke English to sit on the emergency exit rows on our flight. Many families and elderly people who had no plans of leaving Puerto Rico, suddenly found themselves having to leave with little contingency and no idea of when or even if they would be able to return to their own homes when things settled down. The flight itself was calm and uneventful, the family reunion was extremely sweet and emotional.

Elderly people waited calmly in long lines of wheelchairs by the flight gates. This scene was repeated for each flight leaving Puerto Rico. Illustration: Gloria M. Colom Braña

Since then, my family and I have been processing the devastation that we witnessed, rebuilding when possible, and helping out both loved ones and strangers. I don’t have nightmares from the storm but in my waking hours see repeating loops of all the buildings around me constantly being destroyed by imaginary winds. The struggle isn’t over yet, almost a year later, and there is much rebuilding to be done, continual mourning for those we lost, and the terror of another storm now that we are back in the midst of hurricane season. Puerto Ricans will continue to use their storm lore, to continue filling in the repertoire of necessary knowledge to survive the next event. In the meantime, the main priority beyond rebuilding is to maintain a sense of day-to-day normalcy.

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.