Escape from Puerto Rico

October 2, 2017

As some of you know, we acquired a second home in Puerto Rico a few months ago. When doing the pros and cons list for Puerto Rico, never once did the word “hurricane” come up. In fact, the last category 4 or 5 hurricane to hit Puerto Rico was nearly 90 years ago. In fact, Hurricanes and Puerto Rico are hardly ever even mentioned in the same sentence. Apparently the El Yunque rain forest has its own weather system that nearly always pushes hurricanes to the north at the last moment. So, imagine our surprise when forecasters predicted a category 5 direct hit and, for the first time since 1928, that category 5 hurricane did not shift to the north. For the McKnights, the hit could not have been more direct. Not only did Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, its eye (along with the hurricane’s most intense winds) moved almost directly over the town where our home is located.

Unfortunately, by the time it was obvious that it was going to be a direct hit (three or four days beforehand), all the flights out of San Juan were completely booked. So, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down in our home bracing for the impact. The night the hurricane hit was one not soon to be forgotten. The fierce winds began around midnight Tuesday night and progressively got stronger and more aggressive through the early morning hours of Wednesday. The winds howled and churned like a freight train right outside our window. Our family of 9 found the most secure room in the house (protected by a series of three cement walls) and waited out the storm.

The most harrowing part of the whole ordeal was the uncertainty of it all. Would our house hold up? Would the windows blow out allowing the hurricane to wreak its havoc on the inside of the house? Was the worst past us or was it still to come? Around 2 am that morning we heard the sound of breaking glass. We were certain that the hurricane was now blowing our windows in. But when we looked outside, we saw the ground littered with ceramic shingles that had been ripped off the roof by the wind. We would later find that while our roof did hold up, nearly all the shingles on the eastern side were completely torn off.

The damage sustained by the rainforest that surrounds our house was both tragic and visually arresting. As you can see in the before and after pictures below, the trees were all completely despoiled of their leaves, and the vast majority of them broken in half. They say the devastation of a category 5 is similar to the detonation of a large bomb. As you can see from the pictures, this comparison is an apt one. All of Puerto Rico had been turned into a war zone. There was not a leaf to be found on a tree, anywhere. Full stop. As the dangerous winds subsided, we began the process of mopping up our flooded floors and clearing the fallen trees that littered our yard.

The most pressing issues in the wake of the storm were that we had neither electricity, running water or communication of any sort. No cell phones and no internet. Now, we did have a generator and stored water, but knew the generator would last only a week, and the water three weeks at best. And we were among the most prepared of our neighbors. So, it became a race against time to try to evacuate my family before our resources ran dry and the veil of civility in our town began to wear thin.

The first few days, the airport was shut down so there was no coming in or out. Once the airport did open, everyone began to try to leave the island at once. I had heard rumors that there were tiny windows of cellphone coverage in San Juan (about 30 minutes away) so I went there to try to secure flights for my family. This process involved driving around with my cellphone held up high gauging whether the signal was strong enough to sustain a call. I drove around for an hour before I was able to successfully connect and schedule flights. I got 8 tickets for my family for Thursday (8 days after the hurricane) and resolved to use the reservation I’d set weeks earlier, for a different day, for myself. I soon learned that this flight, along with the vast majority of the other flights, had been canceled. When I went to the airport to try to scrap my way onto a plane, I learned that all of United’s confirmed reservations had been canceled and they were now offering spots on their plane on a first come first serve basis. A ray of hope. But there were only 300 spots available. I judged that there were only 200 people in front of me so I thought I had a fighting chance. What I did not realize was that these 200 people were holding spots for another 120 people. By the time they closed the flight, I was 20 people away from the counter. Back to the drawing board.

After another trip into San Juan and groping around for cellphone coverage, I was able to schedule another flight for a week later on Tuesday. Having learned my lesson the first time, I decided to schedule a back-up flight for the day prior. Unfortunately, another series of aggressive weather systems were forecast to come through Puerto Rico on both of those days, so the airlines preemptively canceled both of those flights. My family became aware of this and was able to reschedule my flight for the Saturday prior. Problem was, they had no way of letting me know. A dozen people in the US tried to get a hold of me via satellite phone, cellphone, email and Facebook, but again, all lines of communication were down. So, my rescheduled flight came and went all without me knowing. By the time I did make contact with family in the US, they’d told me that no new flights were available for another 7 to 10 days. In the meantime, the number of canceled speaking engagements (part of what keeps the lights on at the McKnights) were beginning to pile up. I was at the end of my rope.

And then a miracle happened. Against all odds, my friend Brian Sawyer was able to somehow, some way, finagle a confirmation with United for Sunday afternoon (yesterday). I chalk this up to divine intervention. A dozen people had been working on my behalf but it was Brian who pulled the rabbit out of his hat. I nearly cried when I got the news.

But the adventure was not yet over. At 4 am on the morning of my departure, the generator ran out of gas. This was problematic because the generator powered the security shutters that covered all of the windows and doors in the house. No generator, no getting out of the house, and no catching my flight. Fortunately, we had inadvertently left the door to the deck on the second story un-shuttered. So, early Sunday morning, I hauled my two suitcases and briefcase down a ladder (which, providentially, had been left leaning against the roof), scaled a fence, and made it safely to my car. At 2:30 pm, I boarded a non-stop flight to Chicago where my wife picked me up nearly 5 hours later. And that’s how I escaped Puerto Rico.

The prognosis for Puerto Rico, unfortunately, is not good. Given the breadth of the devastation to the infrastructure, and the lack of manpower working to restore it, I estimate that it will be 6 to 8 months before Puerto Rico once again has power. Nearly every power line sustained damage, and in all my driving around, I saw only a dozen or so workers engaged in their repair. Running water will eventually be restored, but the lack of electricity will keep many businesses shuttered and its employees out of work. As resources grow thin, Puerto Rico may see looting and other crimes of desperation.

Remember to keep Puerto Rico in your prayers and don’t hesitate to make donations to organizations who are in a position to make a difference, such as the Red Cross. Above all, make sure that you and your family are prepared to weather life’s storms, be they climactic, temporal or spiritual. These things arise when you least expect it, and the best time to prepare is when the seas are calm and the winds serene. Thanks to everyone who prayed for me and my family. Please continue to pray for the rest of Puerto Rico who still find themselves in harm’s way.


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