On September 15, 2017, DSFederal Business Development Specialist Larysa Nazarenko flew to Puerto Rico for what was supposed to be a well-deserved vacation, but instead turned out to be a first-hand look at one of the worst hurricanes in decades. Stranded for five days on the small U.S. territory, Larysa spent several days in a government-run shelter where residents and visitors weathered the storm together.
As Larysa explains, Puerto Rico had already suffered a direct hit by Hurricane Irma, which damaged infrastructure and caused shortages of gasoline and other essentials. Although the Puerto Rican government prepared thoroughly for Maria’s arrival, the island hadn’t yet recovered from Irma, leaving it even more vulnerable when Category 5 Maria struck.
The night before Maria was expected to arrive, Larysa was evacuated from the vacation property where she was staying. The storm began at about 6 in the morning, and from the small motel that served as a shelter, she heard winds “that sounded like jet engines right overhead.” After nine hours, the winds subsided; and the following day, Larysa was able to leave the shelter. “It looked like Chernobyl,” she said, describing a landscape of downed trees and power lines, badly damaged and destroyed buildings, and widespread flooding.
After the storm, Larysa and her traveling companion spent several days trying to get on a flight back to the mainland. With the electrical grid almost completely destroyed, nearly all of Puerto Rico was without power, making communications and transportation extremely difficult. Additionally, credit card and payment systems were also out of order, meaning that cash was the only payment option for food, water, and transportation around the island. Larysa and her friend shared money with a Wisconsin man who had run out of cash. The man had been on vacation in the USVI, and had evacuated to Puerto Rico when Irma struck. That kindness was repaid when another man offered to drive Larysa and her friend to the airport, as ground transportation was nearly impossible to find. They waited for many hours at the airport, and were finally able to secure seats on a humanitarian flight off the island. After five days with no electricity or running water, and very little food or water, “home felt like a five-star hotel.”
Larysa was dismayed to find that even the beautiful resort areas of Puerto Rico are plagued by poverty. “It’s very sad,” she said, explaining that food, medicine, clothing, gasoline, and other essentials are far more expensive in Puerto Rico than on the mainland, while its people’s incomes lag far behind. She praised Puerto Rico’s people and its government, noting that although the island was already weakened by Irma, the Puerto Rican authorities had a well-organized evacuation and rescue plan for residents and visitors alike. Although Larysa is very happy to be home, she is also sad for the millions of people in Puerto Rico who will struggle to survive during the long rebuilding process.
Many Americans, witnessing the devastation wrought by the 2017 hurricane season, have been eager to help in some way. Larysa (who donated to the Red Cross), recommends this PBS NewsHour article's list of reputable charities that are providing relief to the people of Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Florida, and Texas. FEMA also offers ways to help, and ways to prepare for future disasters. We are very grateful for Larysa's safe return, and hope for a quick and successful rebuilding effort for beautiful Puerto Rico.