The Calm After the Storm in Puerto Rico: Part Two

I hear the world is talking about us. It’s been six weeks now since Hurricane Maria struck our shores on Sept 20 and not much has changed since. We are still in what feels like an alternate reality; we exist without power and with so many still broken systems, in so many ways cut off from the rest of the world. Or at least the world as it should be.

Every day is a struggle. The long lines we had to make to enter grocery stores have for the most part gone down but we still have shortages and this remains an alternate reality reminiscent of the Wild West. I skipped over the fight at the shelf-stable drinks aisle and managed to grab a bag of plantain chips, sneaking past shoppers arguing over the same snacks while the vendor delivering them unpacked them. No need to shelve his goods. With so many homes still without power anything that’s ready to eat is gone as soon as it arrives at stores and people fight each other over them. Of course, none of the items that require freezing or refrigeration are available at all.

Going on now for over 40 days, it’s the longest blackout in US history. 70 percent of homes are in the dark. 75 percent have water, but that’s only on good days though because water is pumped by generators that aren’t built to be run continuously for so many days and they sometimes fail. Even on week six the water runs inconsistently, it’s not running today as I write this, and it’s not safe to drink. The water company suggests boiling it and treating it with a chloride tablet before consuming it.

Literally an unknown number of lives have been lost. Beyond the official death count of 54 there have been 911 deaths attributed to natural causes that went unexamined and over 20 suicides in the aftermath of the hurricane. There’s been news of a suicide each day this week. Did this bizarre complicated alternate reality that is Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria push these lives to an early end?

We can never know the answer to that but…

That not having electricity is stressful is an understatement. It doesn’t only mean the discomfort of getting on without it in our daily lives, it means not having anything that requires it. And that goes far beyond switches, kitchen appliances and tvs.

Many businesses haven’t reopened since September 20, leaving all those employees unable to return to work without the income they need for essentials that happen to cost more now than before the hurricane. A case of 12 water bottles now costs $16, over $10 more expensive than before. With limited food options at stores, no meats, eggs or produce, and no power at home, eating out is the only option for a full meal and that’s all the more draining on a reduced income budget.

Not having power has warped life as we know it. I know I never imagined I’d assist a surgery. Even less that my task in doing so would be holding up a cell phone’s flashlight so that the doctor could operate. Yes. You read that right. Surgery. By. Cellphone. Light.

None of the medical equipment for surgeries or diagnostics work without power, so ailments that in modern medicine are treatable and straightforward to spot no longer are, here, in this alternate reality without power. As was the case for mom’s friend who died from an appendicitis his doctors missed and the mechanic’s niece whose asthma they couldn’t treat. The hospital couldn’t treat her and sent her away with a prescription, but she died on the way to the drugstore.

It’s caused alarming challenges to those requiring medical treatment. My dad is a cancer patient. For a month after the hurricane I watched him visit the oncology clinic every day to inquire about resuming his chemotherapy. The hospital’s phone lines don’t work, he has to go in person. Every day he was turned away for a myriad of reasons: the hospital is overwhelmed, there’s no fuel for the hospital generators, the online system to access his records doesn’t work without power, they can’t communicate with the labs for his latest results or with the pharmacy that supplies his prescription… How long can these patients wait untreated before it’s too late?

Everything that may offer relief from this heat is desperately out of reach. With nights and days in 80 and 90 degrees, limited access to potable water, no regular cooling or ice to refresh a drink, we’re often on the brink of heat exhaustion and dehydration.

Grandma isn’t herself. She is struggling with the heat. Two months ago she was active and sharp, working as manager of the family business and cooking meals for an extended family of 10 plus anyone else who showed up unannounced. But now with the heat exacerbating her hypertension, she drags on with labored breathing and holding on to what she can for support as she takes each step. She’s unfocused, disoriented, her complexion flushed. It was just weeks ago that she could tell from looking at me if I was happy or sad, if I was eating enough or lost two pounds since I saw her last…she could finish my sentences. But these days I have to tell her everything twice.

She doesn’t have to describe her discomfort, I can see she isn’t feeling well. And I’m trying to find her a fan, a rechargeable one, a solar one, anything that can give her relief from this heat. Because batteries run out and are hard to find and they won’t get shipped by mail. The stores that would carry these fans haven’t opened their doors yet, due to structural damage from the hurricane. After a day of searching online I’ve found her scores of fans. Except they won’t ship to Puerto Rico.  

Though I’ve found a way around this that I hope will work, it’s still going to take 3 weeks. I can’t help think of those 911 lives lost. How many of them were cut shorter because they didn’t have a pesky granddaughter exhausting every option? One lucky to have access to a steady enough signal to search until the phone battery ran out and keep searching once the phone recharged.

Communications are still tough, areas with cellphone service signals are scattered across the landscape like the Pokémon from Pokémon GO, but at least I’ve got a Pokémon close to home. She can’t be one more to add to those 911.

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