Returning with the memories of my first contact with disaster in Humacao, I felt a sense of calling: patriotism. Our island was in deep need to be saved. With the local government incapable and the US federal government dragging their feet in the sand, we needed an organic movement to rise up again. To all those who saw first hand the disaster, we knew instantly that the island could only be saved by boricuas working hand-hand to save ourselves. The disaster of the century could not wait for the government to figure out how to do something.
To offer some background on the situation, the local government was in deep disarray and it could be seen everywhere. The police was disorganized and couldn’t communicate, police stations where in the dark and/or damaged. They couldn’t possibly be able by themselves to achieve what was needed (not that they should, it isn’t their job to direct traffic in every light, give security to gas stations, convoys, hospitals, malls). Police where working 12hr shifts without overtime pay since Irma (several weeks before), couldn’t tend to their families/houses and where working jobs they weren’t trained to do (including attempted suicides, depression and other altered mental stated the disasters had brought). Eventually this would lead to a passive police strike of calling in sick in December 2017. They argued they deserved pay for thousands of worked hours during the disaster and the government was unwilling to pay and was instituting cuts to health, pension and other benefits in January 2018. I support their protest personally.
By early october (Maria hit on 20th of september), people where growing anxious and depressed catalyzed by the weeks of being without electricity and water that had no end in sight. The central government had taken the capital’s convention center as the epicenter to coordinate aid across the island. Reports came of truckers traveling from all over the island, willing to drive and take out all the aid held up at the ports. The government responded and I quote “Thank you, we will call you back”. How are you gonna call them if there are no cell service? There where further reports of internal rifts and power struggles between parties as to how to handle to disaster, mayors disagreeing with the government and tons of aid going undelivered. It was a sad state of disarray, enhanced by shortages of necessities, kilometer long lines for gas and rising crime. It took the army taking over for the situation to get better.
During this time the island was running on the backbone of amateur radio enthusiasts who where relaying the aid, needs and emergencies from all over the island to San Juan where the Red Cross had set up its center along with FEMA and other agencies. I had the opportunity to meet after the emergency Oscar Resto, a professor from UPPRP and amateur VHF/UHF radio enthusiast. He worked in the Red Cross as one of the four team leaders and the man who coordinated incoming reports from the island with Red Cross, FEMA, the local government and even the Federal Government in US (Click Links). He related after the disaster some of the stories of how he had helped set up the Red Cross radio towers, communication radios, and became leader of the islandwide radio-network of amateur radio aficionados who had set up centers in their respective towns across the island. He later reported to me that in some communities, the mayor had a radio and news was relayed via firemen who acted as runners to deliver messages between points (the first greek-style marathon’s in the island). Puerto Rico ran with pre-digital technology for a few months.
Meanwhile this was happening, mayors where trying to get hold of satellite phone (sat-phones) to get into contact with the local central government. I would later learn that sat-phones where really bad compared to radio. Apparently the satellite itself can only hold a few dozen connections at a time and people with “black cards” (priority access cards) could drop other connections to make calls. This added a whole layer of frustration and chaos into an already stressful predicament. Many mayors had to personally travel to San Juan to meet with leadership. There where radio reports mayors had to cut open roads from the mountains to gain access to the highways.
The central government was and seemed inept to handle the catastrophe. The activation of the National Guard was late and US sent in army troops only when Hillary Clinton tweeted it to President Trump (28th of september, a week after the hurricane). Having troops patrolling society isn’t normally a good idea, yet it was only way to control the situation. The army with its logistic, man-power and leadership took control of the disaster itself. It would later be revealed in reports that the AEMEAD (Central Gov’t agency for the management of emergencies) hadn’t followed it own plan for the handling of hurricanes, leaving a chaotic scene that later caused the resignation of the director Abner Gómez on November 10, 2017. It was a gross mismanagement and a glimpse into the ineptitude of a chaotic, leaderless central government who failed to protect its own people and why it the army was needed.
When the army arrived, we all breathed a sight of relief (even though their personel numbers was extremely low compared to Haiti earthquake, Dallas after Harvey or other disasters). They took charge of the distribution and dispensing of gas in stations, aid, protection, health and logistics. Several times I would offer them (and police officers) snacks or water, knowing how hard that job was. Almost immediately after the Army arrived, the fuel availability was increased and the scarcity dropped. It took a few more weeks/months for municipalities in the rest of the island and the center to get fuel-relief. There where also many reports of fuel theft which forced the army and local police to assign a soldier to each and every truck and gas station, move fuel at night or in convoys escorted by police (I could see them from my home traveling at night in the highway from the southern port to replenish San Juan). Yet this was mostly in the first few weeks where people had to follow gas-trucks to their destinations to find gas stations with fuel. You must remember the situation at the beginning was exacerbated by the selling of only $10-$20 of gas, forcing people to fill up daily their cars and generators. The situation wasn’t ameliorated in San Juan until early October and until later in October for the rest of the Island.
The army also took over the distribution of supplies, bringing many by helicopter to remote communities. Yes, there where reports of soldiers dropping aid, leaving or showing preferences in some communities. In my opinion these where but just a few as all the people I have met around the island whom met the soldiers report the friendliness, smiles and they love/support they conveyed. They knew it was a humanitarian mission in american soil and they brought aid, relief and hope to a great deal of communities. For that fact, I will forever be thankful. I was told a story up in Utuado (Comunidad de los Olvidados) that the soldiers arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter and when they landed, they proceded to hug everyone and take pictures. They unloaded the supplies and helped the community move the supplies and teach them how to prepare MREs (Meals Ready to Eat). The community leader told me she hugged a one particular soldier and he blushed and took pictures with her. I haven’t to this day heard a negative story personally.
When the soldiers left, we all felt alone. The Trump clown had done nothing but insult us, the local government was incapable of handling the situation and FEMA was an insult to injury (reports still incoming of the FEMA-scandals from undelivered food, electricity, water and roofs). The shock doctrine was starting to take effect, yet we knew things would NEVER get better by complaining whilst sitting in the dark, it was time to act! It was my first sense of patriotism in 24 years of lifetime and one I knew had to be answered.