Nectar Paola Gonzalez couldn’t talk to her mom. She couldn’t talk to her dad, or her friends or any of her other family members. Her calls were met repeatedly with a busy signal. She threw her phone across the room. Gonzalez could still hear the tone ringing in her ear.
Her homeland had been hit with a category five storm with winds that topped 160 mph. Island-wide blackouts took out cell towers, high winds grounded flights and most devastatingly; Gonzalez couldn’t reach her parents.
“I remember watching the news and feeling shocked,” Gonzalez said. “I was totally helpless.”
As Hurricane Maria continued on its path, it became the most powerful hurricane to hit the island in 80 years. Torrential downpour and record breaking winds devastated most of the island, leaving residents in total darkness.
Puerto Rico’s weak power grid infrastructure and troublesome terrain has since left many without power seven months after Hurricane Maria’s arrival. Lt. Col. John Cunningham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told NBC News, “Because it is a tropical island, they need specific conductors and materials that can resist the tropical weather and there’s a limited number of suppliers available to purchase specific materials for the island.”
While engineers struggle to fight the weather, the Puerto Rican people have pulled together in a show of tight-knit community. Gonzalez remembers when her call finally went through, nine days after the hurricane hit. She recalls her Aunt sobbing as she answered the phone. “We’re okay. We’re okay,” Nectar Valentin repeated until the two were sobbing together. One woman was in the University library on IUPUI’s campus, and the other ankle-deep in mud in a field surrounded by Gonzalez’s family.
“Everything is destroyed. It’s unreal Paola, nothing’s the same,” Valentin reported.
Amidst the chaos and destruction of the natural disaster, a feeling of nostalgia emerged from the rubble. The spirit of old Puerto Rico strengthened the sense of family and community. Nectar Brunilda, Gonzalez’s Mother emphasized the unity she experienced in the wake of the disaster.
“We got together with our neighbors to clean…seeing concrete structures bent as if they were clay was impressive,” Brunilda said. “In the end we all united as a community because we shared with the neighbors whatever we had.”
Puerto Rico has met complication after complication on it’s journey to normalcy. While engineers struggle to fix the unstable power grid, aid for the survivors has been subpar in comparison to aid to other hurricane victims in the past. For example, according to reports from FEMA, the organization was able to deliver 1.6 million meals, 2.8 million liters of water and 5,000 tarps to the island. These numbers pale in contrast to aid provided to Hurricane Harvey victims. FEMA managed to deliver 5.1 million meals, 4.5 million liters of water and over 20,000 tarps to Houston.
To put it in perspective, as stated in amendments No. 4 and 5 released by FEMA, it took 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Harvey victims and 43 days for Maria victims. The lack of media attention, and the apparent disregard by the Trump administration has left many Puerto Ricans frustrated and angry.
“We need to be talking about it,” Gonzalez said. “We need more conversation. Most Americans don’t even know Puerto Rico is in U.S. territory.”
As reported by the The New York Times, nearly half of all Americans don’t know Puerto Ricans are American citizens. The disaster that happened in Texas rendered an instantaneous response from the country because it was close to home. Business Insider reported charities had raised over 350 million dollars for Hurricane Harvey victims just three weeks after the storm hit.
Two months after Hurricane Maria, donations only reached a little over 10 million dollars. Gonzalez, like many Puerto Ricans, is well aware of these statistics and she is not surprised.
“Even when President Trump went to Texas, he still treated the whole thing like a concert,” Gonzalez said. “Throwing toilet paper into a crowd of desperate people is ridiculous and degrading.”
As Puerto Rico continues to fix the damage dealt by Hurricane Maria, island-wide blackouts are still common. Seven microgrids and 1,200 temporary generators are powering areas near important buildings such as schools and hospitals, NBC News reported in February of this year. It is unclear how long it will take for Puerto Rico to resume normal operations. There is more distrust of the government than ever before, and with the recent austerity measures, Puerto Ricans have begun protesting in the capital.
“Never stop talking until everything is resolved,” Gonzalez said. “Just doing that tiny part has shed a light on the problem.”
Rebuilding Puerto Rico’s economy will take some time. Hurricane Maria only exacerbated problems within the territory’s government, economy and infrastructure. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló is fighting the federally appointed oversight board on their suggestions for a new fiscal plan.
In a televised address late May, the governor broadcasted his disagreement with the board’s suggestions.
“As part of the evaluation process of the fiscal plan submitted by our government, the board has sent us a communication proposing measures that would have the effect of increasing the conditions of poverty in Puerto Rico,” Rosselló said.
It is very clear Puerto Rico has far to go before these problems will be resolved. However, the Puerto Rican people have looked into the heart of a category five hurricane and survived. They have pulled together and supported each other and have fought Mother Nature’s worst.
“Our people have a voice,” Gonzalez said. “The view of one does not reflect the many. My people will lift each other up during these times.”
Gonzalez and her family keep in touch on a near daily basis. Gonzalez can’t stress enough how relieved she was when she heard her Aunt’s voice on the ninth day.
“One call made the whole experience bearable,” Gonzalez said. “That’s really the power of a phone call.”
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