What does a hurricane feel like?

Hurricane Maria forecast by Google Crisis Response- 01:20 local time 20.09.2017

When we first heard a hurricane was going to hit Puerto Rico, we didn’t know what to expect. Every Puerto Rican we spoke to said that it was going to be an experience. But what did that mean?? The islanders are used to hurricanes since hurricane season descends upon the Caribbean region every year during the months of September and October. The thing is that as long as I’ve been alive, so 21 years, I have never heard of a really destructive hurricane hitting Puerto Rico (I am half Puerto Rican and most of my family lives there). They usually came and then passed with minor damage, but this year upon our arrival Hurricane Maria hit. I blame her intensity, category 5, on climate change and the rising temperatures of the oceans, as was anyways cited as her cause.

The onset of the hurricane was foreboding, everything was calm, which was a very strange feeling knowing that a category 5 hurricane was on its way. Not even one drop of rain! We went to sleep the night before knowing that we would be woken up very early in the morning with the sounds of her landfall on the island and continuously checking whether the electricity or water had been cut off by the central authorities. At 1 a.m. I woke up, not used to hearing such wind and rain. But this was nothing yet, my grandparent’s didn’t wake up for another 2 hours (they’re really used to hurricanes). The hurricane was supposed to really hit between 3 a.m. and 4 p.m. that day, so it was a whole day affair. At around 3 a.m. the wind power had started to increase and we could feel objects hitting the metal shutters of our windows. When our metal shutters started to flutter, opening and closing, we decided it was no longer safe to be in the room anymore. Nature felt uncontrollable, unpredictable, and so powerful. We could only submit to her and wait out the whole thing in the safest place, which in my grandparent’s house, is the hallway since it has no windows and is located in the centre of the house. We moved into the hallway around 3 a.m. and didn’t leave it until the evening, when we felt it was safe to go out again. During those 17 hours the wind persisted, as well as the rain, and the power of the hurricane never let up. There were moments when we felt a calm, but that calm would continuously be shattered by an onslaught of rain and wind even more powerful than the last. The most distinct features of the hurricane were these; the alternation between calm and winds that seemed as if they were trying to break into the house, and the howling of the 155 mph winds.

Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, in the hallway during the hurricane – 2017.09.20.

It truly felt unsafe to enter the rooms with windows until the early evening when the winds had subsided and the curtains and windows were not being shaken and pushed as violently as before. Up until then it felt like any object the wind had picked up could be slammed through the window into the house as a projectile. We sat in the hallway with my grandparents and tried to change the tense atmosphere with conversation and snacks. We also listened to our battery powered local radio which didn’t make us feel better about what was going on outside. Remember that none of the damage was visible to us yet, and only would be until we had walked out of our door after the hurricane had left the island. We also tried watching some episodes we had downloaded previously to pass the long hours. My grandfather actually went back to bed during the hurricane with a bedroom full of windows, he didn’t really care about the hurricane. He was still convinced it couldn’t be worse than hurricane Hugo (’95), which he had experienced before.

Towards the end of the day the wind started to subside and a calm subsided over the island, more like a silence, compared to all the sound experienced for the last 17 hours. It was ominous, because now we had to face the damage which everyone felt was going to be horrific, and it was. My grandma told us after the hurricane had calmed that she knew the damage would be bad, because her whole life on the island she had never heard anything like it. As many people we spoke to mentioned, the worst part of a hurricane is not the hurricane itself, but the after effects (just like with any other natural catastrophe); meaning no light, no water, and damages around the island to assess and clean up.

When we stepped outside to get a first impression of the damage in our neighbourhood, we met other neighbours who had also felt it was safe to go outside. The first step was assessing the damage on one’s own property and later the neighbourhood. Directly after the hurricane, no one is supposed to leave the neighbourhood because electrical lines and trees have fallen, floods may still be a danger, etc.

Luckily my grandparent’s house suffered minimal damage compared to other houses, especially poorer households which we eventually saw had lost their roofs during the storm: One avocado tree fell, an outside fan was destroyed and the backyard was flooded.

Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, The backyard with the avocado tree- 2017.09.20.

In the neighbour it was standard that terrace roofs had been destroyed, cars that were parked on the street had been hit by flying objects, and tree branches had fallen down and blocked roads.

Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras, The street of the grandparents – 2017.09.20.

Trees became totally naked. Earlier you could only see green landscape in the neighbourhood. After the hurricane everything turned grey since all the trees lost their leaves. Whole neighbourhoods became visible that previously had been covered by nature.

The hurricane itself has also symbolically been associated with a kind of purging or cleansing effect. Some locals told us that the passing of a hurricane represents a cleansing of the island, by torrents of rain and wind. You can feel the cleansing effect when you step out of your home and everything has been touched by the hurricane and a calm presides.

After so much damage had been caused, with no electricity or power, we personally had a feeling of emptiness, and I felt like a lot of others around us also felt empty inside. When would their lives stabilize again? This was only the beginning. The whole island had been destroyed, how do you start the recovery process? It was extremely overwhelming. We also knew everything would be much harder from then on for ourselves. Even though we had come to explore the scenic and beautiful parts of the island, we would need to re orient ourselves to the new conditions we found ourselves in. There was an immeasurable amount to clean up, just at my grandparent’s house, without thinking about our neighbourhood or the entire island. Not to mention that the Puerto Ricans had just finished cleaning up after hurricane Irma. However, everyone had to start slowly and steadily, everyone had to move forward, and that’s what was done.

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