After Maria batters Puerto Rico, family reunited in Billings

Wanda Morales, center, with her parents, Edgar and Ana, and their dog, Mitzy, in the apartment her parents are renting. (Ed Kemmick/Last Best News)

Wanda Morales’ parents, Edgar Morales and Ana Alequin, were already planning to move back to Montana eventually, to be closer to their children and grandchildren.

They recently made the move, but in a way that nobody was expecting. Instead of a well-planned transfer made after all their affairs were in order, they left their native Puerto Rico in a hurry, flying to Montana in the aftermath of a hurricane that has left their homeland, two months after the fact, in a humanitarian crisis.

Edgar and Ana were not injured and their house was only lightly damaged by Hurricane Maria, which hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, but the devastation was so widespread and access to health care needed by Ana so unreliable that they decided to leave.

For Wanda, who lives in Billings, the worst part was waiting for news of her parents for two days after the hurricane struck. With power knocked out virtually everywhere on the island, there was no internet and no phone connections.

When she finally did make contact three days after the catastrophe, her father’s first words were “Get us out of here.”

Ana and Edgar are settled in Billings now, counting their blessings while worrying about family and friends still struggling to get their lives back on track in Puerto Rico, where more than half the island nation’s 3.5 million people are still without power.

For Wanda, the bittersweet experience of having her parents back in Billings made her value a community that she said she has sometimes felt a little disconnected from.

“It sounds cheesy, I know,” she said, “but my friends here really came together. … I’ve been really humbled through this. People came together and embraced my parents.”

Edgar and Ana were both born in Puerto Rico, but Ana, who was raised by an uncle, spent most of her childhood going back and forth between Puerto Rico and New York, and later Connecticut, where she graduated from high school in 1974.

She moved back to Puerto Rico after high school, where she met Edgar, who had always lived in Puerto Rico before joining the Army in 1975, and they were married in 1976. After three years in the Army he went back to civilian life for a year, then re-enlisted  a year later, having decided to make a career of the military.

They lived in five states and in Germany twice during his 20-year hitch in the Army. His final four years in the service were spent in Billings, where they moved in 1995 so Edgar could work at the Army Reserve on Broadwater Avenue. He retired as a master sergeant in 1999.

They hadn’t been planning to return to Puerto Rico, but they went back in 2000 to take care of Edgar’s ailing father, settling in Mayaguez, a town on the island’s west coast, about two hours from the capital of San Juan. They ended up staying, though they would come back to the states, usually to Billings, for at least a month every year.

Then came Maria. Hurricane Irma had hit Puerto Rico a couple of weeks before Maria, temporarily knocking out power to about half the island but causing minimal damage. There’d already been predictions that this was going to be a punishing year for storms, however, so Ana and Edgar had stocked up on emergency supplies of food — amassing enough for years if need be.

“I even put Bibles in some of them,” Ana said, referring to the food containers, “because if there was nothing to read, I’d have the Bible.” She had graduated from Bible college with a doctorate and had worked in ministry and as a police chaplain in Puerto Rico.

Before Maria made landfall, Puerto Rican authorities did a good job of making people aware of the imminent danger, Edgar said.

“Everyone took it serious,” Edgar said.

“Everybody went to the supermarket,” Ana added. “Everyone got water.”

Maria had surgery on Sept. 18, two days before Maria hit, and though she was home she wasn’t able to help Edgar much as he prepared for the hurricane.

The rain started early on the 20th. Edgar remembers going out to their balcony about 1 a.m. to take photos and videos to send to their children. By 2 a.m. the power was out and his internet connection was gone, and all night long “it rained and rained and rained,” he said.

About 6 a.m. the wind really started to pick up until, later in the morning, “it was like in the airport when you hear the jet taking off — that was the sound of the wind,” Edgar said.

“It felt like it was going to pull the windows and the garage door off,” said Ana, who added that their house, after all the rain and high winds, looked like it had been sandblasted.

But other than taking in a lot of water, which did little to their concrete house, there wasn’t much damage, inside at least. Their yard was stripped of vegetation. Even a stout, 15-year-old guava tree with deep roots was ripped clean out of the ground, Edgar said.

Many houses along the sea on the west coast of Puerto Rico were destroyed. (Edgar Morales)

After the storm, Edgar joined just about everybody else in Mayaguez as they worked to clear yards and streets of debris and downed trees. They had plenty of food and water, at first, and Edgar had even made as much ice as he could in Ziploc bags, to keep perishables safe in coolers.

As the days dragged on, with power still out and his ice supplies dwindling, Edgar said, they cooked everything they could on a little Coleman stove and gave food to their neighbors.

Meanwhile, they had no way of contacting other family members on or off the island. In Billings, Wanda was frantic.

“It was just awful,” she said. “It was a nightmare. I didn’t know anything.”

A friend told her about an app she could download to listen to Puerto Rican radio stations on her computer or phone, but every station that relied on digital equipment was unable to broadcast. Just two stations in all of Puerto Rico had backup analog systems, which allowed them to get back on the air. One was in San Juan and the other, by a stroke of luck, was in Mayaguez.

Wanda didn’t hear any news specifically about her parents, but two days after the hurricane she heard on the radio station that the damage in Mayaguez had been comparatively light, considering the devastation elsewhere on the island. She also listened as the owner of the little station coordinated aid for people in the area, and relayed news from loved ones to people in Mayaguez who were without power.

“This guy was a true angel,” Wanda said.

Her father finally got through to her on Saturday, three days after Maria. A neighbor with a landline had a phone connection by then, so Edgar was able to call briefly to let Wanda know he and her mother were OK. Shortly after that, a Subway sandwich shop had managed to get an internet connection and was offering customers free wi-fi. Edgar spent an hour and a half there, calling his children, relatives and others.

Meanwhile, he and Ana had gone to see another, smaller house they owned and rented out, a few miles from where they lived. It was days before streets had been cleared enough to make the drive, but with no power the traffic lights were out.

“I told him, get me home,” Ana said. “It was crazy. Everyone was driving like a maniac.”

Though their immediate area was in good shape, mostly because it was on high ground, heavy damage was visible everywhere, particularly along the estuaries, where rivers joined the sea. Every house in those areas was inundated, Edgar said, many of them destroyed.

Meanwhile, Wanda was making plans to find her parents a flight to the United States. The most pressing need was for her mother to have a steady supply of the medication she needed, most of which was delivered to Puerto Rico from the States.

There were few flights for weeks because of the power outages, and Wanda was constantly having trouble finding the information she needed — financial information, Social Security numbers, even the exact way her parents’ names appeared on various documents. It was a good reminder to compile such information and keep it somewhere handy.

Scenes of destruction were everywhere in Mayaguez, even though the home of Wanda Morales’ parents suffered little damage. (Edgar Morales)

They finally flew out on Oct. 18, almost a month after Maria. They arrived in Billings with little. Edgar, who was mostly cheerful as he recounted all the troubles they’d been through, teared up when he talked about what Wanda’s friends did for them.

He mentioned, in particular, Liz Welch, who set up a GoFundMe account to get them into an apartment.

“There were people who don’t even know us who gave us money,” Edgar said. “That’s how we got this apartment.” Others gave them furniture, and Polly Kovash, the owner of the basement apartment, a few blocks off South 24th Street West, lowered the rent for them, and then let them move in before they had enough for a deposit and two months’ rent.

“That’s why I love Montana, I guess — the welcome we received,” Edgar said. They’ve also gotten in touch with friends and fellow church members from their days in Billings. They plan to stay now, to be close to their children — Wanda has a brother in Missoula and a sister in Boise, Idaho — and grandchildren. Each of their three children has three children.

There are some loose ends to tie up. Edgar plans to return to Puerto Rico in February to get documents he needs to pay taxes, to sell a car and try to sell the house they were renting.

The situation in Puerto Rico is still hard for many. There’s the widespread lack of power and the resulting difficulties in trying to keep food fresh. And after all the flooding and heavy rains, Wanda said, mold in that humid climate has become a major problem.

They’ve been having only intermittent contact with relatives on the island, including Ana’s sister. Without a phone connection, Ana said, “I don’t know what she’s doing or what she needs.” They hope to know by February, so they can send back as many needed supplies as Edgar can take with him.

And because they were prepared, they never needed to get into their stores of emergency dehydrated food. They told Ana’s sisters, as well as some neighbors, how to get to it if they ever need it.

And thankfully, they still have their dog, a little Yorkie named Mitzy, who also survived the hurricane.

“That dog was crying during the hurricane,” Edgar said. “She was literally crying.”