-by Leela Hospach
I get the text about our flight before Wren does and I go bolt upright and hand her my phone because I can't find the words and we sit there for--five minutes, ten? It goes on and on, maybe she's crying, or me. Just, giddy and relieved, hysterical and sad, we knew it would happen, we didn't think it would ever happen. 'Don't Take the Money' is playing. One of us is screeching softly, laughing or not, and oh my god, oh my GOD, I say 'we're going home' and it sounds like a foreign language. My whole body is shaking. We're going home.
I arrived in San Juan December 1st, and I left January 18th. Feels longer. Feels like time is the wrong measurement altogether.
Every day I would read all the news stories that had come out about Puerto Rico. They were mostly about power. Forty percent of people on the island didn't have electricity when I left; a lot of the rest of the grid went in and out. It had been four months. I learned about what the island went through before the hurricane, how little likelihood there is that it will rebound quickly if at all. That feeling of helplessness made me wish I had ever practiced optimism. It would come in handy.
FEMA contracted an Italian cruise ferry to house disaster workers and that was where we stayed, the whole time, docked in a San Juan shipyard, using European adapters and listening to Italian announcements over the ships' PA system. It was endlessly surreal. When I made phone calls to my family I would go out on a narrow deck and stand under the lifeboats. I could see the skyline across the harbor. We were not FEMA, the first thing the field crews learned was no somos FEMA, but we worked next to them, sent them our immediate needs cases and spoke in their meetings and stood behind them in the cafeteria line. We were all doing the best we could.
I made maps and copies and spreadsheets, I sent emails and took notes during meetings I never felt qualified to attend. The joint field office is full of people working so hard, people coordinating and calling and planning, tech specialists, military guys, local hires, people from housing or individual assistance or power. It felt like being in the center of something, and it stopped being overwhelming but it never became less impressive. We took off Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. There were people in the office when we left, people in the office when we came back.
I entered a lot of homeowner work request and intake forms. Mostly I could just type the things but sometimes it absolutely broke my heart. Roof, wall and window damage. Needs clothing, bedding, water, electricity. They were all like that. Roof was tarped but still leaks, roof was half metal half concrete and all the metal is gone, el techo de destruyo. It's like that when you drive around, when you talk to people. I find it hard enough to talk to people in English, I don't speak Spanish, I spent a lot of time quiet. Sometimes I would scroll through our database, which I had watched grow and grow, and it was like being in the center of a gravity well.
Weeks of this, seven am breakfast croissants and the omnipresent mirrors on the ship, silent meals and the busted up sidewalk on the way to the parking lot, my huge cumbersome laptop bag, Sam stroking his beard every time he thought hard about something, Wren picking habitually at the scabs on her feet so they never healed, my obsessive 3:45 pm peppermint lollipop, can you make a map of buoys and lighthouses? Can you hand me the printer cable? How I would mess with my lanyard during conversations, all the facetwins I found, nodding at the security guys, can I have some soup, please. And the way I felt as the end approached, or what we thought was the end, that there was nothing I would not do for my team.
For a while I fell asleep before ten, before nine: as soon as I could. For a while we had six am briefings, six pm conference call debriefs, or eight fifteen morning meetings, we would talk at dinner or breakfast about what we had to do. For a while we left at seven-thirty, got back at six-thirty, took Sundays off. Towards the end I went to sleep later and I'd wake up earlier, way before I had to, laying in the dark thinking about what I had to do. Or what I knew had to happen, and how I would have to find a way to do it.
I went out with field crews and an eighty year old woman kissed me on the cheek. Her house was unsafe, leaking all over, and she wouldn't leave it. We detoured around landslides, downed power lines, trees bent and twisted. We ate at generator powered restaurants and didn't drink the tap water, didn't touch the dogs. I didn't go out at night, not because I was afraid of getting hurt but because I was afraid someone would try to talk to me. I loved going for long car rides even though the driving was one of the most chaotic things I've ever seen. I've never been afraid of the right things.
I watched people come and go, crews on thirty day rotations, like ours was supposed to be--who got there before me, a cadre who started at the same time. Forty-nine days is not so long, or it is. Time started to seem elastic and false, like the only thing that had any meaning was the work I did. The three first year boys on my team got tickets to go home, and I was in that group too, and I asked them to cancel my ticket because I wasn't going to leave Wren. All the rest of me was worn away and I could only think that if I left her and Sam behind, for a day or a week, that it would be running, and I would always regret it. Maybe they understood it or didn't. They were doing more important jobs; they would have left if they could. Sometimes the Tampa Bay Lightning Instagram shows video of Victor Hedman standing in the tunnel to the ice, bumping everyone's shoulder as they pass. All I think when I see that is that maybe you can?t protect everyone, but you can show up, and you can show them you?re trying.
Coming back was harder than I thought. I got immediately, disgustingly sick. I put my laptop and a sleeve of saltines in the bag I had carried on the plane, got in my car and drove seven hundred miles to Virginia in a fugue state. I didn't say goodbye to my roommates, pack any clothes, or wear a sensible jacket. Half of my head was still in Puerto Rico, which meant that most of my body was nowhere. The thing is, it's not a story that gets a neat conclusion. It's still happening, out there, and all I can say now that I'm gone is that I did the best I could, and I wouldn't trade the experience. That's it.