When the hurricane hits home

Author: Carol Elliott

Sandra Vera-Muñoz, an associate accountancy professor at the University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, anxiously watched the news reports as Hurricane Maria made its approach to her homeland, the island of Puerto Rico.  

Her 94-year-old mother, coincidentally named Maria, still lives there with her brother Justo in Bayamon, a mid-sized city about 11 miles southwest of San Juan. Her mother has some mobility issues and uses a walker, said Vera-Muñoz. But she’s mentally sharp and very, very determined to stay in the brick-and-mortar home where she raised her family.

They prepared for the hurricane as best they could, and then they waited.

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“Before Maria came, there was Hurricane Irma,” said Vera-Muñoz. “We were counting our blessings because Puerto Rico dodged that bullet. The damage was relatively light. And then came Maria. We saw the trainwreck coming.”

Hurricane Maria rammed into the island at 6:15 a.m. Sept. 20, entering at Yabucoa, a municipality on the southeastern coast known for its rich agriculture. It moved in a diagonal line to the northwest, exiting in Arecibo, literally cut the island in half with a force comparable to thousands of tornados ripping across the landscape. It is the fifth-strongest storm ever to hit the U.S., according to NASA reports, and the strongest storm to hit the island in 80 years.

The Vera’s home had a landline phone that continued to function, and for a while, her brother could text, providing a blow-by-blow account as the winds reached their home.

“Needless to say, nobody slept that night,” Vera-Muñoz said. My brother kept texting me that the noise was maddening. He could hear projectiles hitting the metal panels covering the windows. The wind sounded like an airplane on top of the house. They moved to the only safe place in the house, which is a hallway between two brick walls, and waited for it to end.”

Vera House Puerto Rico

When the hurricane did finally move on, they emerged to complete devastation. Although Vera-Muñoz is quick to say that her family was lucky. Their house withstood the storm with minimal damage and didn’t flood. But just outside their door, it wasn’t the same story.

“We knew it was going to be bad, but I don’t think anyone knew how bad it was going to be,” she said. It’s been a week since Maria, and the situation on Puerto Rico is now characterized as a humanitarian crisis. Early damage estimates are between $45 billion and $95 billion.

“The whole island is destroyed. There’s nothing left,” said Vera-Muñoz. Her voice has that tone that you hear from someone who has experienced an awesomely terrible event — a mixture of wonder, fear and deep sorrow.  “Agriculture is wiped out. All the communication. Even the wind turbines and solar farms in southwest part of the island – all destroyed. Infrastructure – all gone.”

Like the rest of the island, her family is without power. Water, food, gasoline and other essentials are scarce.

“Life is very hard right now. Here’s the problem. There’s no power, so there’s not much you can do. Places that are open – banks, hospital, grocery stores – have generators. But they are running out of diesel. Now what’s ensuing is a crisis because people are getting desperate to get the basics,” she said. 

The lines to get anything are hours long, and people are camping out overnight to get gas, if there is gas to be had. They are getting water from mountain springs and bathing in rivers, essentially turning back a century of progress.

“There’s a curfew in place. There’s no air conditioning and it’s very hot. They’re in survival mode.”

The U.S. National Guard and FEMA have been at work with relief efforts, but given the sheer scale of reconstruction needed, Vera-Muñoz believes only the U.S. military will be able to manage the needs. Indeed, on the day she was interviewed, the Pentagon announced the appointment of General Jeffrey Buchanan to lead all military hurricane efforts in Puerto Rico, with a focus on improving distribution networks of relief supplies.

Based on the news reports and descriptions of the destruction from her mom and brother, Vera-Muñoz agrees with the assessment that rebuilding the island will take many years. But there are two points she’d like people to keep in mind.

One has to do with the nature of the island and the people she loves.

“When Irma destroyed the smaller Caribbean islands, large numbers of those residents were welcomed to Puerto Rico,” said Vera-Muñoz. “They collected supplies to help those people, and opened their homes to perfect strangers. Puerto Ricans are extremely hospitable and generous with what little they have.

“And then Maria comes along, and now Puerto Rico is exactly where the people from Barbuda and Antigua were. Now they need the help. They will need help not just now, not just six months from now, but for a long time to come. But I’m completely confident it will come back, and better than before.”

The other point concerns her 94-year-old mother. About four years ago, Vera-Muñoz brought her to the states and pleaded with her to stay. Maria is a native of El Salvador, in Central America, earned a Ph.D. in chemistry and worked as a pharmacist there before switching to becoming a social worker after she moved to Puerto Rico. For much of her career, she worked with the mentally and physically challenged, as well as juvenile offenders.

She had met her husband in Puerto Rico and raised her family there. She intends to die there as well.

Vera-Muñoz made the same plea again just a few days ago.

As of now, it’s a no,” she said, laughing with a tinge of frustration. “As of now, her position is she wants to die in Puerto Rico. Her deep faith gives her a lot of strength and a lot of hope. I pray, too, but I try to tell her that sometimes there are some practical matters we need to take care of.

“But Maria the hurricane is no match for Maria the mom.”

How You Can Help

To find out more about resources needed and where to donate, Sandra Vera-Muñoz suggests checking out the PBS website, "How you can help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico," which provides links to some of the hurricane relief effort organizations.