I did not see my family, as I had hoped to.
At midday in San Juan, it might as well have been dusk. The sky turned from bright blue to dark gray in a matter of seconds, and heavy rain poured like it was on fire. I had just landed in my birthplace, Puerto Rico, on a medical and humanitarian mission to aid those in need on this devastated island. The mission is year-long. My visit, unfortunately, lasted less than 20 hours.
Nothing prepared me for what I experienced first-hand, not the phone conversations with my sister who lives in the metropolitan area, nor the extensive news coverage since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on September 20. Neither visuals nor reporter’s first-hand stories captured what I witnessed.
Three weeks after the category 5 hurricane hit the island, highways were impassable; floods, downed trees and electric poles, with no traffic lights, made driving a nightmare. On our way to the mountains of Comerío, where we were delivering supplies and establishing a medical mission, the only lane available on the narrow uphill road was an obstacle course of downed tree branches, mudslides, and a treacherous water-logged bridge.
As harrowing as our ride was, I know it was nothing compared to the travails Puerto Ricans have faced every day since Maria. Three weeks after the hurricane, conditions are grim — many still lack electricity and running water. Relief efforts have been slow to reach more remote regions like Comerío. Islanders are now facing a growing public health threat – disease brought about by exposure to contaminated water.
Crops are destroyed. Tourism is non-existent.
The poor and the working-class, as it always happens, bear the brunt of the aftermath.
In the midst of this devastation, I witnessed resilience and gratitude, by name. Carmen Rodriguez (Rodriguez Catering) knew we would be hungry and had dinner ready when we arrived in the municipality of Naranjito. She prepared a simple meal of rice and beans, bread, and salad. Chicken slices were almost an embellishment. Carmen hugged me when we arrived. Later I would find out this was her first job in almost three months. She had borrowed money to purchase ingredients for our meal.
Silvia Rodriguez works for the Naranjito municipality and was key to securing access to clinics for the poorest. She also hugged me. She crosses an overflowed river, that night it was pitch black, to get to her home every day.
Our breakfast, a modest ham and cheese sandwich, was provided by a cook who also borrowed money to buy the ingredients. She had a thriving business before Maria; now she was crying of happiness for the little money she earned with our arrival.
None of the employees in our hotel had been paid since Irma, the hurricane that preceded Maria, because tourists stopped coming. They barely had money to keep the inn open. Our stay gave them hope.
In Naranjito, a nearby town, young and elderly, people who had jobs and now barely have resources for basics, including food, water, and gas, embraced our doctors. They were and are a ray of hope. The medical mission, led by SOMOS Healthcare Chairman Dr. Ramon Tallaj, will focus on the battered area of Naranjito/Comerio until this region is restored and its people back in business.
Seeing my island like this, I cried. But at dawn, when the roosters crowed, I smiled. My island will get back on its feet. We are resilient.
As for my family, God knows we tried to get together. God knows we will.