On Wednesday, September 20, the Puerto Rican island of Vieques took a direct hit from Hurricane Maria. Literally overnight, this verdant Caribbean paradise became a stark landscape of leafless trees, murky water and ruins where homes and businesses once stood. There was no electricity, fresh water, fuel or a means of communicating to the 9,000 Americans who live there, including this story’s author.
Vieques is a land of survivors. On an island off of an island, resources are limited on even the best of days, but we figure out how to make life work with what we have. We look out for one another. We share what we can and we learn to ask for help when we need it.
Hurricane Maria tested us. As the storm ravaged the island, some huddled under stripped roofs and wet mattresses for hours, hoping the rain would stop. Others used their bodies to blockade the doors to their homes, fighting against Category 5-strength winds. Some sat in the dark using hand-cranked radios to try to ascertain any information on what was happening. But we survived.
On Tuesday, September 19, my concrete, one-room apartment was at capacity with three people and two dogs. We assembled canned food, ramen noodles, cases of water, gasoline, flashlights, batteries and candles. We filled every spare pot and bucket with water so that we could flush the toilet once the tap turned off. We boarded up the windows and waited. We waited as the sky turned gray and the first bands of rain came through. We waited in the pitch black listening to what sounded like a freight train speeding past the window for hours. We waited until it was safe to go outside. We waited to see if our friends were okay, who still had a home and what was left of our island.
In the days after the storm, we all walked around in disbelief, in sadness, in shock. We watched helicopters fly overhead and questioned why they weren’t landing. We wondered if anyone was going to help us, if another storm was coming, how long it would be until we could tell our families we were alive. We had no connection to the world outside of the island. We tried to stay positive. We gathered in the town plaza hoping for good news, were told to help each other until aid arrived, but no one knew when that might be. We tried to reconcile the picturesque Caribbean life we’d been living with the new reality of uncertainty we now faced.
However, the beauty of Vieques hasn’t waned, it’s shifted. The beauty is coming from its people, drawing on their strengths to keep each other going, lending a helping hand no matter what is needed in this time of trouble, stepping up and taking jobs they never imagined would be necessary.
The town plaza has become the focal point for everything from supplies to services to socialization. Christopher Matson started offering clothes in the plaza and was joined by friends Kerry Riordan, Jennifer Itskowitch and Betty Gilreath who organize the sharing of surplus food, clothing and necessities for those who are in need. The group set up a table and announcement board alerting people about food distribution, ferry schedules and other important information and meet there daily to update the information.
Stephanie Latona usually leads Vieques Voices, an open-mic poetry event several times a month. But just days after the storm, she hosted a special edition of Voices in the town plaza for people to vent, connect and console each other. “I’m trying to reach into the depths of my soul and to let you know that you’re not alone,” she preached to the crowd. “Spread love, spread love, spread love.” Others soon followed suit, spreading the love by leading free yoga and Zumba classes for the community.
Art is being used to lift the residents’ spirits. Loyda Guzman and Christine Perry culled their own art supplies for anyone to use to create messages of hope from residents of all ages. And Perry and another friend, Larissa Sarmiento, hosted an art camp for children. “We wanted to create positivity in the midst of all of this intensity, sadness and trauma,” said Guzman.
El Blok Hotel manager Laine Gorman opened the hotel’s kitchen with head chef Carlos Perez and has been cooking meals for the hungry, delivering to the island’s hurricane shelter and home for the elderly. To date, the group has served more than 2,000 hot meals.
Sonia Ventura, founder of Vieques’ Corefi Food Bank, changed gears after her food bank was destroyed in the storm. She’s used her own money to obtain medication and offer emergency care and equipment, using her home as a distribution point. Each day, she makes the rounds, triaging those who need help and scavenging the resources to bring them critical aid.
From San Juan, Vanessa Valedon helped coordinate a group of missionary doctors, with specialties ranging from pediatrics to psychiatry, to visit Vieques. They set up two makeshift clinics, one on the north side of the island and one on the south. Thirty-three physicians saw roughly 170 patients, even making house calls to those who were bedridden or unable to get to the clinics. The group returned a second time, this time with 60 doctors, and a third visit is in the works.
There is new beauty on the island visually as well. Artist Sandra Reyes salvaged what materials she could from her destroyed studio. And one night, using the headlights from her daughter’s car for illumination, she created a mural with a simple message: Vieques Se Levanta (Vieques Will Rise). “You have to find beauty in the trash,” she said.
These are just a few of the relatively small but powerful gestures that have been invaluable to Vieques in a time of immense crisis and chaos.
Today, more than a month after the storm, Vieques still suffers. The entire island is without electricity and likely will be for months. Gas lines have waits as long as 10 hours. Running water is available sometimes, in some neighborhoods. Communication is improved but unreliable and spotty at best. Mail service is slowly returning, but if and when packages arrive from loved ones is anyone’s guess.
I was lucky to evacuate safely to the mainland United States about a week after the hurricane, but the many people who are still there are desperate for help. The road to recovery is going to be long and arduous, but the unwavering spirit and unrelenting kindness of the island’s people will ensure its survival. We will rise. We will rebuild. We will be better than we ever were. Vieques se levanta!
If you’d like to help the recovery and rebuilding efforts on Vieques, please consider donating to one of these organizations: