The Island, Dark
“Here’s where the hurricane tore off my roof,” pointing upward, we looked through exposed wood beams at a turquoise sunset. “It was horrible,” Ruth crossed her arms, “Doors shook. Water came into the house.”
Her son tugged at her pant leg and she lifted him, “The sky was a white fog. Scary. We hid in the bathroom.” Patting his head, she leaned on the balcony to study the island. Maybe because I was there, she saw it differently. It was like a furious giant had stomped and clawed the town of Utuado, Puerto Rico. Trees were snapped. Powerlines, ripped. Mudslides bled over roads.
“No electricity. No water. Todo el día to get anything done,” she rocked her son, “I don’t think it’s going to get better anytime soon.”
It fed on heat. The sun on the face of the waters. Hot wind across the ocean. Like an angry spirit seeking release, seeking strength, it climbed the sky. Warm. Sluggish. Slow. Hungry for fury. It found more than sunlit water, it tasted a layer of trapped warmth; it found carbon, the gaseous exhale of civilization.
It fed on the heat from a billion cars and thousands of jets that crossed the planet. It inhaled the smoke of factories and cities. Awakened to its power, the storm, screamed like a newborn, its 175 mile per hour winds, lashed waves upon waves.
Hurricane María’s eye opened, seeing a path before it. This fury, half made by nature, half by man. Violently spinning in space, cursing hot breaths of lightning and storm. She drew darkness over the islands as the poor, who nailed wood over windows, heard of her immense strength and said her name over and over…María.
New York City
“Are they safe,” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Mom said in a high, apologetic voice, “I tried calling them but no one picks up the phone. It’s been years.”
“Damn it,” I looked at Hurricane María on screen, a video by NASA satellites showed a white foamy spiral around a black hole. It looked like the sky had been unplugged and all the weight and force of the atmosphere, drained into the eye.
Every island it passed went dark and silent. Slowly, photos surfaced in its wake. Dominica. Bahamas. Wrecked. Homes like piles of splinters. Roads cracked. Rivers gushed through the center of town. People digging through wreckage.
The hurricane spun over the Caribbean, churning faster and faster until its dark eye slammed into Puerto Rico and then vanished. An eerie quiet followed. No news came from the island. What happened to our family? What happened to Jesús, my grandmother’s nephew? His wife Yeya? Their kids?
“Mom, did you hear anything,” I asked.
“No one answers,” she said again, “They didn’t have much.”
The Jet Blue plane, turned to the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport and I saw from the window, homes with blue tarps for roofs. Palm trees smashed or stripped of leaves. Near the highway, warehouses were filled with shipping containers. The shadow of the plane rippled on the land.
When the wheels hit the runway, we cheered. Outside the hot, damp air felt like a childhood memory wrapped on skin. It had been thirty years since I was in Puerto Rico. My family fled the island long ago. Mi abuelo ran from an abusive father, mi abuela from rural poverty. He died after I was born, glaucoma blinded him by time I was a baby. He held me regardless, a new life in old hands.
I lived here, briefly, with grandma. I spoke Spanish and chased salamanders up the walls. The memories were a silent movie. I remember reading sci-fi books and playing in the jungle. We left, again for New York. My Spanish faded but the childhood joy, flickered as it receded into the past, voices and faces falling like a strobe light into a dark well.
Growing up, politics moved the memories of childhood inside a new frame. I learned that Puerto Rico was a colony, its people and land, stolen and stolen again. Shame closed off joy. I spat Spanish. A gulf opened between who I was and who I am that deepened for three decades, until now, when the island was ransacked by hurricane. I came back to save something I had loved and lost, before global warming, sent massive storms that obliterated the island forever.
I got a rental car and drove through San Juan to Caritas de Puerto Rico, a Catholic Aid Agency. Quickly, I got lost. Parking the car, I studied the map and a heroin junkie, loopy and bumbling, asked for money. He showed me his needle marks. I said no. Of course, he welcomed me anyway. His sunglasses, grizzled smile and “mi hermano” talk was all good. I asked what he thought of the federal government and the island’s recovery.
“You mean our pendejo president,” he snapped, “Coño! Useless, man, he’s useless. Man, just go find your family, good luck.”
Later, I stopped at a gas station to again ask directions. One cop didn’t speak any English but sent her partner, who drew a map for me to follow. Of course, I asked him how the recovery was going.
“With a pendejo president,” he looked disgusted, “He doesn’t care about us. Throw a few towels at people. Get a photo. Look at this.” He gestured with his pen at the battered city, “A month later.”
We stared at each other, remembering the news report of Trump, tossing paper towels to a desperate people. Paper. Fucking. Towels. I shook my head, thanked him for the help and got back in the car.
On the road, I thought, what a Durkheim moment. A junkie and a cop both think President Trump is an idiot. Anger flashed in their eyes at his name. Old anger reignited feelings of betrayal by America, age as old as Puerto Rico’s seizure. I heard it in voices of family and Boricua friends. I saw it in our history of protest, nationalists storming U.S. Congress in 1954 to shoot it up.
We were promised modernity and the privilege of empire; instead, too much had been taken from us. Vieques was taken by the Navy. The fertility of a generation, taken by sterilization. The minerals of the land, taken by industry. The money, taken by tax havens for corporations. Now when the island is in need, the president comes and throws paper towels at the people.
I drove around potholes and under dead traffic lights. Behind steering wheels, we signaled and nudged across the intersections. Cars, trucks and vans flowed between storm beaten buildings. Wind blistered, they looked gutted and dark. Street signs were bent in half by the hands of the hurricane.
I found Caritas de Puerto Rico and the staff welcomed me in, gave me a plate of food. Everyone wanted to testify to the island’s pain. Danny Rojos, a volunteer, told me that one of their clients, a homeless man, lived on the beach. “He ran for safety as the hurricane ripped roofs off,” he said, eyes wide and unblinking, “zinc roofs flew through the air like knives. Even now, he can’t sleep—too traumatized. That’s just one story.”
The staff said Padre Monserrate could see me. We sat at the table and he talked in measured beats, his calm, pale face watching his words. I asked about relief efforts. A hundred people a day, came here for food, water and prayer.
“We give to the neighborhood. Anyone can get a meal, water. It was needed. The first days after the hurricane…horrible, some lost homes, everything,” he said, “This generation has seen something they’ve never seen before. They never saw neighbors dying like this. Never saw helicopters having to deliver food. It forced us to care about each other, more.” He tapped his cellphone sarcastically, “We’ve become so individualistic.”
He gave me numbers for churches in Arecibo, who delivered aid to towns tucked in the island’s mountains. I left and in the car, got a text from Pablo Borges, an activist friend and planned to meet at To Go food store.
Night had come. San Juan was a city of shadows. Passing car lights washed over walls, showing couples or lone men or families in momentary portraits. Generators hummed as gasoline musk mixed with the salty sea breeze. Under fluorescent lit stores, people charged cell phones and talked but repeatedly, they stopped and looked ruefully out into the darkness as if trying to see a future.
I parked and met Pablo, young and wiry, a bushy beard, restive. We went into the store. He grabbed beers and we drank outside as young, partygoers reveled in the anonymity of shadows. Pablo gestured around, “It’s a stateless island. It’s a shock. My mom’s generation, they always thought the Feds would take care of them. Corruption? Drugs? The Feds would clean it up. Now, they pulled back and we’re on our own.”
Cars passed by—light and shadow took turns between us—illuminating our faces in mid-sentence. We spoke of Puerto Rico, of our hope and fear. We talked of the debts and bonds crushing the island, how the colonial elite had been replaced by a business elite. Pablo said PROMESA, the non-elected board that was in charge of the island’s economy and was gutting social services. PROMESA was like another hurricane, where bankers, CEO’s and an old money family like the Carrions, ripped control from the people. Anger drove his breath. The beers rose and fell like pendulums in our hands.
“Electricity has been failing for a long time,” he said, “Now this company, Whitefish got a multi-million dollar contract to fix our grid and they had only two full time employees. They’ll hire gringos and none of the money is going to stay here. None. The rich are getting richer and the poor are being left behind.”
He took a swig, “There is a lot of mobilizing going on. Go see Casa Pueblo in Adjuntas. They’ve been fighting the exploitation of Puerto Rico for thirty years.”
“Jesús,” I shouted through the gate, “Jesús y Yeya!” A large woman, dressed in a simple gown came from the house. She winced at stiff knees, opened the gate and hugged me. Thirty years, crushed by a hug.
She told me to come in as Jesús, my grandmother’s nephew, got dressed. She didn’t speak much English. I barely had enough Spanish to say my name right. Or ask directions. I had driven up and down Bayamón, looking for a house with a large mango tree on Calle Uno. By sheer dumb luck, a guy told me I was one street away. And there it was. My family’s home with the right number, I yelled and out came Yeya.
She showed me the backyard, the tall mango tree was chopped down to a nub. The hurricane broke its branches. Debris littered the yard. They had no generator, no electricity just relentless heat during the day. Yeya leaned on a chair, squeezed my shoulder and repeated, “Terminado. Terminado.”
Her voice rattled with tears but she waved grief away. Jesús rolled in on a wheelchair; he had white hair and a stern face. One arm was a twisted claw from a heart attack; he lifted it to hug me. They fed me coffee, crackers and cheese; I knew they had little to share. I told them I was going to the mountains to report on conditions. While they said be careful, I pulled out my phone and dialed mom’s number.
Handing the phone over to Jesús, I saw him press it close to his ear as if to bring her right there to his side. His voice rose and fell over the years, separating them. He gave the phone to Yeya who laughed and talked, her eyes danced in her face. I watched them tie their lives together again, our family story flickering like Christmas lights.
I had to leave. Jesús pressed a “thank you” deep into me. Yeya held my face in her hands and kissed my cheeks. I waved goodbye, got in the car and saw Jesús had wheeled himself out to the front porch to watch me go.
The muscle man pulled the cables, zipping the shopping cart across the riverbed as a remix of Queen’s We Will Rock You, blasted from truck speakers. A crew from the radio station, Magic 97.3 cheered as they caught it. On the other side, families waved on the ledge of a broken bridge, massive pieces of it lay on the rocks below.
“There’s twenty-five families stranded on the other side,” said Zamaris Rodriquez, one of the staff, “No electricity. No water.”
We paused whenever the shopping cart wobbled on cables over the river, Rodriquez had a bullhorn and shouted instructions. Across the chasm, the cart wobbled and then was caught by outreaching hands.
“We come to help,” she said, “This is the first time a hurricane shut down the whole island. We had no nature left. All the cows and chickens died. What food was under the soil, made it but everything else was wiped.”
The house music thumped through the valley, we both bobbed our heads to it. She sheepishly shrugged, “We need to keep our spirits up.” The staff got back into the trucks, Puerto Rican flags fluttering on the hoods. They drove off, a new dance track boomed in shrinking echoes down the road.
On the other side, people left, taking the supplies home. I peered over the ledge at the pieces of broken bridge, immense blocks of concrete that had been snapped and rushed downstream by raging waters. Here in Utuado, the hurricane descended with primordial force. Ripping. Bending. Smashing.
I walked along the road where empty homes lay dark, trees uprooted, roots exposed like tendons of a torn limb. Overhead, powerlines dangled from poles. It was a mess. It would take years to recover.
I got to the car, sat on the hood and watched river eddy around rock. In between the speeding from town to town, slow moments let me feel the weight of devastation. My chest was tight. My throat, tight. The pain on every face, poured into my spirit’s core and the body, instinctively tightened to keep it from blurring the mind. I had work to do.
Someone shouted. I turned and saw an older man asking why I parked at the abandoned house. I told him I was a reporter with family in Bayamón. He looked me up and down, went back in and came out minutes later, with coffee, cheese and bread. I thanked him, stunned by his kindness as he shook my hand and left.
I drove to the Utuado’s center, parked at the National Guard’s office and asked to see the officer in charge. The young men, awkward even in uniform, pointed at a tall man, Jorge Nieves, who laughed at his good luck and agreed to talk.
“Everything was destroyed,” he said while pulling a chair for me, “In the first ten days, we went on fifty-three missions, found people with injuries. Some needed oxygen but had no electricity. We got them generators, airlifted them out, dropped off food. We were working twenty two hour days.”
I asked him what could have been done better. “The mayor has put security first, health second,” he said, “But every day, we see more people with medical needs. A lot of diabetes.” I thought of the cities with no electricity and the long lines at the airport and asked him about Puerto Rico’s future.
He looked away, then back at me, “People are leaving and it’s going to make it worse. We’re not going to have enough man-power to rebuild. Already, so many on the island are old or disabled or poor.”
He asked me where I was staying at and I chuckled, told him, I slept in my car. He brought me to the kitchen, gave me plates of food, wrapped in aluminum and bottles of water.
Driving away, I looked at the roads that coiled tight up the mountain. I drove up, up, up. On the side were wrecked homes, generator powered homes, families talking in the street, a few looked at me suspiciously, another wrecked home.
I parked and a pot-bellied man, walked towards me as he cleaned a knife. He was scared but trying to hide it. I told him I was a reporter, he put away the blade, called to his friends who drove by.
One of them, Omar Andujar, said, “We have no electricity, no water. Too many people are leaving. If you have money, you go. The poor have to stay.” I scribbled down his words, seeing through his testimony the landscape of the island. His voice was a like a magnifying glass over the empty, abandoned homes in every city.
They pointed to a young mother, Ruth Montero, who lived down the street with two boys but little help. I walked over and she checked me out and waved me in. Shy and careful, she gave me a tour of her house. Her story, spilled out in a big wave. “It was horrible. Here’s where the hurricane tore of my roof. Doors shook. Water came into the house.”
One of her sons, came by and she picked him up. “We hid in the bathroom. Afterwards, it was so sad. There were no trees. Mudslides everywhere. No exit. We were out of power. I searched for water everywhere. People put pipes in the hillside, drank, showered and did laundry. There still doing it now.”
We looked out from the balcony. Night had fallen. The hills were black mounds under a purple sky. A few lights shined and people walked by like actors on distant stages. Generators hummed under the symphony of coquis, chirping in the gloam. She lit a candle, “I was thinking of leaving but I don’t think I can make it. It’s scary to start over. And my parents live next door. But we have to go through a lot, to get a little bit of help from the government. The employees at the agency just talk to each other while we wait.”
Her youngest son, sandy haired and always moving, squirmed in her lap. Her older one, rode his three-wheeler in circles in the dark. As she talked, the candle flame wavered and the shadows of the family, seemed to jump on the walls as if trying to escape.
“We need help. Trump cut Medicare and it’s less now. We deserve to be treated like U.S. citizens,” she said. I asked what message she wanted to give readers. Staring across the table, she said, “We are suffering.”
Her declaration rang in the air like a bell. I knew many Americans did not know Puerto Ricans were citizens. And if they did, would not care. We were too dark, too foreign to be a “real” part of a nation, whose white majority was already afraid of the rising tide of color. Hoping against hope, many here wanted help from the mainland. It may never come.
I got my things to leave and said goodbye. Walking back to the car, I looked at the food from the National Guard on the seat. Rummaging through clothes, I cleaned the backseat for sleep but saw Ruth moving back and forth in the window. Getting out, I brought the food to her.
“Go ahead,” Maribel pointed at the switch, “Turn it on.” I did and light beamed down. “It’s solar powered,” she proudly pointed at the street lamps of Casa Pueblo. “When the hurricane knocked out the electricity, we still had power.” I held my hand under the glow. Weightless. Warm. Free. It was like holding the future.
Hours earlier, I woke up in my car’s backseat. I saw deep night. Stars scattered like seeds. Each one a bright grain because Utuado had no power, no light. The island had been thrown back in time’s abyss.
Driving to Adjuntas was like being in a submarine as headlights passed over wreckage. Empty homes. Abandoned cars. Sagging powerlines. Guardrails washed away. Roads crumbled into a cliff drop. Mudslide smeared asphalt. More gutted homes and trees tangled in telephone wires. In the absence of people, the nightmare future was more visible. Is this Puerto Rico, decades from now? An island too hurricane battered to live on?
By sunrise, I was in Adjuntas and went to Casa Pueblo, a big hall with photos on the wall. A staff member named Maribel, took me around, showed me a photo of the first meeting in 1980. I thought it funny. In it a man stands at a microphone in a large plaza, speaking to an audience of one. The next photo, Casa Pueblo threw a party and hundreds came. Dancing and music united the people to stop construction of a strip mine from stabbing into earth. In the 80’s, Casa Pueblo prevented a poisonous pipeline. Now they are driving trucks to nearby towns, handing out free water and food.
“We know more hurricanes are coming,” Maribel guided me over to the prototype street lamp. “We want to build more. Make an industry for the people to have jobs. We can protect the island from climate change.”
I reached out to turn the switch but hesitated. “Go ahead,” Maribel said, “Turn it on.” I held my hand under it. Someone called to Maribel. They had to leave. It was time to take supplies to the towns.
I got my car and tailed them, getting out as they gave cases of water to the families. The tension left people’s faces as they took the supplies. Laughter. Smiles. Hugs. Eyes brightened with relief. Blinking, I realized this glowing gratitude had been present throughout my trip. Innumerable acts of kindness had scattered love like seeds for a future Puerto Rico. Like I had woken from a deep night and saw the people themselves were stars.
The beach was empty. Storm debris littered the sand. Here was the southern edge of Puerto Rico, where the hurricanes hit first, hurling giant fists of wind and water at the land. Here’s where I used to play as a child.
Thirty years. Thirty damn years. I’d been gone too long. I waded into the sea and cupped the water as if it was my own blood, felt each wave as if it was my own heartbeat, breathed in the breeze as if it was my breath. The trees were my bones. The sand, my skin. The leaves, my hair. The island had poured so much into me that it became my larger body.
I lay on the waves, heard the deep, echoing sea. A storm cloud darkened the sky. It seemed to foretell all the other storms to come and I wondered, how much time do we have before gigantic hurricanes drive everyone to the mainland? Or can we strengthen the island? Live on it? Can we survive a changing Earth?
And aren’t millions being forced to ask the same questions? Families fled cyclones in Asia. They fled drought in Africa. They fled fires in the American West. The farther they traveled, the more they looked back, even if only in dreams to the land that was as intimate to them as their own flesh and blood.
“Hola,” I called. Yeya came out, waved; smiled painfully at the friction in her knees. “Señora,” I said and she shook her finger at me.
“Señorita,” she made a mischievous eye-twinkle. We laughed. Jesús wheeled to us. We hugged. I launched into a story about the trip; the bridge, the mountain and the people, Casa Pueblo and the beach. They listened, catching my glow, more than my words. I told them it was time to get them a generator and that the rest of the family could pitch in. Jesús, shook his head, saying, “I have money.”
I leaned over and unfolded cash and asked him to take it. He shook his head. Yeya looked at him knowingly and took it for him. Neighbors came by. They told them who I was and we all made room. Eres de Nueva York? Estás hacienda aquí? And I told them of the trip. And they nodded, politely, not wanting to relive their hurricane night.
I got up to leave and Yeya gave me her and Jesús’s phone numbers to share with the family. He embraced me for a long time as if to say, in case you don’t make it back before I die, I love you. She kissed my forehead as if to say, you are my other son.
Hours later, I stood at the airport security line. One by one, kids and elderly, the sick and new parents showed their ID to the agent, turned around and waved goodbye to weeping relatives. My eyes burned wet. My throat locked. I wanted to stay and rebuild the island. But I had a long, life waiting for me in New York and when the time came, I held out my ID to the agent to.
The Next Storm
On the plane, I studied the sky. It was already feeding. The next Category 5 hurricane was already being, slowly spoon fed. The exhaust from this plane. The exhaust from all the planes and cars, factories and farms, power plants and homes were heating the oceans. In a year, another hurricane season will begin, another angry spirit will spin, slow and blind at first, then faster and faster until its eye opened.
It will find a path again, careening through Caribbean, bouncing off islands until it smashes into one. It will leave more people, stunned as they stumble into a quiet morning of devastation. It will shriek in hundred mile and hour plus, winds. It will lash homes, blast bridges and blow rivers off course. It blow human lives off course.
Life or Death. Our history has turned the Earth against us. Death is here. Death is chasing us inland. Death is forcing us from home. Life means a revolution against a system, hundreds of years, embedded into us.
We have to make a choice. I leaned close to the window. The shadow of the plane, rippled on the clouds.