Las Cambres, Puerto Rico – Velda Brown was lucky enough to get a flight out of Puerto Rico after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, but the Grand Manan born teacher is heading back to the island today (Tuesday) to help those who were not so fortunate.
The Grand Manan High School graduate, who teaches at the Wesleyan Academy in Las Cambres, was able to leave the island thanks to the generosity of the son of the friend who shares her house there.
He was able to get the two women on a flight to Georgia where they have been staying, but now, said Brown in a telephone interview Monday, it’s time to head back and help out on the island which was so badly hit by Maria.
Getting on to a flight off the island was a nightmare, as San Juan airport only had one computer working, and one security check-in operating, so people lined up for hours first inside, where there was no air conditioning, then outside in the hot sun.
“They had runners who would go and print out your tickets and boarding passes. We got there at 10:30 a.m. and were supposed to leave at 3:30 p.m. but didn’t take off until about 4:40 p.m.
“The army brought us some water and something to eat. I must have drunk five bottles of water. It was an incredible ordeal. I was told someone had died at the airport from exhaustion with no water and no food while waiting. The temperature was in the high nineties, and the air is dead after a hurricane.”
She has encountered a number of hurricanes since moving to the island, but she said Maria made the others look like a breeze.
“It was crazy. You couldn’t see across the street. The rain was coming down horizontally. We were both in our rooms, but then we went into the living room and the windows were moving. We don’t have glass, only metal louvers.
“The wind was so strong the door was moving, so we took some string and tied it but there was no water in the house to speak off. It was incredibly wild. I kept saying this is insane. I don’t need to live through it again.”
Prior to the arrival of Maria, Brown said it was impossible to find rope, so they had purchased dog leashes and clothesline in order to tie things down.
“We just tied everything down, and what we couldn’t tie down, we brought into the house. It was an interesting time. The house is still standing and there was no damage. The way this house is built, the wind could blow right through.”
Brown said they hunkered down for 12 hours before they finally went outside, and when they emerged, so did everyone else in their neighbourhood.
“It was like ants coming out of their nest. Everyone went up on the roofs to clear off the leaves. Everyone helped clear them off. I live in a fantastic community.”
While her home suffered no damage, she said a solar panel blew off the house next door, and across the street an aluminum roof had blown off.
After Maria had passed she said the island had no electricity and no water but, fortunately, they have a water tank on the roof which escaped damage.
“Right after we went in the yard and there were shingles from someone’s roof. We just keep cleaning up little by little but it was so hot. With the tank on the roof we were able to bring water down and at least you could rinse off.”
Before Hurricane Irma, Brown said they had already stocked up on water and canned goods. They also had some canisters of gas, as well as some sterno’s for cooking.
“We were as ready as we could be. If you had to be in Puerto Rico, this is the place to be, because the houses in our neighbourhood are older homes made of poured concrete over boulders.
“The eye of the hurricane came right behind where I live and there was a humungous tree down across the entire highway. When we finally went out and walked around the neighbourhood, we couldn’t believe it.
“On Sunday we took out the car to go to church, and we went over to see the school. There were power lines on the road, and you were driving over them, and there were others about eight inches above the car.
“There was quite a bit of destruction on the third floor of the school, but the second and first floors are fine. We called last night.
“We don’t really want to go back, but we have to go to work on Wednesday. You have an obligation there. School is going to start next Monday, and on Wednesday they are going to tell us how we are going to make this work.”
Brown has been in touch with friends back in Puerto Rico, and she said things are improving slowly with line-ups for gas now reduced from between six to eight hours to two.
“My neighbour waited in line from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. to get gas, and they told her she could only have $10 worth. She said by the time she drove around looking for water she had used that up.
“Everything is cash and there are long line ups in the bank. You have to pay cash for everything. There has already been reports of gangs who have robbed a gas station.”
There are long line-ups outside stores, and customers are taken inside in groups under supervision of staff because of concerns about security.
“This is a reality we are going to have to face but the U.S. Army came in and a medical ship is coming Wednesday. I think the army is setting up temporary electricity stations.
“There is food, water and medical supplies sitting on the dock but there is no way to deliver it. The truckers might not have gas or they need an escort to get there. I think they are afraid. When things get bad, evil seems to creep out through the cracks.
“When we went to the gas station, there was a policeman there with a rifle. They are doing what they can to protect everybody.”
On the plus side, said Brown, they have checked on their friends and they are all alive and well. When they head back Tuesday they will be taking suitcases filled with batteries and canned foods for their friends.
“It is difficult to go back but it is also difficult not to, when you know what your friends are going through. It was an extreme ordeal for us but it was also hard for our families who had no way of contacting us.”
Brown said it was a miracle how her friend’s son was able to contact them somehow through Facebook or social media, and get a message delivered to her. She said she has a new cell phone and as soon as she can find a signal on the island she will let her family back home know she has arrived safe and sound.
“But things are getting better little by little. This is short term and they will need to rebuild the infrastructure. I will probably be celebrating Canadian Thanksgiving with a can of pork and beans over a campfire.
“At the school they have a water tank and a generator so people can go there and charge their phones. We live close to everything and there is nothing we really need. We bought water before Irma and we could boil water from the tank on the roof.
“In a sense I feel excited to be going back, and that we will be able to take things back to help people but I am really not looking forward to the heat. We have had water bottles glued to our hands ever since we got here.
“Schools are going to start next Monday. There are some that were not damaged but the roads are all messed up. We are going to give it a shot. It is probably good to give some normalcy to the kids and for the parents to have them back in school.”