“Like most Brooklyn renters, Robert Collignon never expected to buy a snow shovel, let alone a Subaru Forester.”
This was the first line of a New York Times feature I was reading in San Juan, just two days before Hurricane Irma came through and ravaged much of the Caribbean. The article was perfectly timed because we’d just learned that our offer on a summer business in Maine had been accepted, and suddenly, we too were on the fast track to joining club Subaru.
At that point, we were so absorbed with hurricane prep, we didn’t have a second to wrap our heads around this momentous life decision. Because our San Juan house (lovingly known as “the bunker”) is over a century old, made of foot-thick concrete, and sits high on a hill surrounded by an ancient Spanish fort, it was the best place for our sailor friends to take shelter. We lost power and water, but the bunker was a rock. With news of the total devastation in the USVI, BVI, St. Maarten, Anguilla, and many other islands that we’d come to love, we couldn’t stop thinking how lucky we’d been.
In the weeks that followed, the bunker became a place of refuge for evacuees from St. Maarten and the USVI who had lost everything. Our kickass friends Tory and Jon started a group called Sailors Helping.org. It was originally intended to mobilize the sailing community to deliver aid, but the response from the sailing and Puerto Rican communities was so overwhelming that it escalated into an effort to coordinate shipments of (literally) tons of goods utilizing high-powered speed boats, cargo ships, and planes.
At this point, it was difficult for us focus on our new venture and impossible to get anything done without internet or power. We decided that Brian should head to Maine with Cole for a couple of months, where he would work on our new business and continue the freelance work he’d been doing before the storm. I decided to stay in San Juan with Marigot, volunteer with the relief effort, and continue to take care of the people staying at our house.
After a particularly challenging Saturday spent loading trucks and planes with supplies bound for Tortola and Anguilla, Tory, Jon, and I reconvened over drinks with some sailor friends. Looking at the weather models, we noticed a new hurricane forming off the coast of Africa, and it was coming at us FAST. Even though it was far away, the models (usually all over the place with a storm so far off) mostly agreed that the eye would pass directly over Puerto Rico. It was the last thing we wanted to hear.
We were all exhausted. Some of us still didn’t have electricity back from Irma. With another potentially catastrophic storm just five days away, our night of relaxation pivoted into an emotional strategy session for the boat owners. I felt for all of them as they hunched over their screens, studying the weather models. Having to choose between a few not-great options for sheltering your boat and everything you own is a shitty thing to do.
As the sailors hatched their plans, I was quietly having an internal breakdown. The crisis in the other islands was so fresh that it was easy to imagine the worst for Puerto Rico. I felt overwhelmed by the work Brian and I needed to accomplish, and I was scared of getting trapped on a devastated island with no resources. In a matter of minutes, I decided to act. I stepped away from my friends in the bar, called Jet Blue, and booked a flight out for early the following week.
This decision instantly made me feel like a piece of shit, and that selfish pit in my stomach continued to gnaw at me. As our friends were busy securing their boats and laying in supplies for yet another stay in the bunker, I was Ubering around the island like a lunatic in search of a pet carrier for Marigot meeting Delta Cargo’s exacting standards (ask me later about the insane and expensive process that is shipping a medium-sized dog). While the rest of Puerto Rico came together in help and support, I was going to cut and run.
On the day of the storm, Marigot’s flight departed Puerto Rico at 6AM, and I was out by 1PM. We reunited with Brian and Cole at my sister-in-law’s place in Connecticut, where we anxiously awaited news from Puerto Rico.
Thankfully, all of our friends are ok. Our neighbor Wynn fell and broke her arm the morning after the storm, but luckily, our friends staying in the bunker (which took the storm like a champ, btw) were there to get her help. But, the bad news is still unraveling. Three weeks later, Puerto Ricans – who are American citizens, by the way – continue to suffer. They lack adequate food, potable water, and medical care. Our government seems totally cool with their suffering. Some asshat came down to throw paper towels at them, as if he were Marie Antoinette. Apparently, it’s their own damn fault because they are lazy, their government is corrupt, and Wall Street vultures swooped in to profit off of the dysfunction. It makes me so fucking angry – Puerto Rico is filled with generous, hard working people who would give you their last dime if you needed it. They deserve so much better.
Brian and I have been watching this horror show unfold from our laptops in our cozy rented house up in Vinalhaven, ME, an island 15 miles off the coast of Rockland. With no way to predict when resources will return to Puerto Rico, we made the sad choice of ending our lease in Old San Juan. Now that the plan has changed (yet again) and we’ll be working from Maine instead – it’s time to buy some parkas!
Meanwhile, our deal is about to close, and we are busier than ever. Being a superstitious person, I’m not quite ready to share what we’re cooking up next until after we’ve signed on the dotted line. Rest assured, we’ve once again bitten off a terrifying amount of responsibility for things that are mostly new to us, but we are excited for the future ahead.