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Before the storm had even touched Puerto Rico, Savannah Gonzalez, 24, was already worrying about her parents. Days earlier, they’d come down with COVID-19. FaceTiming them from her home in Iowa, it was clear they were extremely sick.
On Sept. 18, Hurricane Fiona tore through the island harder than anyone imagined it would. It knocked out the electrical system, causing millions of people to lose power and cell service. Gonzalez was unable to reach her parents the entire day.
“They were literally bedridden, and then the hurricane hit,” Gonzalez told BuzzFeed News. “I had no idea … Did my parents drown? Are they trapped in the house? Are they standing on the roof trying to get away from the water and flooding? Are the dogs okay?”
Nearly 24 hours later, she finally received a text from her dad. “Those were the three most important words I’ve ever read in my life — when my dad said, ‘We are safe,’” she said.
Though she was relieved that they were alive, she knew that didn’t mean everything was fine. In the days since, her parents’ health has slowly returned, but healing from the hurricane’s toll will take far longer. They are still without power or running water, and cell service remains poor. In order to bathe and flush the toilets, they’ve had to gather water from a river, lugging a five-gallon jug home on foot. Running a generator is expensive, but they have to use one since they both work from home. Their house is still largely intact, but not all their neighbors avoided damage — one family’s roof blew clean off.
As of Tuesday, nearly 500,000 households in Puerto Rico are still without electricity, according to the outage data tracking site PowerOutage.us. Luma Energy, the private company that took over managing the grid last year, has said it’s working to restore power. The hardship is frustratingly familiar; after Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, it took 11 months for power to be fully restored.
Watching from afar as their loved ones on the island face down the bitter aftermath of yet another disaster has been a unique sort of heartbreak for Puerto Ricans living on the mainland. Like Gonzalez, many were unable to reach their loved ones in the aftermath of the storm, leaving them to wonder whether they were even alive; at least 16 people have died as a result of the hurricane, officials have said.
It was a week before Joseidee Gonzalez, a 27-year-old in Miami, was able to reach her grandfather in Puerto Rico. “You kind of feel helpless — it’s really just honestly a knot-twisting, indescribable feeling. You just have to sit there and wait,” she said.
The silence can be absolutely excruciating. Keyla, who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons, recalled being unable to reach any of her loved ones in Puerto Rico for nearly two months after Hurricane Maria. She’d moved to San Francisco just the year prior, and her entire family was still on the island. “I had no idea if they were okay, or what had happened to them,” she said.
This time, Keyla was able to reach her brother just after the storm struck to confirm her family was safe, but then she lost contact for several days afterward. On Friday, she finally heard from her mom, who managed to find phone service by driving around.
“I could sense how far away I am, and how alone I am,” Keyla said. “The physical distance [is something] you don’t feel because being online and phone calls can make it so easy to feel close, but it becomes immense once you’re disconnected entirely — it feels like you’re living in a different time.”
It’s a sick sort of solace realizing that the only reason so many Puerto Ricans are okay is because they’ve been through this before. Having survived Hurricane Maria and so many other hurricanes since — not to mention frequent blackouts even outside of storms, earthquakes, and a global pandemic — disaster preparedness can be practically second nature. When Hurricane Maria hit in 2017, Isabel Mercedes Cumming, 60, shipped battery-powered lamps and other supplies to her many relatives living there. “Luckily, they kept everything,” Cumming, who lives in Baltimore and serves as the city’s inspector general, told BuzzFeed News.
The power outages have been especially tough on the island’s older residents, such as Cumming’s 91-year-old uncle in San Juan. Cumming’s niece, Priscila Roman-Ortiz, 24, has been caring for him since the hurricane, bathing him with bottled water and making meals from their supply of nonperishables. One of the toughest parts was the lack of air conditioning — a heat wave swept the island last week, with temperatures reaching the 100s.
Fortunately, power came back Sunday for Roman-Ortiz and her grandfather, but many of her friends — particularly those in the island’s central and southern regions, where the hurricane wreaked its worst havoc — are still without. She worries what this could mean for Puerto Ricans who were already struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s just disheartening to see vulnerable people become more vulnerable,” Roman-Ortiz said. “So many humble people that work paycheck to paycheck are getting affected now because they can’t work.”
Despite Puerto Rico being a US territory and its residents being US citizens, many Puerto Ricans feel they are treated like an afterthought. About 3,000 people died as a result of Hurricane Maria, but then-president Donald Trump downplayed the devastation and fought back against providing federal aid. There’s a long history of racist and colonialist attitudes from mainland Americans, many of whom don’t even realize Puerto Rico is part of the country — according to a 2017 poll, only 54% of Americans knew that Puerto Rican–born individuals are US citizens.
“It’s like we’re living in a third-world country, but we’re not supposed to be, because we’re part of the United States,” Roman-Ortiz said.
She and others now fear that Hurricane Fiona will just be the latest disaster in which Puerto RIcans are left to figure out recovery on their own.
“The next day [after the hurricane], when I saw that US media had mostly focused on the Queen’s funeral, 24/7, and barely any coverage of what was going on on the island, I was fuming,” Keyla said. “Less media and less coverage means less help.”
Far from her family, Keyla has been channeling her sadness and worry into action, fundraising on social media and making lists of supplies to mail to her family members. But there’s little she can do to ease her feelings of anger — anger that her community deserves better, that this is happening again, and that it doesn’t seem like other Americans really care.
“I think when you live on the island, you get a sense that people on the mainland are completely disconnected from you,” Keyla said. “But at the end of the day, not only are the people on the island humans, they’re US citizens.”
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