Dec. 6, 2017 —
When hurricane Irma threatened the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, residents braced for the worst. But Irma was just the beginning of the damage; hurricanes Jose and Maria completed the devastation.
Early news reports put the initial death toll from Maria at 34, so many in the mainland United States may have thought the destruction wasn’t pervasive. David Ramos discovered firsthand that it was.
Ramos, an antiterrorism officer for the Defense Logistics Agency, was born and raised in Puerto Rico and has family there — including till recently his 90-year-old father, Juan, and his 78-year-old mother, Hilda.
After hurricane Maria, Ramos heard his father was alive but hospitalized due to a preexisting heart condition. Ramos and his wife, Madelyn, decided to relocate his parents to the mainland and flew to Puerto Rico Oct. 4.
Ramos remembered being astonished by the devastation. “ ‘How could anybody survive this?’” he recalled thinking. “Everywhere you looked, there was not a tree with a branch that was not broken. What was once a beautiful, lush island was now just dirt.”
Once Ramos found his father in the hospital, he stayed with him 16 days before taking him and his mother to their home. “The house was fine, but as for essentials, they had none,” he said.
But Ramos’ in-laws, Joe and Lydia Vazquez, live on a part of the island with less devastation. They had fared well, even without running water or electricity, he said.
The Vazquezes did have a working car, which Ramos borrowed to bring supplies to his parents’ house; even after he heard help was coming, he knew distribution would be slow due to a lack of drivers and impassable roads, he said. Meanwhile, looters were cleaning out the stores.
When Ramos returned to the Vazquezes’ home, he found packages of military meals delivered by volunteers. He knew the “meals, ready to eat” had been sent by DLA Troop Support.
“I said, ‘That’s the organization I work with! We’re the ones who supply the food, the water, a lot of the generators and other equipment — that’s DLA stuff,’” Ramos recalled. Seeing the food was “a light at the end of the tunnel, particularly for the kids,” he noted.
Residents weren’t familiar with MREs, so Ramos showed them how to open and prepare the meals. They were thankful and actually enjoyed the food, he said. And as the roads improved, food deliveries to Puerto Rico became more consistent.
Just before Ramos returned home, the Vazquezes’ part of the island regained power and running water. But because the hurricane destroyed so much of the water mains and plumbing in central Puerto Rico, he said it could be a couple of years before running water is fully restored there.
“We’re relying on the creeks for water,” Ramos said. “Certain areas have spring water for drinking and bathing, but the prices are high.” He also noted there are household quotas on bottled water and food items. And prices for generators and chainsaws have increased exponentially, Ramos said.
Internet connectivity as of November was still very limited, Ramos said.
“Wherever you saw five or six cars lined up, there’s a signal; you just park right there and start calling,” he said. “The only place I had full connectivity was at the main hospital.”
Although he was in Puerto Rico for Hurricane Hugo, Maria was far worse, Ramos said. “Hugo was a tropical storm compared to Maria, as far as the aftermath. I’ve never seen in my life anything like Maria.”
His father had a similar reaction, saying, ‘I’ve been alive 90 years, and this was not a hurricane; this was the devil in disguise,’” Ramos recalled.
He noted many Puerto Ricans were unprepared for the severity of Maria, believing the island had been spared after Irma curved away from Puerto Rico. Yet even had they known how devastating Maria would be, it wouldn’t have helped, he said. Maria “wasn’t a storm to be ready for; houses over there are not built like here [on the mainland],” he said.
But Ramos likened the trees sprouting new leaves to a new beginning for Puerto Rico, and Americans there are depending on renewal and restoration.
“I think it brought the country a lot closer to each other, as far as helping each other,” he said.
After 30 days, Ramos flew with his parents to Atlanta, where they now live.
“I think the moment of peace was when we got off the plane, and I saw them go with my sister,” he said. “That was mission accomplished.”