Carina Bracer: Really? A climate refugee?
Really? A climate refugee?
Amazing how that became a reality for my family last October after the passing of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico. The destruction it caused forced us to suddenly uproot our lives. Compared to others, we were very fortunate. Neither we nor anyone in our extended family lost their home, or had to survive more than three months without electricity.
We experienced the hurricane at my in-laws, in the southern city of Ponce. It is a bunker of a house, really, made of cement and with hurricane windows all around. We had a gas generator and well water. Our home in Dorado, about 20 mins from San Juan, also survived with little more than minor water seepage through windows and doors. But our house handyman, Vaye, lost the roof on his home. My babysitter’s mostly wooden house leaked everywhere and they had to replace or just say goodbye to much of their material items. And that was not the worst for her –still in May 2018, eight months later, electricity hasn’t been reconnected for her or about 15% of the island!
The blackout had the biggest impact of all. Many people in the mountains and inland areas were cut off from everything. For so long. 100% of the island lost power. It is still amazing to me how many light poles were taken down by the sustained 155mph winds! Cement (with iron bar filler) light poles exploded because they bent so much! Granted, the state of the infrastructure was abysmal, a patchwork reality that had already produced island wide outages in the months prior to Maria. Doubts constantly aired asking how the bankrupt country would be able to make the repairs and investments needed, for years pre-Maria. After it, radio hosts even joked that perhaps this disaster would finally enable the necessary quality reconstruction of the system; be a chance to right many wrongs in the country once and for all… if only enough funding somehow miraculously became available.
I also wondered what the impact would be to forging solutions given the huge brain drain that took place prior to Maria out of economic concerns in the country. The exodus of circa 70,000 per year spiked to 180,000 in the 3 months post Maria. And about 50% of small businesses did not survive the aftermath of months without power.
Children lost half a year or more of school. The effects are still being felt and remain unknown at this point-- most of the population has been burning through their life savings to survive without income. In the months after, my thoughts often went to parents’ desperation at having their kids at home, given that so many schools remained closed for months and all the difficulties getting food, or preparing what little they had without electricity, or water. All the while trying to recover their losses and acquire employment in an already struggling pre-hurricane economy.
One week prior to the hurricane, my youngest child, 3 years old, had been in the ER for a week with a respiratory condition. Ten days after the hurricane, only days after finally being able to reconnect with my family in the US, desperate to know how we had fared, we still did not know when electricity would return, even for the hospitals, or when commercial flights would be available. We were extremely concerned about another medical emergency with him. Hospital generators were failing, distribution of gas was really uncertain-- entire ER units had to be evacuated.
We were plain lucky that, via a friend of a friend who started “Warrior Angels Rescue”, a spot opened up for me and my sons on her private plane, which she extremely generously used to evacuate maternity wards, children’s homes and emergency rooms in the days following the hurricane. It returned to PR filled with whatever donations were available in Miami. We decided to take the spots even though we had to be packed in 2 hours from the call! We made our first cross-island drive to the airport in San Juan. Seeing all the devastation on that beautiful major mountain highway was tough. At least I knew nature is resilient and soon it would again be that lush tropical green we loved. My husband stayed behind another few months to help my in-laws and others adjust to life with the ongoing crisis.
Thus, I began a new life in Austin, Texas. And where possible continue to share with others the many ways they can help the beautiful “Isla del Encanto”.
All in all, it's been amazing to witness first hand so many stories of lives upturned after this hurricane; to witness the amazing power of winds and rains and see the destruction that is caused in a matter of hours. And to think that this will become more and more common... so much loss and upheaval in people's lives and to nature. Certainly, being better prepared will be useful (PR had a disaster plan for a Category 1 hurricane, and it was very outdated), but ultimately, the outrageous costs that these kinds of natural disasters bring are just astounding and often impossible to plan for. Whatever is in our power to help minimize by controlling ocean warming, we absolutely must.