Karol Brinkley: Even diapers were rationed after Hurricane Georges hit the island 19 years ago
With Hurricane Maria leaving Puerto Rico without power for at least four months, we need to get help to the most vulnerable, she writes
Editor’s Note: Karol Brinkley is a producer for CNN Digital Video. She was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in different places as the child of a servicemember. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
The hurricanes that battered islands across the Caribbean in the last two weeks, leaving the lives of thousands in shambles, brought me back to a time that I don’t think about too often. My family had only recently moved to San Juan, Puerto Rico, 19 years ago, when Hurricane Georges, a Category 3 hurricane, slammed into the island. It cost us our future home and left the island without power and water for weeks.
Time has passed and though we now live in a world with more advanced technology with access to smart phones and wireless devices, people struggling on the island today in the wake of Irma and Maria are sure to face many of the same basic problems we did back then.
Puerto Rican authorities said they may not get power back for four to six months. I fear for the well-being of my elderly grandmother in Guaynabo, outside of San Juan, where the lack of a generator and access to power and water make the heat potentially dangerous. I remember those challenges well.
I was 13 years old when Hurricane Georges hit. But I can close my eyes and picture myself helping my parents put up the hurricane shutters at my grandparents’ house. I can see my grandparents, parents, brother and sister huddling inside together while the storm hit. When the power went out, we sat in the dark, listening to the screeching of the wind and the sound of debris flying around and hitting things outside. It was a sleepless night.
The next morning, we discovered that the destruction from the storm was monumental. Countless trees and power lines were down. Rivers had flooded into roads, and you couldn’t tell where either began or ended. Broken pieces of wood from patios lay on the ground next to shattered glass from car windows. Everywhere you walked, there were palm trees sprawled across the ground; it made driving impossible.
When the hurricane hit, we were living with my grandparents and had been planning to move into our own home that week. The house we were moving into ended up with a collapsed roof and flooding, making it uninhabitable.
What came next was even harder. The aftermath was worse than that one sleepless night. We were cut off from the electric grid and water supply for over three weeks.
My family was lucky enough to have a generator that supplied power. I was only a child, but I knew by the look of the three large fuel tanks that my grandfather had prepared well for the storm. He was able to provide power to two other neighbors. We also had access to a limited amount of water via a large cistern. We would collect the water and boil it on the stove, powered by the generator, to use for bathing and cooking. Eventually, we ran out of that water and had to find other ways to get some.
I attended school on a military base with its own water system. My father was in the US Army and both he and my mother worked on base, giving us access to supplies that other family members didn’t have. Once the roads were partially cleared, my family spent weeks driving through debris every day to the base for showers and to bring water and food home for the family and for our neighbors.
Back then, for our family, life carried on amidst the destruction, as it will likely do for many struggling now after Maria and Irma. Businesses opened up – but without power – and employees would do everything manually, without the use of computers or technology. Receipts were given out by hand, cash was king and physical conditions in stores and buildings were uncomfortable at best.
Schools re-opened, and for weeks we attended class without access to air conditioning or fans. This is on an island where in September, temperatures in the high 80s and low 90s are normal. When it became too warm in the classroom, we would sit in the hallway with the doors opened on each side so students and teachers could stay shaded but cool down with the breezeway.
Access to food and fuel for the generator were limited. We didn’t know how long it would last and if we could get more, since we were sharing with neighbors. The military had to ration our food and drink; there was no way of knowing when life would return to normal. Even diapers were rationed, so there would be enough for everyone.
My worry now, in the wake of Hurricane Maria, lies in what happens to the vulnerable – the very young, the elderly, and pregnant women. What will they do without clean water and a reprieve from the intense heat and humidity that exists on our island?
How will a pregnant woman find refuge from disease-carrying mosquitoes that thrive in floodwaters and warm environments? One of my pregnant family members fears the Zika virus that has been so prevalent in that region and will likely be harder to avoid.
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My grandmother could be struggling to stay well while facing extreme heat without water and power. The island’s largest airport, Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport, is expected to open to airline traffic on Friday, so it’s possible we’ll book her and other family members plane tickets to come stay with family in the United States.
There are people who don’t have family they can flee to or the means to leave. You can help with donations to organizations providing basic necessities such as food and water. CNN has made it easy for you by identifying reputable nonprofits via CNN Impact Your World.
Even those who can leave temporarily realize that Puerto Rico could be without power for months. They still have jobs to go to, bills to pay and responsibilities to fulfill. Life for them doesn’t stop because a hurricane destroyed their home. They have to find a way to live through it.