Four Years After María; The Untold Story

Note: This story was written in October 2017 but was never published until now, the four-year anniversary of Hurricane María.

There are so many stories about Hurricane María. Families losing their houses, others evacuating for safer places, and I even heard one about the man climbing to the top of a closet cabinet with his dog to survive a flooding. People had different experiences, and many of them are filled with destruction. This is not one of those stories.  I thought I would share my story but from the point of view of the volunteers of an animal rescue organization. This is ARF of Rincón’s story.

First, I think you have to understand that one of the many things we do in our organization is to find homes for stray dogs. Some of these homes are in the United States and we have partners in the mainland who are our contact with potential adopters. When Hurricane María came, we had over 20 dogs being taken care by fosters. Because we are not a shelter, those dogs are in our own homes and at the houses of other volunteers. For the hurricane, we brought all fosters inside. Besides my own pets (three dogs and two cats), I had three foster Chihuahuas and one more additional cat of a friend. Miriam Juan, ARF of Rincón’s President, had her own five dogs, a friend’s other five dogs, and over 10 foster dogs. I honestly have no idea how she managed to take care of them during the 24-plus hours that Maria stayed with us.

Miriam Juan, ARF of Rincón President, during Hurricane María.

For me, the passing of the hurricane was exhausting because it just felt like it took forever. The loss of communication meant that we had no idea where the hurricane was, how much longer it was going to take, or when it was going to be over. I saw my dogs holding it in as they are trained to do their business outside. The Chihuahuas were in a room by themselves with the floor covered in newspapers; because they were not potty-trained and they had only arrived to my house two days before, they just kept tearing off the newspapers and “having accidents” on the floor. At one point, I took my own dogs to the room with the newspapers for them to relieve themselves, but one of them, Coco – my oldest – would not go. There was a moment I found myself pleading with María just to “give me a break” as my dog really needed to go to the bathroom. Coco held it for over 30 hours.

The three Chihuahuas being fostered by Ivette.

Once the hurricane passed, our only way to communicate with each other for the next few days were to go to each other houses. The kennels that we have at one of our volunteer’s property were destroyed – we knew we needed to build new ones. That also meant that all foster dogs and cats would remain inside our houses. After couple of days, some of us were able to get signal on our cellphones. Miriam was able to receive a communication from one of our partners in the USA: they said to be in the Aguadilla airport the next morning as there would be an airplane that would take all of our foster dogs to the mainland. This was our chance to send all our rescuers to safer places (and hopefully to forever homes) so we could start rebuilding. It was 9pm that day when Miriam was able to reach me; by 5am the next morning, six cars were in front of Miriam’s house loading them with kennels and dogs. Others met with us at the airport.

When we arrived to the airport, we realized that we did not have a number for the airplane flight, not even a contact information or the time of its landing. Communication was so bad that we couldn’t reach anyone. We now had to wait and pray for the airplane to arrive. The others had to leave and Miriam and I were left at the airport with only two cars and approximately 30 dogs. The plane really needed to arrive.

Arriving to the airport on October 2, 2017.

I honestly don’t remember when the plane finally landed. By then we had identified each dog and kennel with the name of the person who the dog was supposed to be send to. To our surprise, the person in charge told us that we needed to surrender the dogs as they would go to a shelter and they were not transporting them to other people. “Surrender our dogs” – the words grew heavy in me. Surrender. I still hate that word. My heart sunk. In all my years in ARF of Rincón we have never sent a dog to a shelter. I started crying and the only thing I was able to ask was “is it a non-kill shelter?” A lady, who to this day I still don’t know who she was, assured me they were not a kill shelter and that the dogs would be safe with them.

Miriam would later be criticized for our decision to surrender our foster dogs. But I completely agreed with her. It was just the two of us out there; there was no way to take the dogs back or a way to communicate with others to come back and pick them up. We didn’t have power or control over the situation. Looks like surrendering our dogs also meant that we had to surrender ourselves. And it was horrible.

To this day I don’t know what happened to the Chihuahuas that I was fostering. It has been the first and only time I didn’t receive a picture of one of my foster dogs when they arrived to their new home, with their new family. I don’t know if they were adopted together or if they were separated. I might never know. And I have to accept that.

So that’s our story. Hurricane María did not take our houses nor broke our windows – we were blessed that way. But it took something from us; it took our assurance that our foster dogs were well taken care of and, for a while, we felt powerless. María took a little bit of the hope that we had in ourselves that sometime, somehow, everything was going to be fine.

Animal Rescue Foundation of Rincón is a non-profit organization that serves the town of Rincón, Puerto Rico. For more information please visit http://arfrincon.org

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