Tracking Hurricane Maria’s devastation in Puerto Rico
In KW #90 we tracked the aftermath of Hurricane Maria – just one of the hurricanes that reaped havoc across the Caribbean in late 2017. Nowhere in the region was hit as badly as Puerto Rico and Piti Gutierrez and his family witnessed the impact of the hurricane first hand. He told us what he experienced during, and after, Puerto Rico bore the brunt of Maria’s power.
Words: Jim Gaunt / Image: Piti Gutierrez (unless stated otherwise)
In August we were contacted by an architectural photographer from Puerto Rico, called Piti Gutierrez, who loved kiteboarding and his country. He was passionate about a new project that he had set up called #KiteProjectPR for which he was reflecting the sport, the riders and the island. He wanted to create a website that people could go to and learn more about kiting in Puerto Rico.
We had some correspondence back-and-forth and began working on a feature as there was no doubt as to the appeal of the island. A Caribbean location, Piti says that they call it La Isla Del Encanto (the Island of Enchantment) thanks to its privileged location, culture, beaches and of course, constant wind. The beautiful coastline around its 135 x 35 mile area made it a perfect year-round location for your next kite trip.
Of course, location was exactly the island’s downfall as it lay on the direct path of two category five hurricanes. Irma brushed across the northeast of the island, leaving the area vulnerable to Hurricane Maria that came a week later on the 24th September, with winds up to 154 miles per hour.
Within a month, over 900 people have been cremated in Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria made landfall, but the official death toll was officially still listed as only 51. According to news sources, such as The Independent in the UK, reports began to emerge that the government allowed 911 bodies to be cremated without being physically examined by a government medical officer to determine if they should be included in the final death toll from the storm. Accurate information about the death toll is important because it allows victims’ families to claim federal relief aid.
When President Trump visited the island in the aftermath of the storm he boasted about the low death toll of just 16 at the time, and stated that the White House’s response to the tragedy had been “a 10”.
As we write this feature in late October, around 70% of the island still remains without power, and in the last few weeks Piti has written to us with several open, honest accounts of what life has actually been like on the ground.
Piti’s first contact came a couple of days later. A seemingly humble character, he wrote apologetically in case we’d been waiting for some images from him to complete our travel story. He wasn’t sure if we’d heard that his small island had been hit by the most devastating storm in recent history. He gave me an early account that starkly brought to life the almost numbing, constant stream of tragic scenes that were pouring from our news screens. It’s amazing how rolling news and the seemingly constant plight of others have helped make these images become almost benign. It’s always happening ‘somewhere else’ to ‘someone else’. But Piti was giving an alternate first hand feel, in almost real time.
“Communications are down and only a few spots on the island have intermittent signal. Gas and diesel is hard to find and electricity is down across almost the entire island. We’re literally running the island on generators.” he explained.
He finished that email by saying that there was no doubt that Puerto Ricans would rebuild and come back stronger.
I told him our thoughts were with everyone and detailed what we’d seen in the news on our side. I suggested that perhaps we weren’t getting the full story though and asked if he would like to continue working on the feature, but now with a completely new focus. Kiteboarding pulls us all together, but after all, we’re all more than just kiteboarders.
His next response took my breath away in terms of the scale of the situation.
“Hurricane night was something else.” he began.
“It hit us full force and traversed the whole island from southeast to northwest. Scary and steady winds ranged from 165 to 200 mph, with gusts breaking 220 mph. I’ve lived through other strong hurricanes, like Hugo and George, but nothing compared to this.”
In previous hurricanes I had been a child, protected by my dad. Now I was a parent, trying to keep my family safe; an entirely different feeling. We weathered the hurricane at home after preparing as much as we could. We loaded up on water, canned food, batteries and an electric generator. We put wood over some windows and tried to tape others shut, but when there’s no precedent for what’s coming, it’s scary to not know if you’ve prepared enough.
“My wife Aurora, my 12-year-old daughter Alana and my brother-in-law with his girlfriend and five-year-old boy were in the house. The hurricane started to hit in the evening and at around 2 or 3 am the first wall of the eye came over us. Yes; the first wall, after which came the calm of the eye and then we braced for the impact from the south wall which was at least as strong, if not stronger, than the first.
“The entire house shook from the power but it was important to keep calm and make sure my wife and daughter didn’t panic. Panicking can be the difference between life and death in a situation like this. It becomes difficult to think straight when you’re making decisions based on fear, and when a beast like this hurricane is shaking your house, it’s hard to shut fear away.
“Fortunately, my house is really strong and built from cement. So many houses on the island are built poorly and simply out of wood. The island is pretty much destroyed, but we Puerto Ricans are a strong group and I’m sure we will rebuild and come back stronger.
“My family and friends are okay. The government are reporting that around 20 people died, but that number will change for sure as there are many interior regions that are now unreachable and out of communication.
“The most critical situation right now are shortages of food, gasoline and diesel. What makes it worse is that we have the supplies on the island and more ships coming in, but limited resources to transport it and make it available. We heard yesterday that soldiers from different branches of the US Forces are being brought in to take control of the gas and diesel transportation logistics.
“People are now beginning to get desperate for fuel. They say that water is life; well, right now fuel is life. Hospitals are running low on fuel, the few restaurants that are open are starting to close, supermarkets have no meat and limited other supplies and the gas stations that do have fuel can’t serve due to lack of power. Even just writing this is a bit overwhelming when the place you grew up in is in such bad shape physically and emotionally.
“Desperation is evident on the streets. The lines of people queueing for fuel are longer, there are less items on the supermarket shelves and things like water are being rationed.
“Getting information and images out is hard due to failing communications and lack of internet, but it’s not pretty out there. One thing is certain, the landscape has changed forever. Our Caribbean country has been stripped back to look like winter in a cold environment. Trees have lost their leaves and you can see the contour of the mountains through the bare branches.
“As I write this I’m standing at a fuel station trying to get gas for my car. It’s not guaranteed. There are two lines; one for vehicles that’s backed up with around 200 cars and another line for people carrying canisters on foot. I can count 63 people ahead of me and this is the shortest I’ve seen it in days. Some days the line of people has stretched around a few blocks while 500 cars queue up alongside in hope.
“It’s like a Hollywood movie. The heat is unbearable. This time of year is usually hot, but now we have fewer trees and with the disappearance of all the leaves, it’s noticeable how much they used to filter the air and make it seem much fresher.
“This is the aftermath in a nutshell, one week after Maria.”
Piti counts himself fortunate that he lives in Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan city, with its more developed infrastructure and stronger building codes than elsewhere on the island. In the days after he spent time getting his house back to some sort of liveable shape and helped in the kitchen of his wife’s restaurant – whatever was needed to keep the business going. Their generator would soon also run out of diesel.
A couple of days later Piti wrote back, outlining some further thoughts that had occurred to him, in relation to all of us as a worldwide community and how we’ve been doing things. He says that he’s re-learned valuable lessons that we seem to have lost. Here’s some of them..
- It’s so important to be generous to others and share what little you have.
- If you’re in a long line (queue), don’t go crazy. Simply talk to the people around you.
- Get to know your neighbours; who lives next door, upstairs or downstairs?
- Breakfast, lunch and dinner is just a pattern that you don’t need to follow to survive.
- Manage money wisely because it’s the cash you carry that counts and it will only last you so long. Credit cards are worthless, whether they’re gold, platinum or black.
- Drink all the contents of your bottled water, even if it’s warm. We throw nothing away.
- Showering with cold water on a tropical island isn’t a bad idea and the heater isn’t as necessary as we thought.
- We still know how to play cards and board games and we have endless bed time stories for our children.
- When days can go by without receiving a WhatsApp notification, the latest Facebook updates and when we don’t watch TV, everything is still all right.
- 70% of things we have in our house aren’t really necessary.
I apologised to Piti for being out of contact for a few days due to the arrival of our daughter – I felt I needed a good excuse for not replying as quickly as he did. We shared some baby experiences. Piti has been amazed by his own daughter’s resilience.
“My daughter is 12 and to our surprise she’s coping very well. She’s compassionate to others, likes to give a hand where needed and comes with me to deliver food and water to Olga (our neighbour who lost all she had), but she also asks a lot of questions about the future. I know we will all be okay and my wife and I try to project that so she’s not fearful, but is curious instead. I think we are raising a good person. If I’m honest, I do think that sometimes things like this need to happen to bring people and countries together. One of the best things for my daughter has been to have a break from the internet and communications. Like all children her age, their religion is pretty much Snapchat and YouTube. Now she plays games outside with her friends. They talk instead of being glued to phones or iPads. That’s how I used to play and it’s good to see it happening again. Her school is ready to open next Monday so that’s good, too. Children need their education and structure.”
Two weeks after Maria’s strike, Piti was asked to go as photographer with an aid group who were taking food into the mountain region, specifically to the town of Utuado in the centre of the mountain range. This was just one community that had potentially been entirely devastated by the hurricane and remained cut-off.
There was still a lack of clarity for the locals and official numbers of deaths and injury still sounded low considering the destruction they were seeing. Surely an official visit from President Trump would ease fears and raise morale…
“Trump’s visit… Hmm, I’m not sure what to make of it, but I can assure you it wasn’t well received. I’m just talking about his visit. Here in Puerto Rico we are grateful of any and all help we’ve received from the USA, but that does not mean ‘Trump help’. We’ve had a lot of help from governors in different states, including Florida, New York and more, who sent in help without waiting for any kind of Trump authorisation.
“Trump doesn’t have many fans in Puerto Rico and it got worse when he started talking about the situation here. Some of his highest impact statements were that we should be ‘proud’ that only 16 deaths came as a the result of Maria (though he didn’t offer any condolences to the families) but the astounding thing was that this information wasn’t real. There were 16 certified, but the actual body count was still being reviewed and right now is standing at more than 80 deaths, direct or indirectly a result of hurricane Maria. People died in hospitals due to a lack of diesel for the generators while others buried family members in their backyards so they wouldn’t rot before help arrived. Rivers carried entire homes and families downstream and the morgues at the hospitals no longer have space for more bodies. On top of this there are still island neighbourhoods in the mountain that no one has managed to contact, so Donald Trump’s comments were very hurtful.
“He also stated that we were lucky that this was not a ‘real’ catastrophe, like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or Hurricane Harvey in Texas. If this is not a catastrophe, I don’t know what is.
After that he went out for a tour of the ‘devastated communities’, including the town of Guaynabo where I live; a town with possibly the least damage on the whole island. Compared with the mountain and coastal towns where people are trapped without food or drinking water, of course he thinks the situation is less severe. I will never understand why he didn’t go to those towns where people are most vulnerable, but instead made a media tour through the ‘okay’ towns. He stopped by the Operations Centre in San Juan, another area that suffered a lesser degree of impact and started throwing rolls of paper towels out into the crowd like they were T-shirts at a concert. He handed out flash lights to people, while saying “You don’t need these anymore”, like everything was fine. At the time only 10% of the island had electric power, it was just unbelievable.
“Even just writing this is a bit overwhelming when the place you grew up in is in such bad shape physically and emotionally.”
“We really appreciate all the help coming from the States, but we will not tolerate humiliation. Puerto Rico will rise again because we have to and because we need to, no matter where the help is coming from. We have troops on the ground, supplies coming in the ports but still 19 days later there are people in life and death situations because the goods aren’t moving quick enough.”
Here in the UK we heard about Puerto Rico’s First Lady, Beatriz Roselló, embroiled in a public discourse, citing President Trump’s actions and sentiments as inadequate. Left wing media were painting her in a good light and she’d set up the Unidos Por Puerto Rico (United for Puerto Rico) fund and was visibly getting her hands dirty by helping every day. What did the locals think of her?
“We think she’s been doing a good job, but so is every other Puerto Rican. We help where it’s needed and, as Beatriz is doing, we’re all pitching in because things are not moving as quickly as we need. We join forces with local companies and food banks to go out to the most devastated towns to get the supplies into the hands of the people who need it most. EVERYONE is working, including Beatriz Roselló.”
I asked Piti what he saw in the town of Utuado.
“It was one of the most devastated towns and like a scene from a movie. Completely militarised, the entrance of the town was heavily guarded and you couldn’t pass by unless you were a resident, looking for missing family members, or were coming with a mission to deliver goods. The army escorted you to the baseball field in the town centre where all the supplies were being delivered and heavily guarded. We’d unload goods into a military truck and were told where we could and couldn’t go. Helicopters constantly flew low overhead on rescue and relief missions. Once cleared we’d follow a convoy, including military personnel, local police, officials and emergency management units to a pre-determined area. While we delivered the goods they closed the roads and controlled the crowds. We never felt in danger, not because of all that show of force, but because the people really just needed some food, water and maybe someone to talk to in the hope of hearing that everything would be all right.
“To be quite honest, I can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel yet, but I know we’ll see it some time soon, even though this is just beginning and there’s so much to be done. There are tons of organisations out there to choose from if someone wants to help, but just try to make sure wherever you donate that it’s an organisation that will make sure your money and supplies will reach the hands of the people who need it most.”
Two weeks later and just ahead of wrapping up this issue, we got some hopeful news from Piti.
“The water is finally clearing up a bit in some places and there’s some wind coming for the weekend. I’m going to kite with the crew this Sunday after more than a month off the water.”
He had previously mentioned the water contamination. How serious was it?
“Basically all the sewer water from at least the metro area near our regular kite spot at Ocean Park, San Juan, sat still for at least two weeks and the water became incredibly contaminated. People couldn’t deal with the smell because it was so rotten. The pumps that drain all the sewer system need electricity to work, which of course we didn’t have, so the county solution was to pump all that dirty, rotten, contaminated, sewer water right onto the beach.
“Puerto Rico is relatively small at just 100 by 35 miles and is surrounded by river mouths. At other spots the issue was that the sea level rose so high in the hurricane that the rivers couldn’t flow into the sea as normal. So all the river water was effectively in a giant holding tank, waiting for the ocean to retreat back to its normal level so it could flow out again. The river water had all the contents that came from the broken plumbing pipes of houses and septic tanks. Dead, rotting animals mixed with garbage all the way up the mountain. The situation remained like that for days, so when the sea level dropped all that matter was just waiting to flow out.
“There were reports of leptospirosis (two confirmed deaths) because people were drinking, bathing and cooking with that water. Even now the water is still not safe to drink unless you boil it or have a really good purifying system.
“Incredibly, the coastal water has started to clear quite naturally, but you never know. For kiting, the spots near river mouths will be the ones to avoid for now. Tests are being done regularly and some contaminants are still flowing, but not as badly as before, so it’s ‘okay’ to go in.
“We used to do anything for our regular kite fix, and now we need it again. I hope we don’t come out with a third eye or something!”
Five weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, the public information about the severity and aftermath effects in Puerto Rico are still misleading, but Puerto Ricans are pulling together and they will come back stronger. Piti and his friends have had a couple of kitesurfing sessions, and haven’t grown a third eye. Puerto Rico is a very warm and welcoming place to visit and, as it rebuilds, the country and its citizens are going to appreciate your visit and tourism spend.
26 Days Later
We caught up with Piti again after our initial conversations to see how Puerto Rico’s recovery had progressed. New facts about the hurricane had come to light and the recovery was ongoing but not as quickly as many Puerto Ricans would have hoped. Here’s what he had to say.
- The hurricane made land fall with sustained winds of category four, but the gusts were category five.
- Help is still slow and it’s unbelievable that 26 days later there are still people who have not been reached.
- Maria’s certified death toll today is 48 and there are 117 missing people. (As we go to print the newspapers are reporting over 900 deaths that are the result of Maria. Officially, the number is still just 51.)
- We’re sure the government is working but not everyone is getting help, so we do it ourselves. Puerto Rican citizens are taking it as their responsibility to go out to the most vulnerable communities to make sure that food, water and medicine is getting to the hands of the people who need it most, not the official or government warehouses.
- There are far too many foundations and too much politics controlling what people are sending to the ports and who gets what first. It’s not fair game for everyone. This system is susceptible to corruption, miss-handling of money and ultimately playing with the life of others. There have been reports of mayors mishandling the supplies and keeping it for themselves or close ones. We’re told this is being investigated by the federal government.
Visit Guti’s website: www.josegutierrezphotography.com
Unidos por Puerto Rico can be found at: www.unidosporpuertorico.com