As I watched with trepidation Hurricane Maria gaining strength in the Atlantic Ocean into a Category 5 storm, I thought to myself that this could be really serious.
Unlike Irma a week earlier, this storm looked to head directly into Puerto Rico, the island where my parents and grandparents were born and where I had been just a few weeks earlier celebrating my mother’s 85th birthday. Both my mother and one of my brothers, along with nieces and nephews and many friends, live on the island, and this storm looked like it was going to strike the island with a direct hit.
My mother and brother live in San Juan in the tourist area known as Condado, comprising mainly beachfront hotels, stores and high-rise apartment buildings. My mom, who is stricken with Alzheimer’s, lived on the eighth floor of one of those high-rises, with my brother living a few blocks away in a smaller building. My mother’s condition requires 24-hour care, but with the approaching hurricane, all her caretakers had to stay with their own families, so she moved in with my brother and sister-in-law to ride out the storm.
Maria made landfall as a Category 4 hurricane in the early morning, and we watched anxiously as the storm battered the island throughout the day. During the first few hours of the storm, we were able to stay in contact with my brother via WhatsApp, but all communication ceased as the storm progressed. The news was pretty grim. Maria had devastated Puerto Rico, with the entirety of the island losing power and running water, and blocked roads making food and diesel deliveries impossible.
Hours passed until we finally heard from my brother. Everyone was OK; some water had seeped into the apartment through its windows and air conditioning units. He sent us pictures showing the devastation around him, with fallen trees and light posts scattered across the nearby streets. I couldn’t even begin to imagine the devastation amongst the poorer parts of the island, where many homes were not built to resist hurricane winds. Although my brother had prepared for the hurricane by purchasing water and some food, no one was prepared for the magnitude of devastation the island experienced.
After several days passed and it appeared that neither electricity nor running water would be restored anytime soon, it became clear after speaking to my brother that we needed to seriously consider getting our mom off the island and to a safer location. We quickly developed a plan for one of my brothers to fly to the island on one of the few commercial flights still flying to San Juan and bring her to the mainland. Unfortunately, two days later, this flight was canceled, leaving us with little option but to charter a flight to fly her to the continent. Finding charter flights that were willing to fly to San Juan was not easy, but we were finally successful working with a charter company out of San Juan.
In the end, the flight carried six passengers and three dogs, and, finally, on Erev Yom Kippur, right before the beginning of the Kol Nidre service, I received the message that my mom, along with my sister-in-law, her mother and several other friends, had landed safely in Fort Lauderdale. We were fortunate and blessed that we could do this, but most Puerto Ricans are still living in precarious conditions.
Puerto Rico’s road to recovery will undoubtedly be very long and difficult. Please let us all keep in mind that they are also Americans who are entitled to the same support as those living in the continent.
With the generous support of donors, CJP is teaming up with the Jewish Federations of North America to provide food, medicine and shelter to people who have been impacted by destructive hurricanes in Puerto Rico, Florida and Texas. Donate here.
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