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Westchaser Shares Tale of Surviving Maria in Puerto Rico

The timing of Jeremy Ramos’ vacation seemed ideal.

Only a week earlier, Hurricane Irma had weakened dramatically before skirting Tampa, leaving no damage to Jeremy Ramos’ Westchase home. He was ready to return to his native Puerto Rico to visit relatives and catch up on work remotely.

It was goodbye, Irma. And hello to family, the Caribbean and ... Hurricane Maria?

“I had no idea what an adventure I was about to embark on,” said Ramos, who lives in Glencliff with wife Kathrin and their two children.

Perhaps the timing wasn't so ideal, after all. He arrived in Guaynabo, P.R., on Sept. 17, just days before category 5 Maria was projected to strike.  “I decided to go anyway,” Ramos said. “The day after I got there it looked more and more like the storm was going to hit. I had to make a call: Do I stay or do I leave before travel is shut down? Naively, I thought the mountain range that divides the island was going to reduce the storm’s strength. They were projecting a category 5, but by the time it got to us on the north side of the island, I thought it would be a 3 or 2, and a glancing blow rather than a direct hit. That wasn’t the case.” 

Guaynabo is 10 miles south of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital located on the island’s Atlantic coast. Ramos put his Irma preparation to good use as Maria approached.  “My step-mother and step-brother are disabled, and my grandmother is 92 years old, so my dad is the only able-bodied person in the house. I couldn’t just leave them,” Ramos said. “It was very clear that my family wasn’t ready for the storm. They didn’t think Maria would be so bad, so I decided to stay and help. We spent the 18th and 19th prepping for the storm, boarding up windows, taking loose items from the yard and tying them down. There was a lot to do. They didn’t have enough food or water stored away, and they didn’t have enough cash, so I was scrambling. Similar to what happened here with Irma, the stores were empty, there was no gas, etc.”

Ramos stayed at his father’s house and followed the television coverage of Maria on the night of Sept. 19. At about 2 a.m. on Sept. 20, power was shut down preemptively. Maria’s biggest impact came gradually over the next 18 hours, with the hurricane’s eye passing about 10 to 15 miles south of Guaynabo.  “By 2:30 or 3 a.m., you could feel tropical-storm gusts. It continued to pound us all night,” Ramos said. “All day on the 20th there were hurricane-force winds; I believe it was about two miles per hour short of a category 5. At around noon it was the worst. That’s when it started blowing roofs off of structures.” 

A metal roof on his father’s carport was blown off, and water seeped into the house under doors, but the concrete house was otherwise undamaged.  That wasn’t the case elsewhere.  The entire island was without power, although some buildings had generators. There was no cell-phone service, so Ramos couldn’t contact his wife for three days. News came from one operating radio station. Water pressure was low. Food and fuel were scarce. ATMs were empty.  “We eventually took a drive and the scenes were horrific,” Ramos said. “Concrete light posts had disintegrated. Tons of trees were down. On a hillside in the distance, not a single tree had a leaf on it; it looked like a bomb went off and all the foliage was burned off. My biggest fear in terms of my personal safety was getting in a car accident. There were no traffic lights, no military, no FEMA people and, for the first couple of days, no traffic cops at intersections. Some people were driving recklessly. I was concerned about getting into a car wreck and then not getting the medical attention you’d normally get.” 

Ramos, who studied computer science and engineering at the University of South Florida, was a power generator technician for the U.S. Army. He instantly knew Puerto Rico was in for a long recovery.  “I remember driving down a main road and I counted about 120 broken power poles. These were large, high-voltage poles,” he said. “I did the math in my head. Three days for each one -- to put a new hole in the ground, rig it with new hardware, run the cable – and multiply that by 120. Think about the man hours. And that’s just one stretch of road, about 10 or 15 miles long. Multiply that by all the roads in Puerto Rico.” 

That was only the beginning of the frightening scenes he encountered.  Needing fuel for his father’s small generator, Ramos was in a gas line where some people smoked cigarettes while waiting to fill their jugs.  “I was terrified,” he said. “A couple of days later we spent four hours in a gas line. I remember driving past lines of cars stopped to get gas, and I stopped counting at 150 cars. The gangs started commandeering gas stations. They'd walk up with their weapons and say, ‘No, we’re fueling up before anyone else.’ That was before the police started to make a presence.”  Throughout the ordeal, however, Ramos also saw positives. The day after the hurricane, neighbors united to clear yards and roads of debris.  “It’s kind of a cliché, but it brings out the best in people and the worst in people,” he said. “You really get to see people for who they are under those conditions.” 

Ramos, an entrepreneur, has his own way of helping. A founder and lead engineer of tech start-ups Priatek and Kabinger, he created an app through Kabinger.com where people can donate to the relief efforts of recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.  Ramos kept detailed notes of his experiences in Puerto Rico, first on his cell phone and then in a Spiderman notepad he found at his father’s house.

After Maria hit, he made his first entry in the notepad: LET’S MAKE A PLAN. That included his return to the United States, and on Sept. 26 he got a seat on a Southwest Airlines flight from San Juan to Orlando.  “The Southwest personnel did an amazing job of dealing with all the chaos,” Ramos said. “The computers weren’t working. The manifest for the flight was hand-written. I distinctly remember it – blue ink, white paper, three columns of names. My name was on the manifest and I had a confirmation number, so I was able to get on the flight, but I did not believe I was going to get back to the U.S. that day. I believed I was one step closer, but even when I was in the plane and the plane was on the tarmac ready to go, I was thinking any minute now we could be getting off the plane. Anything could have happened. The airport could be shut down. A mechanical failure. Maybe they didn’t have enough fuel. Who knows? Not until that plane went wheels up did I finally say, ‘We’re out of here.’” 

Ramos then did something he didn’t think he’d ever do. 

“I was clapping and cheering with everyone else, when the plane took off and when it landed,” he said. “Most of the time when people do that, I think it’s kind of corny, but this time I felt it was justified. I was like, ‘YES!’ I felt a little guilty leaving my family, but it was a relief getting back. I felt kind of privileged being able to get back home and into my normal routine.” 

Since returning, Ramos arranged for his relatives to fly to Tampa. They are here indefinitely while major infrastructure repairs continue in Puerto Rico, where Ramos’ thoughts remain. 

“Some people lost everything,” he said. “There are people there whose lives will never be the same.”

By Michael Servidio

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