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It was early in the morning when the strongest earthquake felt in Puerto Rico over the last 100 years trembled the island.
I sat down in my wardrobe in darkness, with my emergency backpack, waiting for the sun to come out and restore some sense of safety. I could not stop thinking about the people I had interviewed the day before, reporting on the South, where less intense quakes began before the magnitude 6.4 earthquake hit on January 7. The calm-yet-scared face of one of my interviewees reminded me of my uncle Víctor Lebrón, a 56-year-old diabetes patient with a fragile heart who did not survive the terrible conditions in the wake of Hurricane Maria two years earlier: no electricity, no fresh food; overwhelming heat, uncertainty and chaos.
As the world around me shook, memories of that disaster came rushing back.
After Hurricane Maria, my uncle had to wait long hours to receive dialysis treatments and slept in his car many nights in search of a cooler, more bearable temperature. On the night he died from a heart attack, almost 40 minutes passed between the moment he felt pain and when the ambulance arrived. He lived 10 minutes away from two hospitals, but because cell phone signals were so bad after the hurricane, Aunt Marisol's call would not go through. He could not move from his bed, so he died in a battle against time, waiting for help.
He was a historian, a professor, a dad, a husband, a friend. Always with a great sense of humor, even in the worst conditions. I bet he would want us all to crack a joke instead of remembering his loss. He was that type of guy. Laughter was his medicine.
I remember him reminiscing about my parents' high school years, the anecdotes of when they used to study together. Now I long both for his memories, and the reactions he provoked in my mom and dad's faces when he spoke. My mother's expression while he navigated time with his words reminded me of the way I think I look when someone speaks about a memory that for me screams nostalgia, a space in time that I share, but do not have the words or bravery to name. Missing is a strong language. We understand that better, since he left.
Missing is a strong language. We understand that better, since he left.
Whenever we had family reunions, he would recommend dozens of books that now I wish I had written down. I always told myself I had to invite him to lunch and ask him more about his stories, but I never did. He had a whole universe of memories to share, memories that vanished in the air on the night of his death, October 25, 2017. Our lunch will never happen. I think about it, and my heart still aches.
He should have turned 57 on May 28, 2018, but he did not. It was a rainy Tuesday. On that same day, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study, "Mortality in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria." It was a household-based sample survey of 3,000 families, which suggested the death toll related to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico exceeded 70 times the official estimate.
That morning, before my workday began, I read: "Our results indicate that the official death count of 64 is a substantial underestimate of the true burden of mortality after Hurricane Maria. Our estimate of 4,645 excess deaths from September 20 through December 31, 2017 is likely to be conservative since subsequent adjustments for survivor bias and household-size distributions increase this estimate to more than 5000."
As I processed the information, I felt the mourning of thousands of unacknowledged deaths choking my throat. Two years ago, a doctor told me that my body is hypersensitive. Only now, after more than two years of listening to the stories of the survivors of the catastrophe, I understand what he meant.
I feel both physical sensations and emotions at an exacerbated level. It's not romantic. Four years ago, a minor surgery turned into months of recovery in bed. I could barely move; the pain was ten times more than what the surgeon anticipated, but it was nothing compared to what millions felt in the aftermath of the hurricane. When my interviewees share their experiences, I do not only listen to their stories; I feel their trauma in a way that often means walking out of my interviews transformed into a huge cloud of pain, a pain that is not my own, and at the same time, belongs.
Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, I've visited more towns in my country than I had in 25 years prior to the storm. Gurabo, Canóvanas, Jayuya, Orocovis, Utuado, San Sebastián, Lares, Hatillo, Mayagüez, Maricao, Naranjito, Yabucoa, Guánica, Ponce, the list goes on. I hear the voice of my uncle every time a resident of these towns speaks about loss.
The wind destroying so many houses sounded like a thousand car crashes happening at the same time.
When I arrive in these communities, the journalist in me expects to identify a story, but the emotionally exhausted Puerto Rican in me wants to arrive at a place with no struggles, no neglected human rights, no unprotected or underserved communities, no infuriating stories to listen to. That never happens.
I arrive, recorder and notebook in hand, and the neighbors tell me about how the hurricane endangered their lives. Those who speak are survivors. Others, like my uncle, cannot share their own stories anymore.
"Oh, Ale, how much has [hurricane] Maria taken away from us", I remember my aunt Marisol, Victor's wife, saying to me at his funeral. "I knew this would hurt, I just did not know it would hurt this bad," she told me. She was wearing a sky-blue dress — my uncle's favorite.
Outside of the funeral home the sky was pale, no color whatsoever.
We all know losses hurt. But when they arrive without notice, when you never thought you would be feeling that void, a profound sense of emptiness aches from within. It confronts you with your relationship with pain, as you are forced to face a whole new universe of mourning and trauma. I experienced it with the loss of my uncle; and many Puerto Ricans are experiencing it now with the loss of homes they built from the ground up.
When the earthquakes happened, hurricane memories were still replaying in our minds – the wind destroying so many houses sounded like a thousand car crashes happening at the same time, or thousands of glass windows breaking as metal structures flattened and zinc roofs went flying.
Disaster memories also include moments that make us feel a bit safer. I remember, 33 days after the hurricane, singing happy birthday to my grandfather in the dark, his smile being the only source of power for the day. His face, confident in the future, calmed me. Him and my aunt shared that: they could make you feel the safest person on Earth, by just being present.
The Tuesday my uncle was supposed to turn 57, I met Jessica, a mother of a one-year-old sick baby. She was my first interview of the day, at my work assignment in rural Naranjito. As soon as I began interviewing her, she broke down crying, recalling when she found herself unable to provide her daughter the healthcare she needed.
Jessica was afraid of losing her daughter. Her baby is a rare disease patient who needs a specific low-phenylalanine diet in order to avoid immediate brain damage. After Hurricane Maria, remote communities such as Naranjito suffered life threatening damages and a lack of essential resources due to the slow local and federal responses. Accessing the specific foods Jessica's baby needed to survive was a stressful and almost impossible mission.
Our vocabulary has been reshaped not only by the losses we experienced, but also by the ones we still fear.
The "Mortality in Puerto Rico" study found that in remote areas, "on average, households went 84 days without electricity, 68 days without water, and 41 days without cellular telephone coverage after the hurricane." I remember reading that before I met Jessica and heard firsthand how these conditions had put her child's life at risk.
Puerto Ricans living in rural areas were not the only victims of slow responses. My uncle lived in the metropolitan area and died waiting. The severe look on Jessica's face reminded me of my aunt Marisol in her blue dress at my uncle's funeral. Both of their voices made me realize that loss in post-Hurricane Maria Puerto Rico has become a common language. Our vocabulary has been reshaped not only by the losses we experienced, but also by the ones we still fear.
That night, as I drove back from Naranjito after my interview with Jessica, it was rainy, and the mountainous road was so dark. Months later, in the early morning darkness, the massive earthquake hit. I will never forget the social media posts of people begging for dawn. Never had so many people on the island aimed for the sun to come out, with such faith in the power of light to make us feel somehow safer. Feeling the Earth tremble in darkness echoed what we had known for so long, even before Hurricane Maria: we have no control whatsoever over the ground we exist upon.
Will our mourning ever end?
I have no answers.
Neither do thousands.