On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma missed San Juan by 45 miles after being declared an “extremely dangerous” atmospheric event. Still, Puerto Rico's electrical grid was destroyed beyond repair. And just as some people were starting to rebuild what they had lost, a second hurricane — Hurricane María — came to finish what Irma had started.
In September 2017, I’d just celebrated my first year working out of college, at a fashion magazine on the island, but I was ready to move on. Luckily, another company in New York was interested in my work. The day following Irma — after climbing to my childhood home’s roof to check my email, since that was the only place where the signal was strong enough — I got an official job offer. I remember laughing in excitement with my dad after he stopped taking the hurricane shutters off our home’s windows.
I was set to leave the island on Friday, Sept. 22, and start my new job on Oct. 2. I planned to stay at an Airbnb with my best college friends for three days, and then stay at another friend’s apartment in Brooklyn until I found my own place. In my mind, I just had to ride out this second hurricane, and I could be on my way to my dream life.
Hurricane María hit on Sept. 20 at 6:15 a.m., coming in through the south. The wind was too loud for me to sleep and the lights had gone out. My dad and I decided to sit it out while my mom slept through it. But it wouldn’t be too long until we could hear our home struggling to keep itself together. An hour later, I found myself sitting in the hallway, where I felt the safest. My knees were against my chest and I sobbed into my arms, praying to God to make it stop. If there was ever a time in my life when I thought I would die, it was that morning.
At some point during the night, every radio and TV station went off the air. María had taken down every single antenna on the island. We didn’t know if people had died — it would turn out that at least 2,975 had died as a result, as the Puerto Rican government acknowledged nearly a year later — and we didn’t know if the island had been torn in half. We only knew that the three of us were safe. The day after the storm, we ventured out in our car to see just how bad things were. Ceiba trees were uprooted from the ground, homes had collapsed, roofs had been ripped, and furniture littered people’s backyards.
In the darkness that followed, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave.
Obviously, I didn’t leave on Sept. 22 as I’d planned. My flight was canceled five times. I remember one of the airline representatives saying during one of my many phone calls: “We aren’t risking the lives of our crew members because you guys don’t have an airport tower anymore. They could die trying to get to you.” They couldn’t even come for those dying in hospitals. They were definitely not going to come and get me out of the island, so I could start my new job.
So, of course, I stayed and helped my parents deal with the aftermath. We stood in line at gas stations for more than eight hours just to fill up gas tanks. My mom was happy to cook because it gave her something to do. My dad had gone straight to work fixing our home — part of our roof had been ripped during the storm. We got used to cold showers, intense heat, darkness, and generator noises.
But in the darkness that followed, I realized that I wasn’t ready to leave. I hadn’t fully digested that I was leaving home for good; that I wasn’t going to see my parents, my family, and my friends like I used to before. In a fucked-up way, María blessed me with a few extra weeks to be with my family.
On Oct. 3, I was finally able to get on a plane to NYC. It wasn’t as glamorous as I planned it to be. I didn’t feel like Carrie Bradshaw or Serena van der Woodsen. I started working the very next day. My new coworkers — who knew I’d been delayed because of the hurricane — would ask how my family was, and I teared up every time. I had to deal with the on-and-off phone signal, worrying if my family had spent eight hours in line for food or gas. I worried about them having access to their medication. And I had to worry about myself, too, navigating this brand-new city all by myself.
Since María, I’ve visited Puerto Rico three times. You can still see homes with blue tarp roofs, collapsed billboards, and abandoned buildings that just didn’t survive. Everywhere you go, María is still the main character. But up in Spanish Harlem, where I live now, I’ve managed to get a better grasp of my new city. The very first person that I met as I arrived with two suitcases was my super's wife, who was Puerto Rican, too. She helped me climb up to the third floor and told me that she'd send over some sofrito. The very next day as I walked the sidewalks of my new neighborhood, salsa music played from the windows, and Puerto Rican flags blew from window sills and tree branches. My ears heard only Spanish. Everywhere I looked, my culture was all around.
Maybe my life in NYC didn’t start as I had planned. Maybe my life in Puerto Rico — for the time being — didn’t come to an end as I had wanted it. But the sense of Puerto Rican community on the island and in NYC is stronger than ever — which makes them both my home.