Giving birth during a hurricane is definitely an uncommon experience. Giorgia tells us about it in this beautiful and detailed article. Thanks a lot Giorgia and best wishes to you, your family and Puerto Rico.
Hurricane Irma had already passed through Puerto Rico when I was nine months pregnant…but compared to Maria, it was nothing: just heightened wind, some fallen trees and minor floods. When Irma struck, we stayed put in our fourth floor apartment facing the ocean, with the tormenteras (metal protective grids you fix outside the windows) and enough food for an army, like anyone does here when there is a weather alert, even just a light tropical storm. Electricity was cut briefly while the compound generator was turned on and all comforts remained at hand. My daughter Emma (3 and a half) loved the first hurricane because it kept mom, dad and Janie (the au pair girl) at home to play with her for a whole day, while we cheerfully camped in the portion of the living room far from the windows.
With Maria it was different. I was three days away from my due date, and the second hurricane was going to be much stronger than the first, since this time the eye was going to make landfall and cross the whole island, whereas Irma’s eye has just skirted the coast.
As soon as it became clear that Maria would not turn north like Irma, my husband booked a room in a hotel inside the hospital were I was to give birth. And that is where we spent two nights during the hurricane. Or rather, during the long hours while the hurricane swept through Puerto Rico, we camped in the hotel corridor with other guests, trying to entertain Emma with games and cartoons. This time, we lost power very quickly, and air conditioning with it (along with some of the windows of the building, luckily not on our floor). Still, the hotel had a generator that provided light in the corridor for most of the time.
The baby decided to wait, though, so we didn’t have to dash to the hospital through the tunnel (above ground first and then underground) that connects the hotel to the maternity ward of the hospital. Everything was well planned because in any case we would have been able to reach the hospital without having to go outside, but we are happy to have been spared Hollywood scenes, like running through dark basements while I clutched my abdomen through contractions!
Eventually I gave birth two days after going home (right on time after assessing the damage and mopping up the water that had filtered into the house), with natural birth (VBAC to be precise), in post-hurricane Puerto Rico, without air conditioning in the hospital…not even in the delivery room! And so Matilde Maria was born (her second name a must considering the circumstances). The advantage was that we were sent home after 24 hours.
We are fine, despite the very difficult situation in the country. When a baby is born, she usually marks the pace of a family day. But ours mostly revolve around the rhythm of the generator that gives us light and water for a few hours a day. But we are definitely luckier than others. Virtually all the garden trees have fallen or were unsafe and have been cut down. In some apartments the tormenteras had not been fixed properly, and the hurricane took them away and then destroyed the windows. In our flat luckily all is intact.
In the immediate phase after the hurricane everything was blocked, but Puerto Ricans immediately rolled up their sleeves and set to work. Three days after giving birth, less than a week after Maria, I even managed to find a pediatrician to come home for the first visit to Matilde, since all medical practices were still closed (without electricity): really kind!
Through the post-partum and with the baby just born, one of the most difficult things I had to face was waiting for a pharmacy in the neighbourhood to open, since my car could not be used because it was stuck under a cantilever roof that had fallen in the parking lot. It is strange to realize how we take for granted all the wonderful services we normally have access to every day! Going through these situations from time to time can only be beneficial.
For instance, it will take several months to reestablish the electricity and water supply on the whole island. We are lucky because we are in the capital, and repair work will start from here, since it is here that most of the population lives, and it’s also the main tourist centre. I am afraid though that we won’t be able to trust the quality of water for a long while. At the moment we boil it and keep it in a big pot and use it to wash the food, or our hands before touching food, dishes, etc. We wash the baby with bottled water.
One of the hottest issues at the moment is diesel, as it is the only means to have generators functioning, thus giving power to buildings and homes. My husband works in an oil company. Shortly after Maria, I found myself telling him not to wear shirts sporting the company logo when he goes out (even to go to work). Here water and gas represent power at the moment. And people go crazy. For several days already, police and armed military staff have been stationed in front of the deposit. Almost all the trucks leaving to supply gas stations, hospitals and the airport are escorted. Drivers of smaller ones, which don’t have an escort, say that people stop them on the road offering absurd amounts to fill up their jerry cans. My husband has not been home even one day since Matilde was born (apart from the week-ends). I consider this our family contribution to Puerto Rico. Here we must roll up our sleeves and help the country get back on its feet.
Communication is another very important issue at the moment. Unfortunately the signal is not stable and varies depending on the area. I have friends who are at home isolated from any kind of communication and have to move by car to find a mobile signal. Even on this point we are lucky, Internet and messaging work inside the house, too. Calls are the least efficient means of communication, since they depend on the reception of two phones at the same time and on the traffic on the line. So we find ourselves sending out messages to everyone, from friends we haven’t heard from, to the pediatrician, to the consul!
Despite all this, I am definitely calm and quite happy. At times I am sorry not to be able to go out and help the community, having just given birth and with the baby to breastfeed and to look after. Many parents go every day to their children’s schools to help clean up so that they can open again soon. I know this is not possible for me, but it cannot be otherwise. I would have liked to go through the experience of solidarity and unity. It is something completely different from modern life. Our grandparents’ lives must have been a bit like this…
In any case at the moment we do not intend to leave. We are anyway virtually blocked because we are waiting for the baby’s documents. We are trying to speed things up, but it is not easy.
We are fine, though, and happy. We are aware that the situation is tough, but we want to stay and help Puerto Rico get back on its feet rather than “running away”. We’ll obviously evaluate the development of the situation and will do what is best for the children (from a health and safety point of view) should any doubt arise.
I want to finish on a sweet note. As I write, my neighbour (a very kind doctor) has opened his door to have some air circulating…the notes of his piano are drifting into my living room…this is the first time I have heard him playing since we arrived.