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Reflecting on his time in Puerto Rico, Charlie shares what he learned from the experiences of those impacted by the events of Hurricane Maria.

This week I have been delivering training and exercises in Puerto Rico, whilst learning from the experiences of those who were involved in Hurricane Maria. For this bulletin, I thought I would share some of the human experiences and what I learned from interviewing a number of those impacted by the hurricane.

For those of you who are not familiar with the incident, Puerto Rico was affected by Hurricane Irma first, which didn’t cause too much damage, but on Thursday 20th September 2017, Category 4 Hurricane Maria hit the island. The main impact of the hurricane was almost completely destroying the power grid of the island, leaving most people on the island without power. Now we have all had a power cuts for an hour or two, or even for a day, but to have no power for several months is a completely different experience. Lack of power had a domino effect on the island. Fairly quickly there was no water, as water needs electric pumps. The communication system went down, so there were no landlines, mobiles or internet. There was no electricity to power the fuel stations to pump fuel, so no transport. There was no refrigeration, so there was no fresh food in the supermarkets. Hospitals had limited generation, so had limited capacity and some drugs were not available due to lack of refrigeration. All those things which we expect as part of modern life were suddenly not available. 

Some of those I interviewed lived with no electricity for the first two months. There was a lot of tuna and spam eaten. Fresh food was available after a while and kept in coolers, which were kept cold with ice. Communal washing machines were set up for people to wash their clothes and the company provided their employees with ice, water and, as they were all “getting a bit hairy”, a barber service. In the first world, which Puerto Rico is, we don’t imagine that this could occur and we don’t imagine it happening to us. 

We hope this could not happen to us, as we are too organised and our emergency services would get the power up and running quickly. Our services are resilient, but that’s what those living in Puerto Rico thought before it happened.

The individuals I chatted to gave me a few good insights, which I think are useful for those of us planning for emergencies and the readers of this bulletin.

Even in these very extreme circumstances, society didn’t break down and life continued. There was some theft and looting, but what’s the use of looting a 50-inch TV if you have no power?  Things in short supply were stolen instead, such as fuel and generators. So, although there was theft, I was told it was not a huge problem. People helped their neighbours, one of the people I interviewed already had a generator and she put a cable over the wall, so her neighbour could power their fridge. People shared what they had, rather than unleashing anarchy.

There was a curfew at night, so if you were the only house with a light on in the neighbourhood, attracting the attention of undesirables and looters wasn’t really an issue. 

I always wondered whether people go to work in these circumstances, or if they stay at home and look after their families. On the whole, people went into work. Quite a lot of people said that work was an escape from being at home. For many, there was no power and therefore very little to do, plus all of the schools were shut, so there was actually a lot of boredom. This meant people were happy to go into work and liked the routine and purpose of it.   

I also wondered if people wanted to share their experiences and whether us interviewing them would bring back the trauma and pain of the event. I felt that people actually wanted to talk about it and wanted to share what happened to an outsider who was not involved. It was like therapy for them and they could have kept going for much longer than the time we had. My lesson is not to be afraid to speak to people about incidents they have been involved in, as they actually appreciate it. 

This next point is a very minor point, but it just shows that you can never predict the impact of a major incident. There was a plague of bees after the hurricane, as all the flowers were blown away and there was a huge number of bees around, presumably looking for pollen.

As a final point, I must salute the resilience of those who went through the hurricane and have now come out the other side. Many incidents are short and intense. This incident was perhaps not so intense, but much longer lasting and that is perhaps harder to experience than the shorter, more intense incidents.

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