My Hurricane Maria Story: Paul and Sarah Ratliff

A Little About Me/Us

I am in my early 50s and married to Paul, who's in his mid-50s. In September 2018, three days before Hurricane Maria’s first anniversary, we will celebrate our 10th anniversary living in Puerto Rico. Yes, we moved here during hurricane season.

Paul was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and I was raised in New York City. We are corporate escapees turned eco-organic farmers.

Paul and I have always personified the “square pegs in round holes” moniker—we just never fit well into mainstream society. After 20+ years in Corporate America, Paul and I quit our jobs and sold our house in Southern California and moved to Puerto Rico to buy our farm.

We moved to the interior of the island to the very remote town of Utuado (north of Ponce and south of Arecibo, where the largest observatory in the Northern Hemisphere is) where there aren’t many Americans, which was by design. It’s not that we don’t like Americans; we just felt we didn’t move all the way to a new country to live near people we could have met if we’d moved to another state.

Although we made friends easily—despite only speaking about five words of Spanish between us when we arrived—people did wonder why we picked Utuado. I’m sure initially folks were wary of us.

For us the answer was simple: it was in the mountains, land was inexpensive, and having both grown up in cities, we wanted to live in the campo, meaning the countryside, because we correctly assumed people were friendly and had no need to “keep up with the Joneses.”

One friend speculated we were in witness protection and the U.S. government picked Utuado because it was the last place anyone would come looking for us. We still have a good laugh with Miguel over this.

Getting away from what we’d known our whole lives was something we both wanted but we also did our best to integrate and make friends. And we have. Ten years in and we’ve got lots of friends, both in Utuado and all over the island.

For us this was the most important part of being prepared for a hurricane, which we knew would happen eventually, or any other shit that could hit the fan. In California we lived next to people who said a total of ten words to us in the eight years we lived there. We could be on fire, drowning or being murdered and none of them would have come to our rescue.

Ah suburban life…

From day one in Utuado, we were extremely friendly and not standoffish, which helped us out a lot when we could hardly string two words together. It has certainly made a difference in both our day-to-day life and also since Hurricane Maria hit. We feel very much part of our community.

As we built our farm, we always had preparedness in mind. We have six goats, who live outside 360+ days a year in elevated wooden pens. They also have hurricane shelters under the house that—like our house—were built to withstand a category 5 hurricane.

We have six cisterns on the farm (one is on top of our house) that hold between 400 and 1200 gallons of water. Because we have frequent power outages that can come out of nowhere and last anywhere from ten minutes to several days, we have had a generator since 2012.

We have had dogs (German Shepherds) since our third month on the island. We don’t have anyone living next door and we’re 45 minutes from the police and nearest hospital, so they’re not just our kids, they’re our first line of protection.

We’ve always been ones to stockpile non-perishable food, water filters, gas for the stove and generator. We assumed after Hurricane Maria left, we’d be shut in a while. 

Hurricane Maria From My/Our Personal Experience

Each hurricane season we told ourselves this was the year a big one was going to hit Puerto Rico. Once Houston and Florida were hit, we actually relaxed a little. When Irma hit the U.S.V.I., St. Maarten and Barbuda, and did a drive by on Puerto Rico two weeks earlier, like most people here, thought we'd dodged a bullet—this year. It was almost surreal when another hurricane was on Irma's tail, which looked formidable. 

Although we'd been preparing for years, it's not the same as "Oh shit! She's coming in just three days!"—which was all the notice we got for Maria.

We rushed to board up the windows, put as much away as we could that could be blown away, and put as many of our farm animals in the hurricane shelters.

Hurricane Maria's eye was projected to be over Lago Dos Boca (Lake of the two mouths), which is almost visible from our farm.

We tracked Maria's trajectory every few hours and the radar continued to indicate Maria would enter the island in Humacao (on the east coast), her eye would be over Lago Dos Boca (Lake of the two mouths) in Utuado and exit between Arecibo and Aguadilla. We knew this meant damage would considerable all over the island but extensive in the towns closest to us—Ciales and Florida to our east, Adjuntas and Jayuya to our south and Arecibo and Hatillo to our north—but Utuado would likely take the brunt of her wrath. 

Three days isn't long to prepare for anyone's wrath but we did what we could. With all the windows boarded up, the animals in their shelters, at some point we resigned ourselves that there was really not much more we could do and so we locked ourselves in the house and waited. 

We ate a really nice meal by candlelight, which we posted on Facebook and called it "The Last Supper," which in hindsight is pretty perverse for two atheists. 

We talked a lot over that dinner. We always do but the conversation was different that night. The phrase, "in the event of" came up frequently. 

We fell asleep around 10:00 p.m., like we normally did. Maria woke us up around 2:00 a.m. At first she wasn’t very loud but I can say this felt like the other tropical storms we’d experienced in years past that have hit the Caribbean, usually passing no more than a toe onto Puerto Rico—but more: bigger, louder, more intense and angrier.

Hurricanes and Tropical Storms are unlike “regular” storms with heavy wind and rain in temperate climates because hurricanes go in circles, like waves. It's not a continuous thing like regular storms. There are moments of very high wind and rain followed by complete calm. The time in between the two extremes gets shorter as the storm intensifies and it's even more intense when the eye is approaching. 

Although the wind and rain were heavy, they didn't "feel" or "seem" like a category 5. 

When it was calm for a while, we figured the eye was over us. How we "knew" for certain I can't recall now but we did know. We took the dogs outside for a walk. We looked around and saw there was practically no damage: one felled tree and lots of leaves blown around. We counted ourselves really fortunate as we went back in the house. 

It's difficult to describe what it felt like as Maria's back half started whipping around. The best description I can come up with is that there was this mean monster outside who wanted to kick our asses. No, she wanted to kill us.

At first she was annoying, throwing a few small pebbles and branches at the house. But when we ignored her, she got really angry and threw rocks and bigger branches. Her wind made noises I'd never heard before. It was ominous, that’s all I can say.

At some point she amped things up and made it clear she was no longer interested in talking things out. We heard things outside breaking and heavy things falling against the house, so we started playing a game called "Guess what this bitch fucked up on our farm." 

I am not sure how many times I asked Paul, "are you sure the house can take this beating?" "Are you sure the boards over the windows won’t snap in half, breaking the windows to let her in?" "Will all those rocks and branches being hurled at the house eventually make it in?" 

After a several hours of Maria destroying our farm and then trying her hardest to get in the house to kill us, after I asked those questions one too many times, Paul rolled us both a couple of joints of the strongest medical marijuana I had. (Thank you, Puerto Rico.)

We both smoked one joint each and our hearts stopped pounding out of control. I can't tell you we were no longer afraid but we weren't jumping out of our skin with each crash in the farm, loud howl and things being hurled at the house. 

When it was safe to go outside again, which was at about 1:30 p.m. the next day (maybe 12 hours after she arrived), the devastation to our farm was heartbreaking. We’d spent the last 9 years building something that was supposed to feed us the rest of our lives and in an instant it was gone.

Paul’s pickup truck—parked in front of the house—was buried under so much debris. Turning the corner, we checked on my car. While it too was buried, it was fine. A felled tree missed it by less than two feet.

Sarah's car (which she sold in January 2018) buried under branches and leaves that fell during Hurricane Maria.

The driveway from our house to the gate, which is maybe 500 feet, was covered in branches, trees, leaves and all of it was wet and very slippery.

From the stairs to our roof looking out toward Arecibo.

We could barely walk to the gate because the new ground cover wasn’t level. And the few holes we could find were often smaller than our feet. The dogs found ways to burrow but we didn’t have that advantage.

The front of our house.

Once outside the gate, we looked down and up the road. More of the same. As we made our way up the road, about 700 feet from our gate, we saw the mudslide. Shit, there was no way we would be able to get out for a few weeks until the city sent a digger.

Yum Yum pointing out the destroyed fence in the goat's pen.

We went to work immediately. We got machetes, branch clippers and a chainsaw, and we started trying to cut our way out. My job was to clear the driveway, through the gate and up to the mudslide well enough so we could get Paul’s truck—which is a 4x4—out.

Paul’s job was to work on the trees that came down in the mudslide. Our respective jobs, we figured, would take us several days, maybe a week or more. By Saturday (so two days later), Paul told me he could only get the mudslide cleared to a certain point and then we’d need a digger. He thought it was possible we could take some of the largest pieces of the trees he’d cut, place them one in front of the other and put some of the mud on top of them. With plywood on both ends, maybe we could drive a 4x4 over it and get out.

Those aren't deciduous trees. They've just had the crap beaten out of them by Hurricane Maria.
The only reason that container didn't fall over is that it's holding 400 gallons of potable water.

Maybe not. But he kept cutting and throwing smaller pieces into the farm while he saved larger ones just in case he could make a ramp out of them.

On Sunday following the hurricane, we heard a familiar voice. Olga and her brother Mickey came to check on us. We all hugged each other for a while—a long while. They inspected the damage and agreed it was pretty bad but we couldn’t allow ourselves to think about that just then. We had to get out. We had to keep cleaning. We couldn’t stop.

Although we had more than enough food, water, gas, etc. to last us a while, psychologically, the sooner we got out, the better.

Olga told us that this was the only mudslide big enough to prevent us from driving down the hill to town. I asked if I could borrow her car. I’d heard that Dorado, in the metro area, had cellular signal. I wanted to call three people: Sylvia and Kathy (Paul’s sisters) and Deb (who works for me). Three days had gone by and they hadn’t known if we were alive or dead. I know they were worried.

On Tuesday when I borrowed Olga’s car to get to Dorado, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Coming down the hill from our house to town was a horror show.

Wood houses and cement houses with wood roofs were completely trashed. But not all the cement houses did so well. I saw many that were victims of mudslides and the ground just giving way under them.

Zinc roofing from the cow farm about 2 miles from our house.

The corrugated zinc roofing from the cow farm had been ripped off and was now lying on the side of the road maybe 500 feet away.

I cried all the way down the hill. I imagined there were people in the homes at the time that had been ripped to shreds or were now lying on their sides. I later read the highest number of deaths from Hurricane Maria were in Utuado. I hoped the cows weren’t hurt. (I can tell you none or very few were harmed.)

Driving on the highway gave me the same feeling as driving on the California freeway after 9/11. Drivers were courteous and more careful than normal. Nobody was in so much of a hurry they couldn’t stop and help others—with directions, a flat, whatever. I saw several cars on the shoulder of the highway. I never did figure out whether they’d gotten a glimpse of a cell signal or if they’d run out of gas.

Gas…

Every gas station had lines that were really, really long and around the block. Bank machines were also around the block. I had cash on me but I made a dreadful discovery as I was about halfway to Dorado. My phone service was disconnected.

Paul and I have what’s called prepago phones. They’re prepaid and without a contract. We quickly learned after moving here they’re far cheaper than ones with contracts. The only problem is, they need to be recharged every 30 days and that was one of those things (the first of a few) I hadn’t taken care of before the hurricane.

In Utuado, I go to any gas station or the Claro (the Caribbean version of Verizon) store to recharge them. I couldn’t even get into a gas station without an angry mob assuming I was jumping ahead of them. I couldn’t risk it.

So there I was: on the highway, following the most devastating hurricane Puerto Rico had seen in about 80 years, 40 miles from home and no cell phone. And then I discovered I only had a quarter tank of gas. Great. I kept telling myself how stupid I was.

I got to Dorado. The first thing I did was hit the police station. I told them my situation. They were very helpful. They asked if I knew anyone in Dorado. Yes, I had. OMG! Paul and I have friends in Dorado who also own a farm in Utuado.

The desk sergeant offered me his phone and I called first the wife. No answer. I tried the husband. No answer. I called one of their sons. “Javi!!!! So good to hear your voice!” I told him my story. He told me to hold tight and his parents would be there to pick me up in ten minutes.

They had me follow them back to their house, which Paul and I had never been to. They told me that Javi was on line to get gas for the generator and his car and that they’d let me siphon off enough to get home. I told them how stupid I felt passing up a gas station in Utuado that had a line only an hour long.

I grossly underestimated the severity of the situation. It was my second example that hurricanes aren’t a singular event. The first being the houses on our mountain road that were destroyed.

They offered me lunch and water. We talked for a while. I told them about the damage to our farm. I told them it was pretty extensive. Paul and I had been so isolated up there, we hadn’t known about the damage to the island. I learned about the multiple mudslides, causing road closures, just in Utuado and the surrounding areas.

Major country roads (I know, it sounds like an oxymoron) were closed. One was the 140 (which connects Utuado to other towns and what many use instead of the highway) was closed in both directions.

As I waited in their home, I used the husband’s phone and I tried numerous times to get Sylvia, Kathy and Deb. I was unsuccessful each time.

They promised to keep trying after I left.

Javi came home and they filled Olga’s car enough to get me back home. They told me to hurry because there was a curfew in effect. There was? None in Utuado that we had been aware of.

I left. It took me four hours to get home. Normally the drive from Dorado to our house should take about 90 minutes. I arrived to Olga’s after dark. They walked with me using flashlights all the way to my house (about ¾ of a mile).

Paul was furious when I got home. I hadn’t imagined I’d be getting home after 8:00. Without a cell signal, he couldn’t call to see if I was alive or lying in a ditch somewhere. He said he was scared out of his mind for me. I told him about my day and he calmed down.

“These are extraordinary times.” He said.

Once I was confident our friends would try non-stop until they got Sylvia (who would post on Facebook so our friends would know we were fine), the next psychological need was to start cleaning the farm. I continued cleaning the driveway. I cut dead tree branches that lay across the driveway or hung over it. I cut and cut and cut and my fingers were calloused and sore.

I must have thrown a hundred or more cut up trees down the hill into our farm. Nothing like cut up trees for amazing compost.

Part of the goat fence was destroyed.

Prior to Maria we had two compost pits. After Maria we had several, all over the place. There was so much debris: leaves, twigs, seeds, pebbles, rocks, branches, fruit that had the crap beaten out of it. With the wheelbarrow, I made something like 2 or 3,000 trips to these new compost pits—or so it seemed.

When one was almost as tall as me, I looked for a spot for a new one and started filling that one as high as I could make it.

What was once our nursery.

That was my day. I knew Paul’s was harder. He had to clear the road, which would allow others down the hill to get out and go to work, and we could get out. It’s difficult to describe what cleaning that mudslide meant but it was a physical and psychological barrier that had to be removed.

Bamboo ripped from the ground like it was just a grain of sand.

Our days were the same. Once everyone was fed, we put back on the same stinky clothes we’d taken off the night before (why get fresh ones???), and got out the machetes, chain saw, rakes, and whatever other tools we needed to clean our immediate surroundings and the road. We took pee breaks, a half hour for lunch, 20 minutes for a nap and back out we went. We were drinking about two gallons of water a day and at times we still felt faint and tired.

We both felt like we were starting to lose weight.

 

On the second Saturday after the hurricane, I guess that was September 30th, Paul and I were sitting on the patio having breakfast. We were going over the plan (again) for how we would pile the bigger pieces of the cut up trees together with the mud to get his truck over and we hoped out. I think Paul was starting to get cabin fever.

This time we had what sounded like a solid plan, so we agreed that after breakfast this was the day we’d try it. Just as we were psyching ourselves up for another day of backbreaking work, we heard a sound we hadn’t heard in a long time.

Too large to be car or a pickup, and much noisier, we both shouted at the same time, “Digger!!!!!”

We jumped to our feet, put on clothes that weren’t as stinky, and sprinted out to the road. There was indeed a digger and with it an entourage. In front and behind the digger were guys with chainsaws and machetes, which they hadn’t needed to use much of because Paul had really done a good job to clear the area, hoping for this day.

Digger guy, machete and chainsaw guys were dressed as you might expect: in clothes that suggested they worked hard for a living. Their boots were appropriately worn and dirty, as were their shirts and pants.

But then there was something we hadn’t expected. Poor digger guy, machete and chainsaw guys were accompanied by some politico (councilman? Senator? Who knew?) who looked like such a pretty boy in his perfectly coifed hair, brand new work boots, perfectly creased jeans and a starched shirt.

The glare from the gold chain around his neck and the strong cologne wafting from him gave me a huge migraine.

But I didn’t care! Digger guy was here! It took about 45 minutes or maybe an hour and just like that we were free!

The mudslide outside our house.

Freedom!!!

Although we could leave now, we still had so much work to do in the farm.

Our next priority was to assess the damage to our farm. We estimated it would cost us about $20,000 to get the farm back to where it was. We’d have to buy dozens of chains for our two chainsaws, water pumps, wood to fix the goat pen, new plants, seeds, etc. etc.

One day in October I developed this problem in my left hand. My pinky and ring fingers started going numb—like all the time. I figured it was my carpal tunnel returning. I started sleeping with a wrist brace but that didn’t help. It was becoming difficult to continue cleaning and raking. I couldn’t hold the rake well or the machete.

About two weeks later I noticed my pinky and ring fingers were folding and at some point I could no longer reopen them. It’s like they had formed a claw.

When I could no longer hold a fork in my left hand, I knew it was time to go to my doctor. She ordered an MRI of my neck. It revealed nothing. When the muscles in my hand started to show signs of atrophy, she sent me to the top neurosurgeon on the island. She knew I needed surgery to correct this but she didn’t know why it was happening.

The problem was that the hospital where this surgeon worked was still running on a generator. I had to wait to see him until they were operating normally. All over the island people had medical needs as severe as mine but weren’t emergent, so we all had to wait.

I had done some Googling and figured what I had developed wasn’t carpal tunnel but rather Cubital Tunnel, also known as ulnar nerve entrapment. In my case, I had decided, I had subluxation, which means the nerve had come out of where it normally lives (in the ulnar bone) and was flouncing around, which is what was causing the 24/7 numbness.

In late November I reached his office and made an appointment for December 1st. He took one look and together with my inconclusive MRI, and he excused himself.

When he returned, I asked, “Is it ulnar nerve entrapment?”

“How did you know?” He asked.

“Claw hand. I have the classic symptoms.”

“Yes, you do but what worries me is the atrophy. Your case is rapid and very advanced. I am going to call my colleague. I work on necks and spines and he works with carpal and cubital tunnels. I haven’t seen this since I was in residency. I know he sees this all the time but I don’t. Good call, by the way!”

The next day I saw his colleague and 9 days later I was wheeled into the operating room. The surgeon was pretty certain I was right, that my nerve was bouncing around (vs. simply pinched) and he’d have to do what’s called transposition, where he tucks the ulnar under a muscle and sews it in there. With instructions not to lift anything over 5 pounds, right in the middle of cleaning up the farm, I had to stop. I had to rest and allow the ulnar a chance to live in its new home.

As I write this, it’s been nearly three months since surgery (December 10th) and I am all healed up. I can work on the farm and in my business. The farm is still a mess but much, much better than it was in the first few days after Maria hit us and destroyed it.

Paul and I estimate it will be at least six months before the farm is clean enough to start planting again.

The people of Puerto Rico are trying to be normal but we’re anything but normal. Many of us still don’t have electricity, which is well documented on the news. Cleanup efforts around the island are haphazard and inconsistent. My guess is that as money trickles in, contractors and employees of the government and utility company can do more. Aid has been non-existent from the U.S.

I fear the U.S. isn’t going to cut us loose but is letting us languish and die a slow death.

Reactions My/Our Friends and Family Outside Puerto Rico Had to What My Family and I Have Gone Through

“Maria can’t have been that bad. People have gotten on with their lives. They’re going out to the movies and dinner. How bad could it have been?” It’s important after a natural disaster (or anything that changes life so dramatically) to get out and try to be normal as quickly as possible. It doesn’t mean the damage wasn’t extensive. Maybe try reading the news and seeing for yourself.

“Are you moving back home to the U.S.?” Um, we are home. And where would home be? New York City, Washington, D.C. or Southern California, where we left for a reason?

My/Our Thoughts On The Slow Recovery Process

I haven’t been shy about my feelings toward El Presidente in the White House. His lack of caring for our situation exemplifies why many loathe him. That he gave the island $2 billion of the $97 the governor asked for isn’t surprising at all.

As I said earlier, I think the U.S. wants to see us suffer and just go away. The unfortunate fact is that the United States government continues to remind us we have been relegated to second-class status, suspended in the netherworld between statehood and independence.

People have asked me, "well if you want independence, why should the U.S. help Puerto Rico?" Or "If Puerto Rico isn't a state, why should the U.S. help?"

Because, what people want and what the reality is are two different things. We are a colony of the U.S. and the U.S. can't just leave us like this. It is but it's not what they're supposed to do with its territories.

 

Changes I Wasn’t/We Weren't Expecting

The biggest one is that relationships change. People we had been good friends with aren’t really a part of our life anymore. It’s painful because something this big brings out who we really are and no amount of caring for someone can change that.

Some people dig in, others blame and sometimes people stick their heads in the sand and rely on religion or someone “bigger” than themselves to get their heads out. Paul and I can’t afford to be mired down in the blame game or wait for someone or God to help us. We have to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We’re deeply saddened to see two relationships just go.

L to R: Me, Christal and Sheila.

But we’ve made new friends: Sheila, Mikey, Christal and Kike, thank you! And we’ve held tight to friends we truly want to be around. The biggest ones were Tina and the Sedas: Hector, Wendy, Cristal, Damarys and Zamarys.

Front to back: Hector, Paul, me and in back is Wendy

Another is how much I change. I deleted over 1500 people on Facebook. I am down to people who know me in person or I really want to be around. I just can’t with the superficial anymore.

Lastly I no longer feel it's important to be Black, White, Multiracial or whatever. I have spent 50 years justifying my racial identity. But I no longer live in the U.S., where race is such a defining label. I live in Puerto Rico and although I am not Boricua ethnically, I am culturally and that's where I must focus my efforts. 

One other change I think may considered something we just weren't expecting. Each September marks two big events on our farm: avocados come (just once a year and so it's big for us!), which coincides with the explosion of rats.

With so little food on the farm for them to eat after Hurricane Maria killed so much, they started coming inside the house looking for food. This isn't a big deal ordinarily because we have both cats and dogs who love to chase and hunt them down.

It was becoming a nightly thing. They came in sometimes in pairs. Sometimes they hid in the stove. They ate through the heating element in the stove and we had to buy a new one. This time we bought a completely gas one that didn't have a plug or a pilot light. It's made in Mexico and sold throughout the Caribbean and South America.

Our awesome new Mabe completely gas stove / oven. The best part is that it costs a fraction of what the usual gas stoves cost.

Paul had to put heavier screens in the screen doors and seal up several tiny holes we didn't realize were even there. The rats stopped making nightly visits in February.

They also ate many baby chicks and ducks, which broke our hearts watching the new moms looking for their babies.

Oh, Before I/We Forget…

As I'd mentioned earlier, Paul and I have estimated the damage to Mayani Farms to be about $20,000. To date we have raised about $15,000, which is amazing and we're so grateful.

We'd love to see if we can get closer to our original assessment. About a month ago we adopted a goat from a shelter and we spent over $2,000 building a pen for her. So as you can imagine, we're in the red again.

If you find our story compelling enough, and you'd like to donate to us, this is a link to our donation request page.

Operation Rebuild Mayani Farms

 

Thank you to all who have generously donated!!!!! If you donate, we'll add your name to this list too

I’d/We'd Like To Dedicate My Hurricane Maria Essay To...

We'd like to dedicate this to our dear friend Peter Banyai who died from complications of a stroke on January 21, 2018. He was 57. He left behind his wife, Susan, son Charlie, mother and brother, as well as countless friends.


Thank you for taking the time to read our essays.

The essays you are reading are written by ordinary people who’ve endured months of extraordinary circumstances.

If you would like to submit an essay to publish on Mayani Farms, please use our submission page here.

If you submit an essay, although it will be published on the Mayani Farms website, you will own the copyright, not Mayani Farms. We just ask that you not publish it elsewhere for a minimum of three weeks after it’s been published on Mayani Farms.