Surviving a Category 4 hurricane wasn’t what I had in mind when I went on vacation to San Juan, Puerto Rico, with my three sons, but now that we’re safely back in New York, it will be a trip I will always remember. I am still tormented by the news coverage of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, showing the people there who can’t leave because it’s their home.
Making it through the hurricane itself was scary enough. We evacuated our rooms and huddled in a cold stairwell for almost four hours in semi-darkness while the wind rocked the hotel and made it sway. As a single-mom with three kids, it was terrifying wondering if this was the end.
We evacuated our rooms and huddled in a cold stairwell for almost four hours in semi-darkness while the wind rocked the hotel and made it sway. As a single-mom with three kids, it was terrifying wondering if this was the end.”
However, we were blessed to safely come out of the stairwell when the storm passed. The scene that awaited us was one I won’t soon forget. Trees down, metal shutters ripped off of buildings lay wrapped like fabric around telephone poles. Debris, broken glass and sand were everywhere and people wandered around in shock, some carrying screaming babies. We saw neighbors helping neighbors: moving trees together, cleaning up debris and using dustpans and brushes to remove mountains of sand left behind by the storm-surge. Their hard work and resilience is etched in my mind.
I was grateful for the safety of the hotel with its security guards, yet my heart went out to the people with no roofs and no protection. A curfew was implemented by the local police, who were out in droves to enforce it.
My boys had never experienced life with no power, no water, limited food and no stores open. As average American teenagers, they’re used to opening up the pantry and eating when they want to, or worst case, going to the local 7-Eleven. It was a shock for them and for me to wait on line for an hour just to get into CVS for supplies, and to have armed police patrolling the store to prevent violence.
Our flight home was delayed four times, and each day our supplies dwindled. The hotel said soon they would run out of diesel for their generators and we would have to go to a shelter. I managed to get a call through to the airline where I literally begged to be put on stand-by for a flight anywhere in the continental United States.
After six hours in the airport in 100 degree heat, the flight attendant called, ‘Engel, four for New York.’ We raced to the front, only for them to say, ‘We have space for one, who will be going?'”
When we finally got to the airport – there were 5,000 people packed in with no air conditioning, three fans and dark corridors. We had hand-written boarding passes and were patted down one by one because the scanners were down. After six hours in the airport in 100 degree heat, the flight attendant called, “Engel, four for New York.” We raced to the front, only for them to say, “We have space for one, who will be going?” There was no time to think, I picked my oldest son and hugged him fiercely and told him I loved him. He hugged his brothers and walked onto the plane. That was by far the hardest thing I had to do. Thankfully, his brothers and I made it onto a later flight and eventually, we reunited at home.
We are the lucky ones, we got out. I donate to the Red Cross every day and have encouraged my friends and family to do the same. Puerto Rico is a U.S. territory, its people are U.S. citizens, they desperately need all the money, prayers and support that we can muster.