A woman living on the tiny Puerto Rican island of Vieques says its residents are without power and desperate for food, electricity and communication services a week after Hurricane Maria swept the region.
Amy Gordon took shelter with two friends in her studio apartment on the night of September 19, when Hurricane Maria’s intense winds hit Vieques, which is just seven miles off the east coast of the mainland and home to 9,000 people. The friends huddled together on Gordon’s bed as the storm’s 160-mph winds ripped trees from their roots and tore apart almost every structure made of wood on the island.
“The wind was so loud, it was frightening because you have no idea how long it’s going to go on,” Gordon, 37, tells PEOPLE, adding that the pressure from the wind caused her ears to pop. “You’re in complete darkness wondering if the storm’s over, if the end is coming, and then it keeps getting louder. You just have no idea what’s going on, and it could get worse at any moment.”
Just two weeks earlier, the region was hit by Hurricane Irma, an historic hurricane that pummeled much of the Caribbean, but largely sparred Vieques of major destruction. The storm did knock out power for 10 days on the island, and just when things seemed to return to normal, a new hurricane headed their way.
“We thought we were okay, we thought we were in the clear, and three days after power came back on, Maria arrived,” she explains. “People didn’t have any time to restock food or get gas or water.”
When Gordon and her friends stepped outside the morning after Maria passed, they found their lush island completely unrecognizable. Homes and businesses were destroyed, and trees were either knocked to the ground or completely barren. The rich green flora Vieques was known for was replaced by scattered brown soil.
“There’s not one leaf left on a tree,” Gordon says. “We went down roads that we’ve driven on every single day and we didn’t know where we were because we couldn’t recognize anything.”
Without electricity or cell service, residents were left to cope with more unknowns. People in the tight-knit community immediately began to check on the well-being of their neighbors and share water and other supplies (many opened beers or cooked meat before it spoiled in refrigerators without power). Until communication with the mainland was restored, they only had each other to depend on.
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Still, Gordon and her friends were conscious of the danger that could arise in the chaos of a natural disaster.
“Everyone had a machete they would carry in case you needed to cut through wood or protect yourself,” she says. “A friend of mine gave me a speargun to sleep with just in case someone tried to break in. But that was our way to survive, to help each other.”
Gordon evacuated the island after “taking a leap of faith” by driving to a local airport to catch a plane to San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she was able to find cell service and make phone calls to friends and family in the states.
“I hadn’t cried at that point, but when I was on that plane and I saw cell phone signal, I just started hysterically crying—I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.
A friend notified her of a private plane being sent to Vieques to retrieve a man with a brain tumor on September 25, and Gordon could take a seat on the flight if she made it to the airport on time. Though she had no idea where the flight was heading, Gordon grabbed her dog, Brandy, and made it on the flight. Coincidentally, it was landing in Fort Lauderdale, near where her parents had moved just three weeks ago.
“I was extremely lucky, I was in the right place at the right time,” Gordon says. “I felt guilty leaving, but I knew I had to leave, that was my only shot.”
Gordon says she is now staying with her parents, and she has spent her time since the flight scouring through Facebook for families in the states who are wondering if their loved ones on Vieques are safe. If she remembers seeing their relative on the island after the storm, she’ll message the family and relieve their worries. This is the most she can do for those still on the island awaiting help from the U.S. mainland and President Trump, who has been criticized for not doing enough to help the people of Puerto Rico.
“I wasn’t surprised, but it is heartbreaking,” she says. “These people need help and they are American citizens.”
A fundraising effort, called ViequesLove, has been set up to help the island. It was originally meant to help in the long-term rebuilding efforts of the island, but it has since been dipped into for immediate needs in the face of limited governmental support.
“Even if people have food, it’s not healthy food, they’re just trying to survive,” Gordon says. “Puerto Rico is going to get attention before Vieques will, and the people in Vieques are suffering. They’re alive, but they’re suffering.”