At the U. of Puerto Rico After Maria

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A report by Jeffrey Herlihy-Mera for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The weather forecast called for winds of 90 mph by 9 a.m. and 110 to 130 mph from 3 to 6 p.m. Our street in Mayagüez, a city on the west coast of Puerto Rico, started to flood about 1:30 in the afternoon on September 20, the day Hurricane Maria made landfall. During a lull, I went outside to check the building.

When I turned the corner and started down the stairs, there was a rooster. He looked up at me. It was a fighting cock (the man next door raises them). Huddled against the building, wet feathers a mess, this majestic creature shielding its face from the disaster is one image I can’t get out of my mind.

And there were other images and sounds that only a storm can summon: the low-pitched stutter our generator made as it ran out of gas the day after the storm. A woman in line at the supermarket a few days later (the line to enter the store), smiling and saying she hoped for rain so she could bathe that day. The sloshing noise as my feet moved in the water puddled beneath the chair in my office on campus.

Early in the morning after the storm, in a blast of poor judgment, I walked the half mile to my campus, the University of Puerto Rico at Mayagüez. I wore two raincoats and had my laptop double-wrapped in plastic in a shoulder bag under both coats. The floodwaters had receded enough that I could get out of my apartment building. Surely the generator and internet would work in my office, a concrete bunker of an edifice. I could send a message to family on the U.S. mainland and even work on the grant application I had going. Or so I thought.

There was no one on the campus. It was not unlike the first scenes of Stephen King’s The Langoliers, after everyone disappeared. The winds were around 60 mph, and rain came at me sideways as I navigated the fallen trees and wires. I climbed the stairs of the Chardón building not realizing the power was out. The stairwell lights had emergency batteries.

There was nothing in my office except water, darkness, and the sound of wind and rain against the walls. I spent the rest of the morning removing debris from the hallways and lobby.

The rumor mill runs unusually fast in disasters: Someone siphoned diesel from a generator at a funeral parlor in Vieques. AT&T Wireless will be out for a year. A ferry is shuttling people from San Juan to the Dominican Republic. Wi-Fi works at City Hall. An ATM near Sam’s Club has cash. The morgue in Aguadilla has been full for days. Cuban doctors are treating people at no charge in Añasco. Classes begin on October 8.

It’s hard to sift through what one hears and construct reality amid all of it. These were all believable. (I walked across town to find out that the City Hall and Sam’s Club rumors were false.)

“We aren’t going to lose the semester.”

The Federal Emergency Management Agency said last week that half of the island’s residents had access to drinking water and 5 percent had electricity. But I know of no one who has water and electricity. Many have had no power since Irma.

Horror films are like this.

On the FM radio in Puerto Rico this past Saturday, the scan button spun all the way around the dial in static. There was one AM station populated by voices, many choked by tears, saying they are OK and asking about the welfare of others.

FEMA is just another rumor. The death toll — 36, according to the latest reports — is not a rumor; it’s just false.

Something about the severity took time to sink in. Now that it has, it upsets me immensely. As happened with the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and after Hurricane Katrina, the federal agencies created to protect people in these straits are not solving the problem. They are the problem. There are 69 hospitals on the island; all of them needed satellite phones, water and food reserves, operational generators, and diesel before the storm.

That these public institutions in a hurricane zone didn’t have basic necessities for post-Category-5 storm conditions is inexcusable — and while blame is often passed off on the local debt, FEMA should have been here earlier. Not days or months but over a span of years.

Complying with the social contract that the U.S. government has with its people is how catastrophes are avoided. If, for 17 days, Massachusetts had no cellphone coverage, or half the hospitals couldn’t function, or people had to bathe in the rain, or children in towns in the Berkshires cut off by downed bridges were surviving on rice and rainwater, this would summon an enormous response from the government. Wouldn’t it? If this were happening in Upstate New York, the mountains of Utah or Virginia, or Alaska, even President Trump would consider it “a real catastrophe,” right?

With a small child and no power or water for almost two weeks, my family decided to try for one of the few flights off the island, to stay with relatives on the mainland. Our first attempt, on Tuesday, October 3, was canceled. The scenes at Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport these days would not be out of place in a Junot Díaz novel or a Quentin Tarantino movie. The long goodbyes that once happened at railroad stations or oceanside quays, with a strange mixture of tears, anger, relief, confusion, anxiety — muddled voices struggling to say just a few words — now take place at airports. Despite their intentions, many people will not be able to return.

In the check-in line in front and behind us on Saturday, people lowered wet faces to a friend’s or loved one’s shoulder, as if to lessen the burden of what was happening. Pets squawked in cages; motionless figures — family and friends of those with tickets — stood by the entrance looking toward the line. Once in a while, a hand waved.

Amid the masses, I saw a former student with her family, and a professor from the floor below me in Chardón. We spoke about the university, our destinations, how long we planned to be away.

My 3-year-old son was hiding between my knees, both of us nervous and quiet.

I thought of Raquel Hélène Hoheb Williams. She left Mayagüez, her hometown, for New York in 1882.

Raquel Hélène never returned, but her son, the poet William Carlos Williams, did visit. He lectured on our campus on two occasions. The building where he spoke — Celis, now an administration building — is just in front of Chardón. I went there on Friday to speak with my dean and my department chair.

One of the first things my department chair, Héctor Huyke, said to me was, “Tengo mi machete” — I have my machete. Fernando Gilbes, our dean, brought me into his office and said, “No vamos a perder el semestre.” We aren’t going to lose the semester. They were working to bring a university back to life — with no water, no cell coverage, no electricity.

Before we left for the airport on Saturday morning, I woke to the call of my neighbor’s fighting cock; it had survived. Getting on the plane that night was bittersweet.

But I am very glad to be someplace with power and water. We will return to Mayagüez as soon as the university opens. I hope the students are able to do so, too.

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