On September 17, 2018 we found out, by the announcement made by the governor of Puerto Rico, that the direct hit by Hurricane Maria was imminent. My family prepared for the worst, as everyone was told. We bought as much water as we could, 3 gallons per person, and secured the house as best as we could. We also loaded up on microwavable meals or food cans. We live a block from the beach and knew that anything could happen. We were ready and my excitement kept increasing. I was looking forward to missing a few days of school and taking a break from all the studying. But I soon realized the truth in “be careful what you wish for.” It turned out to be the most terrifying but at the same time the most interesting and challenging experience of my life.

By 2:00 am, September 20, my mom decided the best place for all of us to hunker down and wait out the storm was the walk-in closet in her room. My brother, Francisco, and I tookour pillows and our dog, Simba, and went into the closet for the longest night ever. When the storm started, there were 5 of us in my mom’s closet — Francisco, Simba, my parents and me.

I slept through as much as I could. When I woke up 4 hours later, everyone was in the same crammed positions they were in when we first came in. For the next two hours we watched what we had downloaded of an old TV episode and tried connecting to any other person or radio station to learn what was happening outside and where the storm was at this point. We were not expecting any good news from the outside world since from the closet we could hear the wild winds and banging — it seemed as if we were inside a washing machine.

We were also consistently hearing a slamming on our roof, which we were happy about because it was our A/C units. And we were happy to know they hadn’t blown off. Another two hours passed and we had no signal, wifi or connection to any sort of radio station. We were all really hot, sweating and famished. I couldn’t decide which one was the worst. We could tell Simba was pretty hot too.

Hours kept passing, and each one felt even longer than the other. By the sixth hour Simba started to feel a little sick and started gagging next to my dad. My dad wasn’t too pleased and wanted to let him out of the tiny closet to feel better. Of course I didn’t let him because if I can’t go out, why should he? Eventually his gagging stopped and Simba fell asleep. Two more hours passed and we were all ready to leave, but decided to hold on a little longer for safety issues. By the 9th hour, we were out!

Now it was time to face reality. The first thing we heard when we stepped out of the closet was a waterfall coming from our third floor down to the first. After my dad and brother stopped the waterfall that was pouring into the house down the stairway from the roof, we then started to bucket and squeegee the water out of the first floor. After that, nervously, we opened the garage doors and took our first look outside.

It was a devastating sight. I didn’t recognize my own street. It was covered in sand, and filled with leaves, branches and rocks. Trees were knocked down and because of that sidewalks were lifted up and cracked. Our solar panels were smashed and scattered up to 3 blocks from our house. Pieces of iron fences were on every corner, along with car pieces and wood panels. Windows in our house were cracked, and in many other houses they were missing.

Some trees had been lifted up and thrown and the destruction looked to us like that of a tornado or an earthquake. Without a single leaf left to be seen it looked like the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, but it was the destruction of a category 5 hurricane! Our neighbor showed up that same afternoon with coffee he had made on his barbecue.We all drank “cafe con leche” and there was something so comforting about it. The weather was still dismal so we really didn’t begin any outside work until the next day.

The next morning we began our tasks. The goal was to clear the streets so we shoveled sand out of the garage and then off the streets. We picked up branches and raked leaves that were blocking our way through the streets. Some neighbors even brought out gas-powered saws to cut up trees and move them however possible to help open streets.

Besides the dreadful cleaning, a happier moment was when we saw some hummingbirds and we began to put out plates of sugar water for them almost every day. It was a task I actually enjoyed doing because it reminded me of how things were before the hurricane. The next few days were filled with manual labor. There was no electricity and no running water so we were in survival mode. We were living with the bare necessities. After a couple of days she heat returned and the mosquitoes did too. We took 2 minute showers each night and covered ourselves with Off.

One positive thing that came out of this catastrophe was the solidarity between people, and communities around the island. We all spent a lot of time cleaning the streets so we had the opportunity to meet new neighbors. Everyone helped each other out by sharing their provisions such as food, water or batteries. Neighbors also pitched in to help with anything that needed fixing.

We all waited in long hot lines to get into the supermarkets and then came back to share whatever we had with others. Later on when some people managed to get power generators, they threw cables to next door neighbors to share some of their energy. People joined together and connected like never before and we changed into an even more giving and loving community.  Now, after the catastrophe I have a greater empathy for people around the world suffering through a natural disaster. Despite the damage, now I have a life-changing story of mine to share and tell with everyone.