La Voz Latina - Su puente a la comunidad Hispana de Georgia y Carolina del sur

Lessons passed from Puerto Rico to Savannah

  • Adriana Iris Boatwrightle da un abrazo a su madre Iris Nieves. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)
  • Norman Baez, el compañero de Iris Nieves. (Steve Bisson/Savannah Morning News)

    Iris Nieves says of her ordeal with Hurricane Maria in her native Puerto Rico that she "went to sleep in 2017 and woke up in 1950." But the truth is the 74-year-old didn't sleep at all the night more than a month ago when the ferocious Category 4 storm battered her beloved island.

    "It was way too strong. It was very emotional," she said. "For 12 hours it was beating really strong. The windows were vibrating. The house felt like an earthquake was going through it."
    Nieves spoke in Spanish mainly, with her daughter Adriana Iris Boatwright translating. Boatwright is a 20-year Savannah resident and a regular contributor to the Savannah Morning News. The mother-daughter pair, along with Nieves' long-time companion Norman Baez, spoke about their experiences with Hurricane Maria to raise awareness here about the continuing plight of Puerto Ricans and to warn Savannah residents of the need to prepare for hurricanes.
'Not a leaf that is green'
    Nieves and Baez arrived in Savannah on Oct. 14 from their home in Carolina, just north of the capital of San Juan. Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20 but it took Boatwright that long, plus assistance from a friend at American Airlines, to get them out. When they finally boarded their flight, they had been without electricity and running water for more than three weeks. He has diabetes. She recently had a knee replaced.
    Despite nearly complete phone outages, Boatwright never lost contact with her mom. They texted during and after Hurricane Maria, for which Boatwright feels both grateful and guilty, the latter because so many others were left in limbo so long. "I know a lot of people who are still not able to contact their loved ones," Boatwright said with a catch in her voice.
    Boatwright suspects they were able to keep texting - voice calls didn't work - because her mom subscribes to a local Puerto Rican cell service, one that her family teases her about because it's so tiny, but that came through.
    Nieves and Baez ventured outside after the storm to find their yard, once lush with mango, banana and guava trees, leveled. Their sturdy concrete block house was undamaged but the wooden upper stories of neighbors' houses had blown into their yards blocking their exit. Neighbors helped them clear it so they could drive out. Their island, always so green with tropical vegetation, had been stripped. "It's complete devastation what is there," Baez, 69, said. "There is not a leaf that is green," Nieves said. "It's like there was a nuclear bomb."
    They had been as prepared as possible for a major disaster. Baez had squirreled away so much bottled water - 120 gallons - that Boatwright ribbed him about it during a summertime visit. A tank in the yard holds even more and gets filled up every May in anticipation of hurricane season. They had a working generator and fuel for it plus extra insulin and other medications.
    Post-Maria, they joined neighbors in long lines for fuel, getting up at 2 a.m. and staying in line all night to avoid the heat of the tropical sun. They relied on canned goods because there is no fresh food. Signs on supermarket coolers warned that the food in them couldn't be sold because the loss of electricity meant they couldn't be certain about spoilage. At one shop Nieves picked up a stick of butter, determined to buy it despite doubt about its freshness. The manager snatched it out of her hand.
    The long lines, the new grind of daily life, and the fact that there's no end in sight led to their decision to leave. "At my age I'm just not up for doing a line for 12 hours for gas, and then for the ATM and to buy food," Nieves said.
American citizens, too
    For now Nieves is happy to be with her daughter in a home where she can cook her favorite Puerto Rican dishes like arroz con gandules - rice with pigeon peas - and a chicken fricasse. But nights have been tough. Baez at first couldn't shake the habit of getting up to refill the generator when he awoke to the quiet of the Halcyon Bluff neighborhood. He dreamed he was stuck in traffic trying to get gas. Earlier this week Nieves got up in the night and tripped on her luggage, hurting the leg with the newly replaced knee. A beautician for 30 years, she was as equally pained by the leg as by the need to fix her hair before she went to the doctor.
    By Friday a month had passed since Hurricane Maria, but 81.5 percent of Puerto Rico was still without electricity. Contrast that with coastal Georgia's experience with Hurricane Matthew, which hit Oct. 8, 2016, and knocked out power to about 340,000 customers. Five days later, only 1 percent of them remained without electricity. Those who could be restored were restored by six days post-Matthew, said Georgia power spokeswoman Meredith Stone.
    Almost four of every 10 telephone lines, both land lines and mobile, still aren't working. About 30 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack water and sewer service. On Friday the death toll from Maria rose to 49 after officials confirmed a death from a bacterial disease, leptospirosis, that spreads through animals' urine, The Associated Press reported. Officials are investigating at least 74 other suspected cases of the disease.
    "People are dying every day," Boatwright said. "They cannot find water. They're washing their clothes in the river and it's polluted with bacteria in the water."
    Nieves and Baez won't be returning to Puerto Rico until they're certain life will be closer to normal, perhaps after Christmas they say. In the meantime, it's frustrating when fellow Americans don't understand Puerto Ricans are Americans, too. "People ask do you have the green card," Nieves said. "What green card? I'm an American citizen."
    Boatwright sees a fairness issue with the slow pace of recovery in Puerto Rico. FEMA is still ministering to Savannah after the much less impactful Irma. Five houses down the street from her in Halcyon Bluff flooded. With FEMA assistance they'll be back in their homes including new "designer kitchens" by Christmas, Boatwright said. "These are my neighbors and I love them and I'm grateful that is their reality," she said. "But these people (in Puerto Rico) are expecting (simply) electricity by Christmas."
    Boatwright, who has already helped gather and load donations to send to the island, plans to get involved with the rebuilding. "I feel a challenge to go and help," she said. "It's going to happen; I will eventually fly out."
    Her mom urges everyone to do what they can to help. "Please help and donate as much as they can they need help," she said. "There are people with no water to drink. There are still people who are hungry. Please help as much as possible."
    And be grateful for the opportunity to get out of harm's way as a hurricane approaches, she said. Islanders don't have that choice. "People in Savannah where hurricanes are becoming part of the norm lately should never ignore the warnings and always be ready for it," she said. "You guys do have a chance to get out. Prepare for the worst but you'll have a chance to get out."

 

Issue Month: 
Tuesday, October 31, 2017