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I Survived Hurricane Maria Thanks Only To The Kindness Of Strangers

My husband and I could have drowned in our own home, while government help was nowhere to be found.

10/06/2017 12:28 EDT
Zaira Arvelo
The view from our house, before the storm.

I owe my life to two young girls, a woman who also lost her house, and a young gentleman with two kayaks. My husband and I had been renting our now underwater home Aguadilla, Puerto Rico for three years. If anyone had told me I could have died there, I wouldn’t have believed them. But then again, no one did. Not my landlord, not our town’s emergency personnel, not our mayor.

It all started with the usual optimism. I made the last supper ― arroz, habichuelas, chuletas and tostones ― took a shower and waited. The wind started picking up at 6 a.m. on Wednesday morning and it pounded the back side of our house. While it’s true that it felt like the metal windows would explode, the wind was kind to us. At 1:44 p.m., we were inside the peaceful and quiet eye.

All radio stations but one were dead. The emergency alert system had gone down and there was no cell phone reception. I knew that Maria’s next seven-hour round was incoming, so I did a sun salutation to brace for it and showered. My husband took a short nap. As I glanced outside, I noticed that water had started to pond, but there are six steps to my house and there is so much land in front of us ― I never suspected the water level would reach seven feet inside our house.

Zaira Arvelo
Pre-storm last supper.

The wind picked up again at about 3:47 p.m. and little did I know that we still had the worst 18 hours of Maria to go. We prepared the front windows because we knew she would now come around backwards ― as a child I had lived through Hurricane Hugo, and later Georges and Hortense. We set out plastic for the windows, towels for the door, a mop, and a bucket. Thinking back, there was no way we could have prepared for what would come next.

The water started rushing in through the front door at 6 p.m., and so we dashed to lift any remaining things from ground level. Then, we noticed a pair of large flying roaches on the walls. That’s when shit literally hit the fan. The house’s septic tank had filled and started coming out through the bathroom’s plumbing. Water started gushing through the backdoor, pushing the screen doors open.

Maria was upon us with all her strength, it was dark out and we couldn’t just run out into 155 mph winds. We tried yelling and using an emergency whistle to check if our right side or rear neighbors were there, but none could have heard our weak voices amidst the roar. We made signals with our flashlight, still no response. We tried 911, no dial tone. In a matter of minutes, the floor tiles were popping from below, as I secured final escape supplies. I already had a backpack ready.

Our original safe room was no longer safe, so I pushed our air mattress to the living room where we had two exits: the front porch and the kitchen. The next time I dared open the window to alert our neighbors, I learned how bad the situation was. There was lightning out, and upon its glare I perceived what seemed to be a flattened lake where there once was a road, trees, houses, an entire neighborhood.

The wind without shelter would have killed us, the amount and strength of water could have pulled us apart and tossed us in any direction. We were trapped with water up to our thighs. So at 7 p.m., we got on our air mattress, our home for the next 16 hours. There, listening to the unforgiving rain and water pushing now through the windows, I realized we could die.

Zaira Arvelo
Our floating couch cushions.

The mattress kept rising and by 11 p.m. we were less than 2.5 feet from our white concrete ceiling. We would lie on our backs from now on. As midnight approached, I celebrated that tomorrow was here. I started counting down the hours until sunrise. I figured if we could see, we could swim out and go to the roof. The personnel from the neighboring military base and airport would certainly rescue us. That was not true.

The hours between 4 and 6 a.m. were eternal. I rehearsed childhood games in my head to stay alert. I analyzed all possible escape scenarios if water kept coming in, if a window or door gave in. The sunrise came just like it always does but we couldn’t see outside. We were afraid to alter anything and have what little breathing room we had left be compromised. 

Zaira Arvelo
The water level in our living room, Thursday morning.

I heard an alarm from heavy machinery and human voices at a distance, it was like a soothing lullaby. Still, at 8 a.m. we remained floating, exhausted. I decided to break a decorative glass panel, about 5’5 inches, that rested over our living room door. By pressing down on the mattress and tilting my head sideways, I could see people very far away. We started using our emergency whistle. Someone pointed at our house. Then, what a sight: the yellow gowns of firefighters. More whistling. Two hours pass.

I start dozing off. “Is there someone out there?” my husband asks. I peer outside and see two young men in kayaks. ”¿Están bien?” ”¿Tienen niños?” ”¿Cuántos son?” We tell them it’s two healthy adults. We figured the front door wouldn’t budge but it had no knob outside so we had to try and open it from our end. My husband jumped off and was deep under water. He came up, held onto the mattress, grabbed a mouthful of air and started kicking the door. When it budged, the man outside jumped off his kayak and started pulling it.

We were out of the house with our backpacks being dragged behind a kayak across a lake of debris: power cables, lizards holding on for life, barbed wire, floating avocados. We made it to an area I had never been, disoriented, still raining, seeing strangers cry and hug us. “Yo te dije que había gente allí (I told you there were people there).”

Zaira Arvelo
The scene outside -- our house is the blue and orange structure in the rear.

What happened since is another story. But our gut feeling was correct. No one came to our rescue, not the town officials, not Defensa Civil, not the bomberos, not the Coast Guard, not the police.

We are here because two poor girls heard our whistle and, although the police in the nearby public housing project and the firefighters disregarded their cry, some stranger listened.

No one knows who the kayak guy is, but thanks to him, the girls, and who I later learned was a far away neighbor who exchanged flashlight flickers with me in the early hours of the morning, we’re alive.

I am appalled at the disregard for human life, the lack of organization, the absence of information. As I said, I am a healthy adult, I can think on my feet, I know how to to swim, and had my husband with me. Someone less fortunate (young, sick or old) would have died, and many have. As of Friday, two days after the disaster, no one had shown their face in this poor area of town to help the people that saved me. Helicopters did fly over, but they must have been in route to help more valuable citizens or simply filming to boost their media engagement.

Zaira Arvelo

Two weeks later, there are still people unaccounted for. The power and water situation is deplorably standing at 10 percent and 55 percent respectively. (For official updates on these essential services, go here.) Gas and food are limited, and ATMs have allegedly started to become available, although I haven’t seen a single one in the west side of the island. There were no accessible flights, last time I checked, and many remain unable to reach their family. Oh, and I’m one of the privileged ones that made it to a relative’s house with a generator, Internet, and a cell phone.

So yes, we still need help in Puerto Rico and many of us are very angry.

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