Hurricanes in Puerto Rico

Published Monday, December 18th, 2017
by family historian Norma (Garcia) Pettit

Our Family in the Aftermath of Hurricanes

As an island in the Caribbean, Puerto Rico has historically been in the direct path of hurricanes. Out of the ones shown on this map, three that have had the most impact on our family are San Ciriaco, San Felipe II, and Georges.

San Ciriaco was a category 4 hurricane that made landfall in Guayama on August 8, 1899, with winds of 140 mph. In the context of our family history, our patriarch, Florencio Rivera, was 27 years old and married to his first wife, Felícita Madera. She was six months pregnant with their son, Andrés.  With typical homes in those days made out of wood and having zinc roofs, the  damage done to structures was devastating. Although San Ciriaco killed about 3,000 people, I have no record of family members having lost their lives during this hurricane.

San Felipe II, a category 5 hurricane, hit Puerto Rico on September 13, 1928, entering near Arroyo.  It resulted in over 300 deaths.  Angélica Rivera, daughter of Florencio Rivera and Otilia Pacheco, was born just two weeks later.  I can imagine the terror that the family endured with this powerful hurricane.  They were living in Ponce, which is west of where the hurricane made landfall.

I remember when hurricane Georges hit Puerto Rico on September 21, 1998, entering near Yabucoa.  It was a feature story in our Oct/Nov 1998 family newsletter, ¿…y la familia?  The article tells how Joi was able to call her brother, William Roig, who said there was no electricity and that there was a gas shortage.  Cousin René and his late wife, Titi, flew in from Misssissippi to check on the family because they were unable to contact them by phone. They visited every member of the family to assure themselves that they were okay, then returned to Mississippi after only two days because the island was in a state of chaos.  Cousin Luz opened up her home to people who had lost theirs. Cousin Papo bought extra food and shared with his neighbors.

The lack of fresh water was the greatest problem, and people were drinking warm water and warm sodas just to get some liquids in them. The mosquitoes were voracious and the humidity unbearable. There were long lines just to buy a bag of ice. Stores reopened soon, but they were only admitting five customers at a time, and people had to pay in cash since ATM cards and credit cards require electricity for approval, and the lines outside of the stores and banks were never-ending.  Does all of this sound familiar? Almost exactly 19 years later, history repeated itself.

On September 20, 2017, Hurricane María, a category 5, devastated Puerto Rico with winds of over 150 miles per hour and torrential rain.  Many of our cousins experienced this terrifying event firsthand.  In the aftermath of the hurricane, Puerto Rico was left totally in the dark and with no cell service or other means of communicating with the outside world, or even with each other in neighboring towns. Roads were blocked by fallen trees and electrical poles, which made traveling from one town to another difficult, if not impossible. Landslides, flooding, and collapsed homes coupled with the lack of electricity or potable running water left the island’s inhabitants facing a humanitarian crisis.  It was weeks before we knew that everyone in the family was safe, but we also learned that that the Román family lost their home that they had been building for the last 2-1/2 years.  This is a picture of part of the ruined construction. FEMA has denied their claim for help because they were not yet living in the house. A GoFundMe account has been set up to collect contributions to help Waleska and Rafy rebuild their home. Click here if you want to help or copy and paste this link onto your browser: https://www.gofundme.com/rebuild-waleskas-house.

Stateside family members, friends, and strangers rallied together to provide support for those affected by the hurricane. We contributed money to various charitable organizations and sent dozens of boxes to cousin Waleska containing non-perishable food items, candles, flashlights, batteries, solar lights, personal hygiene products, water purification tablets, and other needed items. From Oct. 25th to Dec. 3rd, she and her daughters received 77 boxes, sorted and re-bagged everything and went to different neighborhoods to distribute the goods among 135 families.  She became known at the post office, often greeted by the postal clerks with good-natured comments like, “Good, you’re here!  Come get your boxes; they are taking up too much space.”  In various neighborhoods her car was recognized and people came hurrying with plastic bags.  Some grown men even cried out of gratitude. To everyone who helped in this relief effort, a huge THANK YOU!

Three months after the hurricane, almost half of the island is still without power, although cell service, internet and running water have been largely restored.  It will take years before Puerto Rico returns to its former state. Hopefully, the power grid will  eventually be better than it was before the hurricane.

The battle cry is, “¡Puerto Rico se levanta!”  (Puerto Rico rises up!)   For many Puerto Ricans, this was the first hurricane they experienced or which affected them in one way or another. But throughout our history, our family and Puerto Rico in general has risen up from the ruins to once again become the Isla del Encanto.

It will happen again.