By the time Hurricane María smashed into Puerto Rico on September 20th, we had learned a lesson from Hurricane Irma: Downtime is costly. Lack of choice is sometimes important.
First came Hurricane Irma. Though Irma devastated other islands in the Caribbean, she only gave us a glancing blow. Still, the storm knocked out power for a week. A week may not sound like much. But in this business, a week means, “I’m sorry, I can’t take your project now because I don’t know when I’m getting power back.” Which means a hole in our production schedule much longer than the down time. It means clients are disappointed. This business is all about trust and relationships. You don’t usually get to see the clients. They put their dreams in your hands and trust you to make them happen. You have to make it happen.
It wasn’t the first time we had a power failure. The power company in Puerto Rico, like the rest of the government, is in bankruptcy. AEE has trouble keeping the lights on. We were used to losing power. But usually only for 10 to 12 hours, maybe a day. Last year we had a 4-day power failure across the entire Island. It was clear we’d need a solution, especially as SoundFridge was growing. “I’m sorry, the power is out again,” just wasn’t cutting it. I was looking at generators. At the radio station where I also work, we have generators. Commercial diesel units that are meant to power enormous transmitters for days at a time. I couldn’t afford that, and my condo board wouldn’t allow one anyway. But there were too many options getting in the way of a decision. How could I choose a model? What was I willing to pay? Should I get a bigger one that could also run my fridge and some lights? Should I get a more expensive inverter one that makes clean electricity for studio use?
Then came Irma. All the stores from Home Depot to Tru Valu to the little corner ferreterías sold out of generators in a flash. The storm was a wake-up call. I had to decide what I needed, and fast. What if the next storm hit us full on?
Three days post Irma, the lights were still out and my wife and I were sitting in a steamy coffee shop catching up on some e-mails. I was looking at options. Well, one option really. Because shipping. Shipping generators to the Caribbean is prohibitively expensive. The only one we could afford to ship was a little blue 2000 watt inverter generator. It would be good to start, I thought. I could use it to run my studio. Everything else could wait till the stores restocked. I clicked the “Order” button and paid for 15-day shipping. The kind folks there at Electric Generator Depot bumped up the shipping to overnight at no extra charge because, they said, “We figure you may need it.” Thank God they did. I only had time to unpack it, add oil, fill it with gas, give it a break-in run, and then María hit.
If you’ve seen the news over the past 37 days, you know what happened. Thankfully, my wife and I were not as nearly affected as many. Our apartment did not flood. The windows did not break. The first 11 days after María, we were isolated from everything but our immediate neighbors. “Are you okay?” “Yes, we’re fine.” “Here, help me chop this big tree up and we’ll put it in that truck.” “Okay.” “Do you need bottled water? Here, take some of mine.” Those 11 days I would sometimes sit in my steaming bedroom, holding my phone and opening the Facebook app to review the last items that had come in before the storm. There were one or two radio stations on the air, but they had no Internet or any way of taking calls, so they were as blind as the rest of us and limited to repeating rumors and trying to record the Governor’s press conferences. There was no cell signal. No Internet, obviously. No way to call our families and let them know we were okay.
Outside, as far as we could walk, a nuclear bomb had gone off. Trudging through a landscape that had gone from tropical verdant to late-November drab grays and browns. As if fall had hit the Caribbean. And everywhere silence. The sound of wind pushing through ruined trees and downed power lines. They need to invent a new word for surreal.
Nothing was open. Nowhere to go to. We dare not drive anywhere, because gas lines were 10 hours long. Literally. We had 3 gallons of gasoline for the generator in reserve. How pitiful that seemed. Certainly we could not run it to keep the refrigerator cold. That was for SoundFridge, for when we had a chance to reopen. We would need that income.
Impressions. One comes to mind. The two packs of D-cell batteries for the fan did not last long. One night waking up around midnight, unable to breathe in the heat. Stifling, pressing heat and humidity, like when I was a kid how I’d sometimes get stuck in a sleeping bag and couldn’t find my way out. We decided to go to the car and run the air conditioner. Saving gas? This was an emergency. Turning on the radio, and scanning the dial. And not a radio station on the air, not in AM or FM. All gone silent. Some to conserve diesel, some because they have not yet returned to air. I thought of Will Smith in “I Am Legend.”
The mind does funny things when the future is so uncertain. Nothing outside your immediate field of view matters. Time slows when you can’t sleep and there is no breeze to escape the punishing Sahara heat that a hurricane dumps as it leaves. There’s a smell in the air that is more than olfactory, part ozone and mud and part the bigness inside an empty stadium. It’s not that there was a lot of damage; it’s that nothing was undamaged. Every tree ripped as if by monster hands, every sign tipped or askew, every house stripped of color or roof or just a foundation slab where there used to be a house. When it was on, the people on the radio mentioned that many nations were sending aid. We saw huge airplanes, much larger than the normal ones, lining up for descent to the airport (we live under the approach path). We became vaguely aware that the President of the USA was going to be at a church where we have friends. We were a block away at the moment. All we felt was annoyance at the traffic jam. Our neighborhood, largely spared the worst of the storm, never saw anyone from FEMA or the National Guard. We were grateful and knew why, but felt cut off all the same.
Then late one night, we walked outside into the dark to the front of our condo. People were standing there, holding their phones in the air. Apparently some signal was getting through. My phone started buzzing. As I sat on the curb to read the messages, tears came. Past clients from all over the world were writing. A note from China: “We’re praying for you.” A note from the USA: “Please let me know if there’s anything I can do.” A note from Sri Lanka: “Dear sir: We know what it is to experience cyclones. Here is $30 to help.” And so on. Life outside Puerto Rico was continuing, but here dozens of people I had never met were thinking about my wife and I, asking how things were going. From a client in New Zealand: “No worries, mate. We will wait till you get back on your feet.”
I reopened SoundFridge. Reopened the account on Fiverr, reopened the website. Now 37 days later, the lights are still out. Most of Puerto Rico is still in the dark, although bright shoots of hope show everywhere. The malls are reopening, stores are restocking, gas lines are down everywhere. The little blue generator keeps running. We’ve been able to deliver some 16 projects post-Maria. I record them, transfer them to my phone, and then we drive around looking for enough signal to send them.
I’ve always known the truism that necessity is the mother of invention. I’d add to that, in some cases lack of choices is important. Going back to the gas issue, we could not use the generator for our personal comfort because we needed that gas for SoundFridge. And who knew when gas would be available? Would it be a week, three weeks, a month? It turns out the model we chose is an amazing gas sipper. It can run at half load for about 15 hours on half a gallon of gas. Happily, half load is exactly what I need to run the studio. Had I chosen a bigger one to run the fridge and other things, our 3 gallons of gas would have been gone in about the same number of hours.
In the end, we got 57 hours of SoundFridge recording from our first 3 gallons of gas. The first time we ran out, we had to walk about 5 miles round trip to the one gas station that was open. And now gas is available again. I am grateful for the lack of choice. While neighbors have had to stand in line daily to refill their 5-gallon candungos with gas, I have been quietly working away in my studio. Without SoundFridge, this month would have been much bleaker, especially financially.
I want to end this with a note of thanks. I am grateful to God for His hand of protection and provision for me, for my wife, for SoundFridge. I thank all my clients, past and present, who contacted us to ask after our welfare and even to send help. Thank you to everyone who has been sending aid and coming to help the people of Puerto Rico. There is still much left to do, but you are making a difference. Thank you.
– Dalan Decker