by Silverio Perez
Translated from the Spanish by Jessica Powell
Very few people mention it, but one of the strongest blows dealt to Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria is the one dealt to our island’s vegetation. The leaves and the shade they provided were an unnoticed protection against the sun’s rays. Now that protection is gone. And we feel it. Before, I could go out at noontime into my backyard, bordered by flamboyant, guava, avocado, acacia and African tulip trees, and I would feel the caress of a cool breeze. Now, when the entire countryside lies crushed to the ground, when you step outside, you are met by the breath of a fire-breathing dragon, a blast of heat that sends you into retreat.
The rivers and streams on our island maintained their water levels thanks to that leafy protection that we humans now miss so much. If the dramatic assertion made by the Secretary of Natural Resources is true, namely that almost 100% of our trees have disappeared, then our rivers and streams will languish and we should prepare for a very cruel drought.
No one reading this chronicle who is not in Puerto Rico can possibly imagine the graveyard of tree trunks, branches and leaves that surrounds us. Watching over their dead, a few wretched, ghostly, decrepit trees remain standing, as the sun, bit by bit, bends them inexorably to its will.
But nature, in addition to protecting and feeding us, also has the mission of guiding us and, through the color of its leaves, giving us the necessary hope. Nature will respond to this blow. We must do the same.
Maria, Our Lady of Miracles
An insistent knocking at my neighbor’s door made me leap out of bed and step out onto the second-floor balcony of my house. It was three in the morning. Although my first impulse was to find out what was going on, to see if there was an emergency within the emergency already created by the hurricane, I found myself unable to look down and to the right, toward my neighbor’s door. Above the silhouetted hill that faces my bedroom, was Osa Major, shining majestically in extremely high definition, thanks to the darkness created by the collapse of the island’s electrical system.
Alongside that familiar constellation shone thousands of other stars, which, little by little, revealed themselves as other recognizable formations. I was frozen in a sort of ecstasy of contemplation until the pounding on my neighbor’s door made me turn my gaze, this time in the initially intended direction. “Is something going on? “ I asked. “No, nothing,” replied the housing development’s security guard. “Your neighbor wanted me to let him know when the water truck was entering the neighborhood so he could have his containers ready.”
The truck’s arrival could not interrupt my return to the rapture.
Community Through Hardship
For the first time in its history, my housing development is a community, a common unit of neighbors sharing in hardship, thanks to Maria. Mind you, this unity is something that the Board of Directors of the Resident’s Association had long tried, and failed, to accomplish. It was always the same few people who attended the meetings or the organized activities. This time, Maria’s powerful summons left no one out. A meeting was convened 48 hours after the hurricane tore through our neighborhood, and 98% of residents attended.
Suddenly, we started to realize that – wow! – the next door neighbor is the director of such and such hospital. And what? You’re the son of a dear friend of mine? How have I never seen you before? It can’t be! Look, honey! That’s the radiologist who did my exam when I had cancer! And so, little by little we began to know who we were, what we did, how we could help, what we needed. Groups were formed to offer assistance according to categories of necessity: medical services, diesel fuel, water, gasoline, an extension cord to make use of the electricity of one neighbor with a generator, one neighbor who discovered that the old telephone he’d held on to still worked and offered his home as a neighborhood phone booth, the single woman who didn’t know what had happened to her children, the couple who hasn’t been able to get in touch with their respective parents who live in one of the devastated villages on the island…Everything was taken into account, leaders were assigned to each street, neighborhood watch patrols were established, on each block a committee took inventory of available resources (like in Cuba during the 1970s), and everyone had a job to do.
Although I volunteered for the security committee and the removal of downed trees committee, I was assigned as chair of the arts and culture committee, to organize a celebration once everything has returned to normal. What an honor!
The day that Puerto Rico goes back to being a community without being obligated by hardship to do so, we will be a new country.
This is a part of a series of 24 chronicles that will be published weekly in English and Spanish, as a part of www.24weeks.us.