When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico as a category 4 storm two weeks ago, Jennifer Bates was as prepared as she thought she could be. She had plenty of water, a full tank of gas, her iPhone was charged, and she had some cash. She planned to ride the storm out at home in San Juan, in her third-story condominium near the ocean.
“I’ve lived in Puerto Rico almost 30 years and I’ve been through so many watches and warnings that I know I have to buy batteries, stock up on water, and you have to fill your car with gas. Why? Because you can’t pump gas after the hurricane knocks out power, and there are huge lines,” Ms. Bates told The Times last Saturday evening while she visited with her mother, Nancy Wood, in Vineyard Haven. “You fill containers with water and put them in your freezer — big and small containers, and water bottles. A small bottle of water can act as a chunk of ice to keep your food cold and when it melts, you can drink it.”
She’d been through Hurricane George in 1998 in Puerto Rico, where it knocked out power for a couple of weeks.
“That was the first hurricane I went through and I got it,” she said. “I was petrified and realized how dangerous it is.”
To prepare for Maria, she put her valuables and important papers in plastic bags, wrapping them in towels and storing them in her washing machine and dryer. Ms. Bates ended up riding out Hurricane Maria in her bathtub, watching movies she’d downloaded on her iPhone, with earbuds in her ears and the sound turned way up. Her cat was panting next to her the whole time, Ms. Bates said.
She spent five hours in the tub, and once the worst was over, she couldn’t believe what she saw.
“This hurricane was so beyond what anyone could prepare for,” Ms. Bates said. “They interviewed a veteran of the Gulf War and he said this was worse than the war.”
Communication was not an option and the power lines were snapped. There were 3 million people without electricity. As soon as she could, she called her anxious mother on Martha’s Vineyard to tell her she was safe.
“I was so happy to hear from her,” Ms. Wood said.
A 1969 graduate of Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School, Ms. Bates has a home in West Tisbury as well as San Juan. She moved to Puerto Rico decades ago when her ex-husband was working for Carnival Cruise Lines. She founded PRSoft Inc., a tax software company in Puerto Rico, in 1993 and the business took off.
“The business was a success and the marriage was not. It was my lucky mistake,” she said.
Now she’s keeping in touch with all 20 of her employees, writing to each of them and feeling more than a little guilty that she was able to leave. One of Ms. Bates’ employees waited 16 hours in his car in a line to buy gasoline, and then could only purchase $10 worth because it’s being rationed. Another employee, Ms. Bates said, stood for eight hours in a line to buy ice and by the time he got there, it was mostly water.
CBS reporter David Begnaud, a journalist who Ms. Bates said is much admired in Puerto Rico for his accurate depiction of the crisis, tweeted near press time that only 7 percent of Puerto Rico has power. He reported that 69 percent of gas stations have fuel, 40 percent of land lines are working, 65 percent of the supermarkets are open, and 17 percent of the cell towers are operational.
In a rural area where a bridge washed away, Ms. Bates said the townspeople got together and used dead wire from electrical poles and fashioned a cable system to wade across a river. If someone in the village needed kerosene for a generator, she said, they crossed the river hanging onto the wire, then walked for two hours to a station for kerosene and back home again.
One of the things she did after the storm was to clear out a parking spot for her car; she’d left it up the street and there was plenty of sand, broken glass, and debris to clean up before she could bring it back. She could use her car to keep her iPhone charged.
While she swept up in the parking lot of her condo, a man came by and asked if she was doing all right. She noticed he was wearing a lanyard with an ID badge for Seaborne Air, a local airline. She asked him what was going on with the airports and told him that she had reservations to see her mother on the mainland for her birthday but that they’d been canceled.
“He said not to make any reservations online,” Ms. Bates said. Instead, he told her to go to the airport in person the next day and go to the JetBlue agent’s desk.
At the airport, Ms. Bates said, there were a hundred people at the departures entrance, being held back by armed guards. She went downstairs to the arrivals exit, through the shattered glass of a door normally used as exit only. She went up the down escalator, which was not running since there was no power. She found someone who looked official and asked how she could fix her canceled reservations and he pointed her in the right direction, where she was able to talk to a JetBlue agent after waiting over an hour along with people in wheelchairs, mothers fanning babies, and everyone sweating in the 100-degree heat. They were running special planes with humanitarian flights over the next few days. The agent told her that in order to get to Boston, she might have to go to Ft. Lauderdale or JFK Airport in New York first.
“I thought I’ll fly to any city in the U.S., and find my own way. At that point I thought, fly me to Seattle and I’ll find my way to Boston,” Ms. Bates said.
The agent printed her ticket and told her to be there at 9 am the next morning. Ms. Bates grabbed a few things and stuffed them in a bag, and prepared to leave home early the next morning — day six after the hurricane — to be sure she got on the flight. “I didn’t believe it until the plane’s wheels came up and I could breathe.”
She said 100 people were in line at the airport when she made her plans, but those lines days later grew into the thousands.
Safe and sound on the Island now, Ms. Bates said she has seen media reports that offer all kinds of speculation and opinions on what’s happening in Puerto Rico, a place she has grown to love.
“I found out there’s a lot of good about [Puerto Rico],” she said. “The heart of the people is very forgiving, very generous. If they were cooking their last cup of rice, they’d give it to you. . . . There’s only 11 degrees between winter and summer. Who wouldn’t want to live in the Caribbean on the beach?”
Ms. Bates bought a Nov. 1 return ticket to Puerto Rico a few days ago.
“I’ll go back when there’s electricity at my home and my office,” she said. “Besides, you are using up resources that people who are stuck there really need. I’ll wait until there’s enough to go around.”
She’s read and seen a lot of news reporting in the U.S., and said she wishes the situation wasn’t politicized.
“Lots of people on social media are fighting about whose fault it is that Puerto Rico is still pretty much in the dark,” she said. “They blame our president, the governor of Puerto Rico, the mayor of San Juan, the local truckers.”
In the aftermath of the hurricane, political pundits in the U.S. weighed in on the president’s feud with professional football players who kneel during the national anthem, some say at the expense of reporting on the drastic situation in Puerto Rico. The New York Times reported Sept. 26 that a poll indicated only half of Americans know that those born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. President Donald Trump visited Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, on Tuesday, and news outlets began to disparage the remarks he made there almost immediately.
All she can do, Ms. Bates said, is her best to communicate what the situation is like, and to try to raise funds to help recovery efforts. She said she’d also like to remind Islanders that they should be sure their hurricane preparations are in order.
“This storm wreaked the kind of havoc that nobody was prepared for. The top general said it’s the worst he’s ever seen. Let’s accept all the help we can get from all sources, let them work it out together. Everybody there is doing the best they can. Let the workers do their thing and little by little it will get better.”
The best thing to do right now, she said, is to send monetary donations to https://www.rotary.org/en/rotary-helps-disaster-victims.