SPRING HILL — From their mountainside home in Las Piedras, Puerto Rico, Diana Mendez and her husband, Hector Guzman, watched two back-to-back hurricanes ravage the island in September. But the ongoing aftermath of the historically devastating storms — Irma and Maria — they’ve decided to watch from Hernando County.
Mendez and Guzman left the post-hurricane chaos behind in mid-October to stay with family in Spring Hill after their daughters, both healthcare workers, told them to leave the island to avoid fast-spreading disease. The couple plans to stay here through the holidays, living "day-by-day" until basic necessities, like clean water and electricity, are restored back home.
"We are on a forced vacation, giving them time to put the island back together," said Guzman, 60, from a lawn chair in the sunny backyard of his niece’s home on Spring Hill Drive.
Since they arrived here, news reports, Facebook posts and nightly phone calls from their daughters, who remained in Puerto Rico, have kept them in the loop about what’s happening there.
Their neighborhood on the island’s eastern coast is still without power, as it has been for more than 70 days. Food is scarce and water contaminated, and although cell service has improved, it is still far from fully restored.
The eye of Hurricane Irma skirted the northeastern side of Puerto Rico as a Category 5 storm on Sept. 6, causing mass power outages. Two weeks later, Hurricane Maria hit as the first Category 4 to make landfall there since 1932.
The effects of both storms were magnified not only by one another, but also by the U.S. territory’s ongoing economic crisis and fragile power grid.
"Our daughters call us and say ‘I’ve had it, I’ve had it,’" said Mendez, 58, who remembers feeling hopeless the night Maria swept over their blue-and-white concrete house, built in place of a wooden one they lost to Hurricane Georges, which hit the island as a Category 3 in 1998.
She said the upgrade to a more sturdy structure made them feel okay to ride out the storm there, but once the worst of Maria’s winds began pounding at the front door, causing it to shake, they weren’t so sure.
"We didn’t think it was going to be that strong," Mendez said. "It sounded like a train. The wind whistled... like a monster."
Terrified, the couple moved from the living room to a bedroom on the side of the rectangular house and shut the door. But it started to shake, too, after gusting winds blew the front door out.
"You start going crazy, wondering when it’s going to stop," Guzman said. "I had doubts we were going to make it."
Boom, boom, boom, they heard as flying glass and other debris crashed outside their bedroom door. Together through the rest of the night, they held it closed, hoping for the best, waiting for the end.
They walked outside the next day to a devastated world: Every tree was stripped bare, paint and mortar had been blown off houses, cars were overturned and animals wandered in a daze. Debris blocked the dirt path to get down the mountain, but devastation could be seen for miles from their elevated property.
"It was over, but it wasn’t over," Mendez said. "It’s like Puerto Rico was left naked."
She felt relief wash over her when she spotted their oldest daughter Marlene, whose house sits nearby, hopping over fallen trees and power lines to get to them. Their family was safe.
Five days later, the couple made it to town. In the weeks that followed, Guzman remembers seeing lines for food, gas, generators — everything. He says he waited nearly 20 hours in one, chatting through dominos games with those around him.
"There wasn’t a system for anything," he said, but noted a strong sense of unity among the Puerto Rican people. They lent materials and helping hands, he said, and soon, two mantras began circulating the island:
"Yo no me quito," or "I won’t quit," and "Puerto Rico se levanta," or "Puerto Rico rises."
Mendez said when they arrived at the airport on Oct. 18 to leave, it seemed like "an exodus of the island."
Those like Mendez and Guzman, who have family on the mainland and could afford the inflated price for flights, were in a mad dash to escape the destruction Irma and Maria left behind.
"Since we are retired and don’t have debt, we can do this... but a lot of people can’t," Guzman said. "Not everyone can just drop everything and come out running."
As they prepare to spend the holidays in the states, Mendez and Guzman say they will remain thankful for their family’s open invitations. They’ll spend Thanksgiving in New York and Christmas in Spring Hill.
Guzman said he suspects many who left Puerto Rico, some of whom are now without jobs and homes, won’t go back. But he and Mendez are sure they’ll return.
"I love my island," Guzman said. "There is a lot of stuff (to do) right now, but we’ll catch up."
Contact Megan Reeves at [email protected] Follow @mareevs.