Recently I had the opportunity to deploy for Hurricane support in the Florida area/Puerto Rico after Maria left most of the island without power or water. I was deployed as part of the CISM team, CISM standing for Crisis Intervention Stress Management. A little recognized collateral duty in the Coast Guard, CISM peers deploy after line of duty deaths, traumatic rescues, or natural disasters in order to ensure that coast guard members are coping effectively with whatever they have seen, participated in, or witnessed. To many coasties and outside members, this seems silly. Aren’t all coast guard members used to stress, stress being part of their every day job? In some ways, that high level of normal stress is part of the problem. Stress, when left to simmer in the brain, builds up until someone’s natural resiliency and coping mechanisms have been overcome. Coast guard members usually have several undealt with issues on the back burner, and a hard case or a witnessed traumatic event can often be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. It is also known that broken camels tend to wreak havoc on their own home lives and not talk to each other (they want to appear tough). These tendencies may compound an already debilitating mental condition, leading to shoddy maintenance/mission capability, mishaps, and in some cases, suicide. An interesting statistic is that after a hurricane, the suicide rate of the people affected (and this is not just for coasties) goes up 31% for two years after the storm. Thus, the coast guard believes it can save money and lives by sending in CISM teams to teach members about reactions they may have after witnessing trauma, ways to cope, and techniques for improving resiliency. CISM teams also encourage member to communicate with each other, foster communication between departments, and try to bring the unit together so that all members feel safe and supported.
In the case of the Florida Keys, the CISM aspect was pretty straight forward. There were no particularly gruesome or traumatic rescues, and the recovery effort was well organized. The main issues we dealt with were financial, such as coasties loosing their homes, or reservists worried about their families and finances while they were away. We stayed with our customers in large air-conditioned tents, and brushed out teeth with bottled water. Toilet and shower trailers were set up, as well as an improvised galley which spent considerable (very much appreciated) effort to provide hot food to the troops. Due to a vegetarian ensign and several other vegan members, there was even food I could eat! Breakfast was vegan sausage and hash browns, lunch a black bean burger with vegan cheese salad, and dinner could be anything from portabella mushrooms to quinoa and squash. Boats were thrown around everywhere like dandelion seeds, but the bars were open and the water was beautiful. Various charities sprouted up overnight, offering food and bottled water to residents. The national guard was clearing roads, and lineman were swarming up and down the coast, working to bring back electricity for all.
It was with this preconception that I boarded a C-130 for Puerto Rico. We brought with us food, water, sheets, blankets, and everything we needed to be self-sufficient for 3-4 days. Knowing what I know now, I would have brought much, much more. I think it is important to state that I am not complaining about anything I have experienced. If anything, Maria has taught me how incredibly lucky and privileged I am. Of course, technically I knew I was privileged before, however knowing and experiencing are two different things.
This first thing we noticed on landing was our expected lack of communication. Cell phone service was down, and being on an island, cell towers and satellites were the only ways we had to really get information off the island. We had satellite phones, but for some reason ours didn’t work. It took us almost a week to learn how to function, setting up times and places to meet so that we didn’t lose each other in the hanger. Often times my poor compatriot wandered around in vain, asking other service members if they had seen his “leprechaun” (AKA, me). If this team of two could stumble around so badly, it doesn’t take much imagination to think of how multiple military agencies struggled to function and also work together. As well as CISM team members, we quickly became carriers of information. It was amazing to realize how life without cell phones and email becomes one very frustrating combination of hide and seek/telephone.
The coast guard hanger had power and water, but no one else did. We stayed in guest housing, concrete buildings with puddles of water left over from Maria. The toilets could flush if we poured a gallon of water down them. We had a small generator, good for powering the fridge, a fan, and a coffee pot for about 6 hours a day. Our first few nights we had no screens, and so I acquired my friends Roy and Sean, a local koki frog and gecko respectively. These were the nice house guests, as other not so welcome pets included mosquitoes, mayflies, and other bugs I found crushed in my sheets come morning. The honey bees were ravenous, the island being now without leaves or flowers. Any hint of sugar would summon a small bee swarm.
Fresh food was hard to come by once our stocks ran out. The first few days yielded few arriving aircraft, and everyone wondered if the west side of the island had been forgotten. Coast guard members and eventually employees were allowed to buy food from the exchange, but this required cash. Since ATM’s require a data connection, this too was difficult to come by. There were MREs for us fortunate military members, and I did open a few to rob them of vitamin fortified peanut butter, pop tarts, white bread and treats such as Zapplesauce (apple sauce with maltodextrin for improved performance!). Skittles are also vegan, and some MRE’s had these too. At dinner time, an improvised galley did what they could with the supplies we had remaining to us. For the people who could afford it, $7 would buy you a box of chili fries, some baked zitti, or perhaps a piece of chicken and some rice. It was amazing how much I would look forward to these dinners. My last night they saved me a bit of pasta and frozen vegetables, and you never saw a more appreciative diner. With a little hot sauce, I found it all positively gourmet.
Water was a precious resource, and as more and more planes came filled with aid, it was more and more apparent how much weight was required for bottled water. We took baby wipe showers every other day, and sea showers at the hanger. I guess it was good that there wasn’t much cooking that we could do, because water would have been wasted washing dishes. The trash piled up uncollected, cupboards full of empty plastic bottles and bags of MRE wrappers. Laundry was deemed a necessity however, and there was a laundry room set up in the hanger.
Another precious resource was fuel. We all lined up with our five-gallon containers for our daily ration. Employed civilians were soon allowed to enter the fuel lines so that they could commute to and from work as the roads cleared. We tended to wait about 30 minutes to an hour for fuel. Outside our nice barbed wire fence, community members waited for as much as 13 hours.
Life was harder outside the fence. As the civilian members started to make their way back to work, we would try and listen to what they had to say. The best place for this was the phone line, as we would all wait for our 10 minutes of rationed phone time together. This phone line was a huge gift, and was so grateful when it finally was up and running. It took me about 3 days to finally call Jesse and let him know I was okay. For some community members, it took them as many as 10 days to get in contact with their families. Back in Florida, 14 days after Maria, we talked to the friend of a Puerto Rican waiter who still had not been able to contact his family.
Food on the outside could be scarce. Grocery stores had limited stock, if they had the power to even open at all. Security concerns made some stores only admit 5 shoppers as a time, the lines for access stretching for blocks. Some people had generators, but many did not want to run them for fear they would be stolen. Families banded together in whatever houses survived, and wondered when aid would finally arrive. Military members reported tears of joy as they distributed small quantities of water bottles and spare food. People who could wait in the lines for food and gas were fortunate. Up in the mountains, many roads were still not passable due to debris. Residents there reported living off of coconuts and coconut water until coast guard members on their off time chopped through with chain saws.
My last few days in Puerto Rico, we heard of gas lines on the outside decreasing. More and more civilians were making it back to work, and the Marines and the Air Force set up tents outside our hanger. It is interesting to think of the time and energy it took to air condition those tents. Don’t get me wrong, with their design, number of bodies, and late night security guards sleeping during the day, it was a necessity. But still, air conditioning to me seemed like a funny thing to be had in a disaster zone. After going without artificial cold for most of my stay, the chill of a 80 degree evening in Tampa felt overwhelming.
When I came back, the weather was not the only thing that felt odd. Tampa seemed strange, with all of its lights, traffic, and beautiful buildings. We stayed downtown, and my suite felt completely excessive. I watched the tan, made up, and well dress Floridians and tourists parade around drinking smoothies and ordering drinks. We heard a custodian speak of a 5 year old complex being demolished simply because it wasn’t considered modern enough. I felt exhausted, but I also felt guilty for leaving. I understand why they switch CISM peers out after 3 weeks. Especially for introverts like me, listening for 12-16 hours every day grows increasingly difficult, no matter how much you care about the people you are listening to. As a vegan, nutritionally I was hurting. With limited to no fresh produce, I had increasing urges to horde food and eat all I could until I was sick. My digestion from all the processed food was a wreck. Upon return home, after about a day of clean-ish eating, I lost five pounds in the course of 10 hours. However, all I had to do was look at the faces of civilians when I told them I was leaving, to feel as if all my own complaints were null and void. The loyalty many feel to the island of Puerto Rico is astounding, and I felt as if by leaving I was destroying all the trust I had worked so hard to gain. It didn’t matter that I was at the end of my time, and it felt as if emotionally I was finding my job harder and harder to perform. I had been with them, experiencing some of the hardships that they faced. I had talked to them, heard their concerns, and then I was leaving. Why couldn’t I see the job through? Why didn’t I care enough to stay?
The sad part is, I can’t think of any way to make up for the fact that I left. Even if I returned, I still left. Grad school application stuff is now taking up more and more of my time, and I (like many coasties before me) am placing Puerto Rico on the back burner to be dealt with once I have taken care of all my getting out paperwork, applications, medical stuff, and coordination that has to happen if I am actually going to have an income and a plan in less than 100 days. I received a large tip from a dog sit, and my sister and I are donating that to an organization for Puerto Rico that we will choose together. Once I get my feet under me, I want to talk to my station and do a fundraiser. Still, I feel like my contacts in Puerto Rico are being added to the long list I have in my mind, of people I need to make up to somehow, someway, someday. For now, my takeaway is the affirmation of a simple life. Sorry America, our stereotypical lifestyle is stupid, wasteful, and completely inconsiderate of others. A gallon of water to flush a toilet? REALLY? People are crying over water in Puerto Rico! Furthermore, we are too dependent on the water and electrical grid. A self-sufficient tiny house is not only possible, but economically feasible. Once Jesse and I finally embark on our off grid lifestyle, I will be so happy knowing that I am saving the power and water for people who truly need it.
This week in updates: I’ll keep it short and sweet
You just read an 8 page paper, so I will keep this short and sweet. Jennifer was here, and we had wonderful birthday fun together! She was an awesome taste tester of my rosemary pumpkin white bean linguini.
The recipe: Rosemary Pumpkin White Bean Linguini
For this recipe, the pasta was $3, beans were $2, pumpkin $2, fresh rosemary $2, and the other spices $2 all together. That is $11 for 7 servings of delicious food!
- 1 package linguini pasta
- 1 can white beans
- 2/3 can pumpkin puree
- 1 tsp garlic salt
- ¼ tsp cinnamon
- ½ tsp nutmeg
- ½ tbs fresh chopped rosemary plus more for topping (fresh is important!)
- 3 tbs nutritional yeast
- Black pepper (for topping)
- Make the pasta, and blend all other ingredients in a blender for the sauce.
- Combine and enjoy topped with fresh chopped rosemary and black pepper!