I live in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. My 25-year-old son had moved to Puerto Rico in 2016. Nine days after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, I’d had no contact with him. I was glued to social media, as little was being reported in the news. While struggling to control panic and gripping waves of fear, I repeatedly called his cell phone even though I knew communication had been cut. All I knew was that his last known location was San Sebastian in the west. I prayed that the years he’d spent as a boy in wilderness survival summer camps armed him with the skills to stay alive.
As the anguish of not knowing my son’s whereabouts mounted, so did my mama instincts—it was time to find my boy. I packed food, water, medical supplies, life straws, solar chargers, a machete, and loads of cash, and managed to book a flight. Just as I got myself resolved and settled, I got the call—it lasted one minute and thirty-six seconds. Over a bad connection he said, “Mom, I love you. I’m okay. Mom, it’s bad, I don’t have food or water. I’m living on coconuts. There’s no gas. There’s nothing. I can’t get out. Everything is destroyed.” Through the tears and poor connection, I told him I was flying in and asked if he could get to the town of Rincon, where I’d find him in the town square. The line went dead. Did he hear me? Would he be there?
Friends in San Juan had spent sweltering days in gas lines to ensure there was enough fuel for us to make the roundtrip to Rincon to find him. Through catastrophic devastation akin to a war zone, we bypassed fallen trees, debris, downed power lines, standing water, and landslides. Mountains had crumbled into viscous earth spilling across the highway. My mind pounded. Did he hear me? Would he be there?
We cut through mud and forged forward until we finally arrived at the town square in Rincon, where residents were lost in a dehydrated and hungry daze. Aid had yet to arrive. Frantically running around the town square, I anguished—had he heard me? I then noticed a filthy young man slumped over his phone. Yes! He had heard me, and there he was trying to call his mama despite the lack of signal. The raw emotions of his embrace will never leave me. We were both crying and laughing, and the people in the square were cheering our reunion while desperately hoping for their own. I felt like my world had come back together, whole again. After we settled down, he introduced me to his beautiful girlfriend, a shy onlooker to our mother-son display of affection. I knew that he cared for her and that this stranger—a climate refugee—would be coming home with us.
We distributed some of the supplies I had brought in the town square and quickly left Rincon to assess her apartment. Safety was an issue, as shootings and theft were happening across the island. And there was a curfew. We drove to Aguada, avoiding downed power lines, flood waters, and the ruins of what were once homes. Sadly, we arrived to find that what was left of her home was stained by water marks seven feet high and reeked of stagnant seawater, mold, and mildew from temperatures that had soared into the high 90s. She had lost everything. I watched as she calmly said goodbye to her life, but it was obvious she was in shock.
That night it was 93 degrees and impossible to sleep. I was grateful for the beautiful night song of the tropical frogs known as coqui. In my waking hours I struggled, knowing that something was terribly wrong. Aid was not coming and recovery would take years. I had fallen in love with the Puerto Rican people. With no cell phones, social media, or modern distractions, people came together to share what little food was available. They played music, danced, cut each other’s hair, and where the land was dry they set up rounds of chairs under the moonlight and shared stories, mostly of gratitude. It seemed to me that the Puerto Rican people were united, culturally vibrant, warm, embracing—and slowly dying.
Back in San Juan it hit me. I had made great efforts to live by Gandhi’s words “Be the change you want to see,” but in my quiet moments the tears flowed. The beautiful socially conscious life I had created in Massachusetts had previously given me a sense of fulfillment. This included a gorgeous solar-powered home and natural foods factory on a six-acre organic farm. I try to do the right things. I am a conscious donor who recycles, captures rainwater, and provides free farm shares for my employees. Now in Puerto Rico I’ve taken on a new service project. I am volunteering to relocate seven people off the island to the mainland. But it felt empty in the face of devastation. The magnitude of care required was beyond my personal scope and I felt powerless. Yes, I feel grateful for my privilege, but if I couldn’t truly help others, what was my privilege worth?
My son and his girlfriend needed love and care. And reassurance that we were leaving the island, although it would take another 10 days due to the air traffic control tower being destroyed. Flights were limited. It wasn’t until days after we had secured enough food and water while waiting for a flight in San Juan that my son and his girlfriend began to reveal their experience in small layers. What I learned is that after Hurricane Maria hit, they had lost all their supplies. After emerging from the initial devastation they began the 17-mile walk toward the coast. They were picked up by a stranger and together became the first to pass over to Aguadilla, helping clear the roads of trees and debris along the way. Eventually, they were dropped off at the defunct airport in Aguadilla, where they built camp on one of the only dry spots in the parking lot. They searched through abandoned cars looking for dry clothes and food, but found nothing salvageable. To survive they collected coconuts, which sustained them for 12 days. Eventually, the military arrived at the airport with a satellite phone, and this is how he managed to call me for a minute and thirty-six seconds. The military had no aid, food, or water to offer.
My takeaway has many layers. One is that disaster can strike anywhere at any time. Another is that the earthquakes, fires, hurricanes, volcanoes, and floods worldwide are Mother Earth’s cry. This is not just a weird weather season. This feels like the new norm. I ask myself every day, What am I witnessing? How did I contribute? My conclusion: we no longer have the option of observing others’ suffering, including that of our planet.
I believe we desperately need a radical rethinking, a radical adjustment to how we live in our privileged worlds. We need sustainable strategies to survive—and those technologies exist. Many of us are blessed to use them every day, but they are not accessible in the poorest parts of the world where they are most needed. As I attempt to make sense of our collective position in the history of the earth, I am clear that we all need a better plan regardless of where we live. Our broken system created this and the same broken system cannot fix it. We need our best and brightest, most selfless and compassionate, conscious, loving people to step forward to use their privilege for good—to help provide clean food, water, green shelter, and sustainable education. What I witnessed still runs through me like a knife. I look at a glass of water differently. I am grateful and I am changed.
It’s been more than a month since Maria struck and I often still cry. Most of the island is without electricity. Sixty percent lack access to clean drinking water, and there are remote pockets where people have yet to be reached. People are dying.
Now that I am home in my beautiful world, I ponder my own privilege as I harvest a bounty of grapes and organic produce. I dry chilies and shell beans and prep the beds for next season’s garlic while taking in the last rays of Indian summer. Yet in waking and sleeping, I find myself transported back among the land- slides, the broken forests, and the people. I’m left with questions: How can I use my voice to amplify the needs of others? How can I use my skills to support the island’s longer-term food security, water, and sustainable education? Puerto Rico is hungry and ripe for a sustainable revolution. Dozens are awaiting my return, and we are looking for the right parcel of land. From the ashes of this catastrophe I envision a new farm and sustainable living center in my future. Would you like to join us?
Melissa Kushi, founder and CEO of HimalaSalt, also owns Living Earth Farm, dedicated to regenerative agriculture, sustainable education, and providing free organic produce for her community. Image Credit: NBC News.