October 16, 2017
Vieques, Puerto Rico
We’ve learned so much about what it takes to be disaster/hurricane survivors.
Our friend Bill describes Viequense with the three R’s: resilient, resourceful and respectful. The people on Vieques are truly remarkable. But, we’ve added another “R” to his analogy – RELIEF lines.
Daily, if we haven’t stood at least an hour in some kind of line, we feel like we haven’t accomplished anything for the day.
Here’s what I mean.
Since shortly before Hurricane Irma we’ve never NOT had to wait in line at any of the island’s grocery or convenience stores. Normally the wait is 30 minutes to an hour. Nobody buys ice cream!
Last Saturday I waited for over an hour at the Morales SuperMercado and was almost to the checkout counter, when the store’s power generator went out and the whole store went dark! Yikes!
The resilience and flexibility of the Viequense is praiseworthy. Everybody just stood patiently in line. Even the lady in front of me, who had half of her groceries scanned, stayed calm as the store employees scurried around to make the checkout computers operational again. Within ten minutes everything was humming and lines were again moving. The rest of the world could use a strong dose of Viequense island patience!
Waiting in line for gasoline can take an entire day. The problem is that there are only three gas stations on the entire island, and because no one knows exactly when the gasoline tankers will make it over on the ferry, some people have been known to camp out overnight, in their cars, by the gas stations.
Right after Irma and Maria, gas was rationed which made it tough for folks that were trying to get gas for generators, as well as fuel for their cars.
We heard, but have never seen, that some fights have broken out when people weren’t allowed to get as much gas as they wanted. Since then, there have always been armed policia at each station, on days when there is gas, to keep order.
The longest I’ve had to wait in a gas line is 8 hours. I finished an Audible book, did A LOT of writing, and got a good start into a paperback. I also memorized the license plate of the car in front of me and got in some quality people and iguana watching time.
This is a tough one. Real tough. Since we have no power, keeping anything cold requires at least 2-4 bags of ice per day. Then getting the ice home from the store still frozen is an even bigger challenge. We’ve started keeping an ice chest in the car, for our daily ice runs or in case we inadvertently come across someone or somewhere that has the precious cubes.
If you find ice at the first store you go to, it’s a good day. More often than not, it takes several stops to complete an ice mission.
There is an ice plant on the island that sometimes is open to the public. About two weeks after Maria, one of the employees forgot to open a valve on the ice machine and the whole thing crashed. Not good.
Of course, it took over a week to get the necessary parts here. We happened to be at a beach bar in Isabel with friends, when the guy who had finally fixed the ice machine came in. He was treated like royalty. Before we left I went over, hugged his neck, kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for being our ice hero!
The first week after Maria hit was especially trying, because there was absolutely no means of communicating with anyone on or off of the island. We knew our friends and family were probably worried sick, but we had no way to let them know we were okay. And frankly, as each day passed and the island’s leaders couldn’t get messages in or out, we weren’t sure we were going to be okay.
Post Maria Day 8 a wonderful man somehow got hold of a satellite phone and offered 30 second to 1 minute phone calls, so that everyone on the island could let family and friends know that they had survived.
Of course, the lines for talking on the phone were so long that they wound around the Plaza in Isabel.
We had designated my sister-in-law, Ginger, to be our “go to” person to call. After she heard from us, the plan was for her to let the rest of the family know we were okay, as well as post on Facebook that we had survived.
The first day the SAT phone was available I waited 2.5 hours in line, in the sun, to call Ginger. I had made notes and practiced exactly what needed to be said, so that I could make the most of my 60 seconds of connection with the rest of the world. When it was finally my turn, I had the lady handling the phone help me dial the number. I sure didn’t want to screw it up. It rang and went immediately to Ginger’s voicemail. I left as much of a message as I could and then got cut off, so I wasn’t for sure it went through.
The next day I waited for 3 hours in line and decided to try a call to Scott, my son, only to get his voicemail. My voice started to quiver as I left him a message. The lady handling the phone must have felt sorry for me, because she asked if there was someone else I could call. I had my sister Della’s number handy and I was so jittery that I let the ‘phone lady’ dial it.
I’ve got the best sister in the whole wide world! She picked up on the first ring! When I heard her voice I turned into a blubbering idiot. She was the first person on the “outside” that I had talked to, and I lost it. As I tried to go down the list of things to tell her, she already knew everything from my previous day’s call to Ginger I guess.
She kept saying, “We know all this, but are you okay?” and “We’ve called everyone, but are you sure you are okay?”
I know I didn’t sound “okay” but just hearing her voice made me okay.
After the call, John was there to hold me and let me cry it out for a bit. Never have I been a Tiny Tears, but hearing my sweet sister’s voice that day on the SAT phone pushed me over the edge.
The day before Maria hit there was a run for cash on the island’s only bank, Banco Popular. As a hurricane rookie, I would have never considered a wad of cash as being a survival must. Duh. Obviously, if there is no power, the ATMs won’t work. Also after a disaster like this, no one accepts plastic or checks.
We are now into the 4th week after Maria and just last Friday we got three extra ATMs and the Banco Popular ATM is finally working. Of course, lines for all of them are LONG!
There are two main hardware stores on the island. The largest is Nales Hardware. The day before Maria, people were lined up down the block and 4×8 sheets of plywood were rationed at 5 per customer.
Nales had a unique way to handle the long lines and crowding within their store. The parking lot to the store is gated, so they had an employee with a walkie talkie stationed at the main gate entrance. He took his cue from someone at the store’s registers as to when new customers were allowed “in” and then it was only 10 at a time. As customers left the store with their purchases he very carefully checked the items they brought out against their receipts akin to Costco, Sam’s or Fry’s in the big city. Go figure.
Today, 4 weeks after Maria, food is finally available to survivors. Before I claimed my place in yet another line I had to double check to make sure this one was not the dog/cat food line (kudos to the U.S. Humane Society for their immediate efforts here).
This line took about an hour and at the end of the wait we were rewarded with a case of bottled water and 2 boxes of food. Within one of the food boxes was this note:
Even though the box was loaded with high-calorie comfort food that we ordinarily wouldn’t eat, the fact that someone out there took the time to pack it and to care, made all of our line standing worth it.
As I’m sitting here writing, John just walked in, looked over my shoulder and reminded me that there is one more very important line that I haven’t mentioned.
How could I forget our energy-efficient, solar-powered clothes dryer? Gotta love it!