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In The Eye of The Storm

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Glenwood native says Puerto Rico will recover despite being ‘abandoned’ after Hurricane Maria

By Joe Foreman, Editor

Seven weeks have now passed since Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, but San Juan resident John LaRue, a Glenwood native, said there are no signs that living conditions for the island’s nearly 3.4 million inhabitants will return to normalcy anytime soon.

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“The damage is catastrophic,” John said in an e-mail exchange with The Opinion-Tribune last week. “People have no power or water and some even have to wait in six-hour gas lines just to get to work or get to a grocery store.”

John and his wife, Amanda, live in the San Juan neighborhood of Puntas las Marias in a fifth floor apartment facing the ocean. When it became apparent that Puerto Rico was going to be in the direct path of the Category 4 storm, John and Amanda shuttered the doors and windows at their apartment, unplugged electrical appliances and got as many of their belongings off the floor as possible.

“We packed light bags and moved in to her dad’s house a few blocks away,” John said. “We boarded up the windows of his house as well. The few days before we stocked up on canned food, bottled water and batteries.”

Maria made landfall during the early morning hours of Sept. 20. John and Amanda rode out the storm at her father’s house.

John recalls the “dead silence” in San Juan the afternoon before the storm. The city was at a standstill until the outer bands hit the island around 2 a.m. John said the storm lasted for hours with the strongest impact felt around 8 a.m.

“That didn’t let up for about four hours. There was this intense roar and lashing that shook the windows and pushed water through them,” John recalled. “I was never worried about the house structurally, but I started to worry about what we were going to walk out to after I saw a grill go flying and a whole tree that seemed to walk down the street with ease. I have never seen such power like that.”

John noted that Maria was the second hurricane to hit Puerto Rico in a matter of weeks. Irma came through in early September but didn’t cause as much damage as Maria.

Admittedly, John was hesitant about opening the door of the house and going outside once the worst of the storm had passed, but he needed to see the damage.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget walking out our front door about two hours after the worst of it had passed,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t have been out there, but I had to know.

“It was awful. But then a wonderful thing happened. People in the neighborhood just started cleaning up. Every day (in the immediate days after the storm) was just clearing debris, cooking food together and trying to contact home so people knew we were OK.”

John said he and Amanda were more fortunate than many other people in their neighborhood and across the island. The damage to their personal property was minimal but they were forced to move out of their apartment  because the generator that pumps water to their unit kept failing.

“For the first week, we had to use the cistern as a well and drop buckets down into it to get our water,” John said. “Everyone lost power and water and we’re still dealing with that. The devastation to the trees and public infrastructure was unbelievable. Our street was the only one that didn’t flood in the neighborhood so we were essentially trapped for about 10 days. Our only way out was to walk out into the ocean and around or drive the truck through waist-deep water.”

John noted that “nothing is normal down here right now” and offered sharp criticism of the United States government’s response to the crisis. Food, water and medicines are scarce and the majority of Puerto Rico residents are still without electricity.

“We were/are abandoned and still have not seen the type of response received by Texas or Florida,” John said. “It’s been almost 50 days since Irma hit us leaving some without power just from that brush.”

President Donald Trump has been criticized for what’s perceived by many as an insensitive response to the situation in Puerto Rico. John said Trump’s actions and public statements made in response to the crisis are “shameful.”

“How would you feel if you had just lost your home, your mother or father lay in a hot hospital bed without power to run their oxygen machine and the most powerful person in the world – the one person who could fix it all – threw paper towels at you?” John asked, referencing the well-publicized scene of the president nonchalantly pitching rolls of paper towels into a crowd of hurricane victims during a visit to Puerto Rico the week after the storm.

Amanda, who was born and raised in Puerto Rico, said the  Trump administration’s  response is disappointing but not surprising.

“Living in Puerto Rico has always felt like being a second-class citizen,” she said. “In that sense, we are not surprised by the response. However, his lack of sensibility and constant need to highlight how well his administration is responding to the crisis, while his blatant disregard for Puerto Rican people, is beyond anything we have experienced.”

Amanda urges Americans on the mainland who want to help improve the situation in Puerto Rico to contact their congressmen and urge them to provide the appropriate aid packages.

“In Puerto Rico, we don’t have voting members in Congress, so believe it or not, your voice counts more than ours,” she said.

John and Amanda stress that the hardship is very real and the recovery will take a long time, but both are optimistic Puerto Rico will bounce back because of the strong will of its people.

“Puerto Rico will recover because of the Puerto Rican people,” John said. “Despite being all but abandoned by the mainland and living without electricity for months, kindness and empathy are prevailing. I’m not saying that everyone is perfect and people don’t get angry, but at the end of the day people look out for each other in a way I haven’t seen since being back home in Glenwood. I like living here because the pace of life and the people, believe it or not, remind me of home.”

John and Amanda met while both were teaching in the Washington, D.C., public school system.  They moved to Puerto  Rico to be closer to Amanda’s family when she was selected for an executive director position at the Institute for Youth Development, a policy and advocacy organization affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club of Puerto Rico that focuses on children’s issues, especially poverty. John, the son of Dick and Linda LaRue of Glenwood, is employed at a private school as an instructional coach leading teacher professional development.