Death by Hurricane
by Margarita Barresi
I surveyed the ocean from ten stories above through the kitchen’s plate glass window wearing white cotton panties and nothing else, my at-home uniform at age five, and willed my thoughts to project to God In Heaven. It was 1966 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Hurricane Faith was imminent. God, I telepathed as I pictured an ancient bearded man in voluminous white robes sitting on an enormous and elaborately carved marble throne, If I’m going to die today, please don’t make it hurt too much. I was not one to beg in the face of the inevitable. People died in hurricanes. I’d heard the stories of the “Big One”, 1928’s Hurricane San Felipe, which destroyed the Yabucoa valley where my grandfather grew up and killed more than 300 poor souls across the island. I understood clearly what my fate could be and was prepared to courageously face the worst case scenario.
My grandparents, with whom I lived, were sticking masking tape in crisscross patterns on the rest of the wide glass windows that created the circumference of our apartment. They paid me no mind. The tape was supposed to prevent the glass from shattering into the apartment if some sort of debris broke through. Apparently all sorts of things flew around in hurricanes. I hoped I wouldn’t be one of them. My grandmother pulled the putty colored tape from the roll, making a long riiiiiiiiiip sound and my grandfather attached it to the glass. Riiiiiip, PatPatPat, Riiiiiip, PatPatPat, Riiiiiip, PatPatPat. The sounds of their industry pierced the otherwise eerie silence.
No screeching white and grey seagulls, no cars motoring down the street, no tree frogs chirping their evening song of coqui coqui, and no laughter wafting up from the beach. The wildlife and humans had both hunkered down. The Atlantic, normally five different shades of blue, was a monochromatic indigo shaded by an ominous grey dome of a sky. Angry, tall waves crashed on the sand and rocks below, some even reaching the base of our apartment building. It was humid, but oddly cool. I could feel the air, seasoned with sea spray, weighing down on my skin, leaving it salty and taut.
My grandfather turned on the radio, which usually played classical music, and tuned it to a news channel. Official sounding voices peppered the air with weather updates in Spanish, completely ruining my communion with God In Heaven. I figured He’d gotten my message by then anyway. He was probably attending to a lot of people at that moment, and I certainly didn’t want to become a nuisance. I decided instead to follow my preoccupied grandmother around the apartment as she distributed candles and matches throughout every room. In the meantime, my grandfather anxiously checked the flashlight batteries and filled the tub, as well as several plastic jugs, with water. Then we waited. And waited.
We continued to listen to the weather reports, my grandparents both smoking, she her Salems and he his carved ivory pipe that scented the air chocolate and cherry. But as my 7:00 bedtime approached, I became agitated. I didn’t want to sleep through My Death! It was one thing to get sent to bed before Get Smart aired, but this, My Death, was a monumental thing to miss. I begged my grandparents to let me stay up. As a compromise, and because they thought I was inconsolably frightened by the looming storm, they agreed to let me bunk in the floor of their bedroom. I willed my eyelids to remain open for what seemed hours, but I couldn’t help falling asleep, my body slowly shutting down for the night.
I woke up disoriented the next morning: I was not in my room and I was still alive. The hurricane had skirted the island, leaving behind damp streets and little damage. Maybe all the people’s prayers had worked and God In Heaven spared us. Or maybe it was the hurricane’s name, Faith. In any case, what luck! I went to school the day after, the candles and batteries went back into storage, and the radio once again played Mozart. For no good reason the masking tape on the windows was lazily left to calcify and fuse with the glass so that our view of the outside world became permanently obstructed by Xs.
Nine years later, Tropical Storm Eloise passed by the island. While not officially a hurricane, her extraordinarily heavy rains, 23 inches in 24 hours, caused extensive flooding and more damage than any other storm I’d lived through. Forty-four people drowned, including Luis Cartagena, a close family friend. On his drive home, while crossing a flooded bridge in the town of Caguas, he spotted a woman drowning in the river below. Those who witnessed the event say he stopped the car, jumped out, and dove into the churning water within seconds, only to be swept away along with the woman like so much debris. I don’t remember whether they found his body. He died a hero, but that was no consolation to his widow, Virginia, whose ravaged countenance is indelibly imprinted in my memory.
Shortly afterwards my grandmother hired a handyman to scrape the petrified masking tape off our apartment windows. We didn’t need a visual reminder that people die in hurricanes.
Margarita Barresi writes memoir pieces about growing up in Puerto Rico in the 60s and 70s, as well as parenting essays set in modern day. Her work has appeared in Acentos Review, Pink Ink, Boston Accent Lit and Your Teen Magazine. She is currently working on a historical fiction novel set in Puerto Rico during the first half of the 20th century and was selected for a writer’s residency at Noepe Center for Literary Arts in Martha’s Vineyard.