For the past couple of weeks, Hurricane Irma has consistently been on the news. As it developed off the African coast, everyone in Puerto Rico, and all over the Caribbean, was carefully following its passage across the Atlantic.
Would it hit us? Would it spare us? Where we ready to withstand the powerful winds of this Category 5 beast of a hurricane? We are wondering this once again as the island braces for Hurricane Maria, expected to make landfall in just hours as a Category 4 storm.
When Irma hit, no one had the answers. So we started to prepare for the worse. Gov. Ricardo Rosselló set up shelters all over Puerto Rico and mandatory evacuations were in effect in many municipalities. The government developed emergency plans to ensure the power grid would be up and running as soon as the hurricane passed. We’re seeing similar efforts in advance of Maria. Rosselló has already declared a state of emergency.
Withstanding Irma we experienced 36 nerve-wracking hours. As I impatiently waited for news from my office in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but to continually call back home to check on everybody. It was futile. Phone lines were no longer working, and electricity was out. A couple of words kept coming to mind: total annihilation; complete destruction. These were two of the various descriptions meteorologists used when explaining the devastating power of category five hurricanes.
A close friend, who happens to be a scientist, told me, as the storm ravaged through San Juan, "Their destructive power classifies hurricanes, and a category five is capable of wiping out a whole island, structures and all." So, this was as bad as it could get for our neighbors in the Caribbean basin and us.
Once the storm passed, and we knew Irma had spared us from her most dangerous winds by circulating over us and not through us, we were relieved. I couldn't help but thank God at our luck. While FEMA and the state government calculated damages at over a $1 billion (up to date 15 municipalities have been declared Disaster Zones), public services and infrastructure remained mostly operational throughout the island.
In the process of reviewing the damages and losses sustained and ensuring our population was safe, we were informed our Caribbean neighbors had not enjoyed our luck. To the east 90 percent of the island of Barbuda had been wiped clean. Similarly, 70 percent of the French-Dutch island of St. Martin was unrecognizable, and food shortages were expected. Hospitals in the U.S. and British Virgin Islands were not operational. It was a war zone.
Our Caribbean brothers and sisters were living through a hellish nightmare, and it is not in Puerto Rican nature to sit idle and wait. The government quickly called an emergency meeting, and, in collaboration with federal agencies, the National Guard was activated and immediately sent overseas to repatriate as many United States citizens as possible. Food, water and supplies were shipped to St. Martin, Tortola, among other islands, to support the local populations.
Private citizens in Puerto Rico, (46 percent of which live below the federal poverty line), started gathering supplies to be sent abroad. Private boats and planes began carrying all of these goods to the affected islands and bringing back the ill, elderly and minors to safety. Gov. Rosselló converted the iconic Puerto Rico Convention Center into a massive shelter able to accommodate over 4,000 citizens from across the Caribbean.
I have always been proud of my people, but this organic movement to help others brought tears to my eyes. We were now a safe haven, a place where Americans and others could come to for aid, shelter and relief. Over 2,500 people have passed through Puerto Rico from the affected region in the last week alone, more to be expected, and found a government and an island that, while enduring relief efforts locally, opened up their arms to everyone in need. This is what Puerto Rico is all about.
Today, for the first time in 85 years, Puerto Rico lies in the direct path of a hurricane. In its wake, that safe haven will remain strong.
Carlos Mercader is the executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration.