Life can be funny at times. At least that’s what I think each time when I think back on how I ended up becoming an emergency manager. I don’t remember exactly how it happened but I fell in love with it when I participated in a service program called FEMA Corps. Falling in love with emergency management took some time. For me, it wasn’t a love at first sight kind of affair. But rather a very complicated one filled with mixed feelings of sadness, jealousy, anger, love and most of all growth.
On September 20 of 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall on the island. The winds were so powerful that we had to hide on my mom’s walk-in closet. We waited for the storm out. First, we lost power, then we lost water and slowly we lost all communications. As we waited for the storm out we listened to my mom’s tiny battery radio as the only radio station left working in the whole island explained where the eye of the storm was located and how long it would take for that nightmare to end. While trying to keep the water out as our home slowly flooded. We didn’t sleep that night. The fear combined with the adrenaline kept us awake as we cleaned all night not knowing what was going to happen on the next coming months.
After everything passed we were finally able to leave our house. We discovered that the whole house was flooded. My neighbor’s roof landed on our own, many of my neighbors lost their windows, cars, roofs and that many of them, like us, spent that night locked in their bathrooms, closets, and bedrooms because the winds were so strong that they feared for their lives.
For 3 months I learned to live without running water or electricity. I knew what it was like to drive for an hour to get crappy cell reception to tell my family in the United States that we were alive and well. I’m blessed after everything that happened I still had good health, my loved ones were safe, we had food and a roof over our heads. Much more than many who were living in shelters or worse in the streets.
I decided to join FEMACorps while I was still in PR not fully understanding what the program was and the challenges that I would have to face. Never in a million years did I think I would have to face another hurricane so soon. The day I was told my team would be responding to the disaster of Hurricane Michael in the Florida Panhandle I immediately worried. I wasn’t sure if I was ready to face again the destruction brought by a hurricane. I knew the people around me would never even begin to understand it because they had never lived anything similar in their lives. But I still worried about how I would react to my surroundings and how I would be able to lead a team when I was terrified of what I would have to face.
I worked out in a community called Lynn Haven, only a few minutes away from Panama City Beach and Mexico City Beach, where the worst of the disaster had happened. There we were registering survivors for disaster assistance. Never in my life had I felt I was truly helping others as I did in those times. I met so many people, heard so many different stories. I saw myself in them sometimes, I identified with many of the stories they told, I cried with some, laughed with others and truly tried my very best to help each person who sat in front of me.
For weeks I struggled with the situation around me. I could not help but compare everything that was happening to Puerto Rico. For a while, I became bitter, jealous that it wasn’t that “easy” for those still back on the island. Slowly I stopped comparing the recovery response of Hurricane Michael to Maria. I was no longer jealous of how “easy” it’s been for those people. I realized that for them, this was the worst moment of their lives and that I was there to try to make it a little better in these hard times, not judge.
I lived in a responder camp where we lived in tents, slept in cots, showered in trailers and cohabited with all sorts of first responders like the police, firefighters, the Red Cross, and many AmeriCorps Members. To this day it’s one of the best experiences I have ever been through. There I actually started to love emergency management. I finally found a career where I felt I could be of service to others. I felt fulfilled. That led me to continue my career path into emergency management, I currently work as an emergency manager, where I am able to travel all over the United States assisting communities affected by natural disasters. As of right now, I’m working in Iowa assisting with the floods that are currently happening. There are not enough words to describe my experience working on an active disaster. I hope that the pictures here do a better job telling my story than my own words.