In San Juan, focus shifts to serving Puerto Ricans across the island
By Hilary Reeves
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico and Tropical Shipping employees living and working in the Caribbean knew Hurricane Maria was slated to do significant damage to their island homes. And still, when the winds quieted and they stepped out into the newfound silence, the realization of all they had lost took their breath away.
“When I opened the door and saw the landscape for the first time, I immediately started crying. Everything was gone,” said Eileen Zavala, a Traffic and Regulatory Generalist for TMPR. “But we were alive. That’s all that mattered at the time.”
Only one of Tropical Shipping’s 10 San Juan employees has electricity. Only a few more have running water. Most have experienced significant damage to their homes. Immediately following the storm, four Tropical employees and their families spent several nights sleeping in the company’s office building because their homes were so damaged and they had nowhere else to go.
One Tropical employee on Turks & Caicos, a single mom with two young children, climbed with her children into an under-sink cabinet when she felt her house start to give way. When she emerged from the cabinet, she was outside. Her house had blown away around her.
Similar stories emerged from Dominica, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Tortola. The damage is unique to each case, but every island employee of the two companies has been affected.
“We’re so fortunate that no one was hurt after the two hurricanes and a couple of major rain events that have followed, through we had a couple of close calls in Dominica,” said Mark Chapman, Vice President of Business Operations at Tropical Shipping.
Yahaira Roman-Sosa works in San Juan as an Executive Administrator and Business Analyst for TMPR. She began as a temp in December of 2010, and was hired full-time the following May.
“My family experienced Hurricane Georges back in 1998,” said Roman-Sosa. “I was a little kid. I grew up on the southwest coast of the island, about 120 miles away from San Juan. I lived in a wooden house, and we lost everything in that storm. So I knew what could happen. Honestly, I didn’t think about me much; I was more worried about my family that still lived in that area.”
In the days leading up to the storm, Roman-Sosa said she was calm.
“TOTE gives you a sense that everything is going to be okay,” she said. “On that Tuesday, we went to work expecting to work the entire day. The wind started picking up, and we got word that we were to leave at midday.”
Roman-Sosa returned to the ground-floor apartment she shared with her boyfriend and dog in San Juan.
“Usually, it is very hot on our island,” she said. “I remember the cool breeze – I remember wanting to get out and enjoy the breeze. It’s like there was change in the air, like things were never going to be the same.”
Roman-Sosa stocked the only windowless room in her apartment – a small storeroom – with everything she could think of: food, water, dog food, and tools. She was tired, and fell asleep Tuesday night, only to wake at 2 a.m. to the sound of a freight train slamming her building. Then flooding.
“The winds were horrible. Never-ending. When the eye came, I remember Georges’s eye, and how we were able to go outside and evaluate the damage. But this eye wasn’t very calm at all. I went outside and was able to listen to the island’s one working radio station, and people were calling in and I remember thinking, ‘I can’t listen to this. They’re not saying what I want to hear.’ In less that five minutes, the scary winds were back.”
The winds didn’t subside until Wednesday evening.
Roman-Sosa remembers she and her neighbors, many of whom she had never even met before, working together to clear the pathways leading to and throughout the building. Though the storm had passed San Juan, she knew it was pounding away on her family in Cabo Rojo to the west.
“My boyfriend and I knew that all of our family was being hit at that time. That was harder than being in the storm.”
Roman-Sosa’s car was undamaged, and she left her apartment complex on Friday morning to report to work.
“Luckily, it was not that bad in the port itself,” she said. “We were immediately struck by the feeling that the island needs us now.”
On Saturday, she and her boyfriend attempted the two-hour drive to contact their respective families, as other forms of communication were impossible. They had a little more than a half-tank of gas, and a hand-drawn map.
“We had to keep backtracking because bridges were down and roads were gone,” she said. “We would stop and talk to people, and have them redraw our map based on what they knew were passable routes.”
In all, the trip to Roman-Sosa’s parents’ home took almost five hours.
“My mother started to cry when she saw me.”
Roman-Sosa said TOTE has given its employees, and by extension their families, unimaginable relief in the wake of the storm.
“I’m sitting in a room full of food right now that is available for us to eat every day,” she said. “In San Juan, we’re able to go into the stores, go into Sam’s Club and get most of what we need. Things are easing for us. But not for the rest of the island. Every time I go to visit my family, I take everything the company has given me that I haven’t yet used. We are great here thanks to TOTE; we just need to spread that greatness to the rest of the island.”
Zavala, meanwhile, has worked for TMPR for 10 years. She, too, remembers Hurricane Georges. She was 10 years old.
“I just remember a lot of noise,” she said. “With Maria, I can’t say that I was prepared. It wasn’t the same.”
Zavala, her husband, two daughters ages four and two, mother, brother, sister, and brother-in-law, all rode out the storm in Zavala’s home in San Lorenzo, near San Juan.
“I was waiting for the storm to hit Tuesday night, and I went to sleep,” she said. “Then all the windows and doors started shaking. I was very scared. I started praying.”
After the storm, Zavala said she derived strength from her mother.
“It’s not easy, but when you have people around you who are all on the same page, you think, ‘we can do it.’”
Zavala is also quick to credit her company as a source of comfort in the wake of the storm.
“The first thing the company showed us was, ‘okay, I’m with you.’ That makes us feel more than safe. More like family. They didn’t wait for us to ask for things, they just sent them. I’m very, very thankful. I know right now my family needs me, but I know too that the island needs us. So we have to keep working to help everybody.
“I just want to say ‘thank you.’ I know that it’s not enough, but I don’t know what else to say. I remember that a couple of days after the storm, I went to my house with a lot of boxes, with food, milk for my babies, Pampers, and my mother asked me, ‘Where did you get that from? You were working.’ And I said, “Yes, the company gave this to us.’ And she started crying and she said, ‘You see, God never leaves us.’”