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Even Little Debby Leaves a Mark on Puerto Rico

by Lance Oliver

August 25, 2000
Copyright © 2000 THE PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

"Little Debby," some people in the United States called her: a snack-cake-sized disturbance barely earning a "hurricane" designation with her 75 mph winds as she passed by the north coast of Puerto Rico on Tuesday.

She was scoffed at. Some surfers who ventured out to the beaches looking for a wild ride went home disappointed. Although Debby’s eye passed just 40 miles north of San Juan, her weak southern side didn’t even stir up enough wave action to thrill jaded surfers. Some tourists didn’t even bother getting out of the hotel pool as the hurricane roared toward the island.

Yet even "Little Debby" left a mark on Puerto Rico: washed out bridges, mudslides in more than a dozen of the 78 municipalities from Guánica to Toa Alta, roads closed by downed trees and more than 100 people in shelters even after the storm had passed. Indeed, most of the hurricane’s damage in Puerto Rico occurred after the eye had moved away. Rain fell steadily overnight from Tuesday into Wednesday morning, creating the flooding that caused the damage that the storm’s winds could not muster.

The fact that even such a minimal hurricane could affect so many people was yet another lesson.

It seems every hurricane teaches us a lesson. After Luis and Marilyn devastated our Caribbean neighbors but turned away from Puerto Rico at the last minute, some people began to say we were safe, that the hand of God would protect our island and turn the storms away. Hortense washed away part of that conceit with the worst flooding in decades and Georges blew away the remnants with its 100 mph winds that left no square foot of the island untouched and left no place for hubris to take root.

Each hurricane is as unique as a person, so each teaches us some new and usually harsh lesson. Hugo taught the island that the concrete towers of the city could be damaged just like the humble shacks of old in the days when Puerto Rico was a rural, agricultural society. Hugo also showed that the hurricane could be frightening, but the weeks afterwards, the weeks without the simple pleasures of a warm shower and an electric light to read by after dark, were in some ways a more difficult burden to bear.

Hortense, again, was not a strong storm. But she taught the lesson of the unpredictability of hurricanes. In her wake, I talked to the owner of a small restaurant in rural Canóvanas, the kind of place in the countryside where people go on Sundays to escape the city, eat and drink and maybe shoot some pool or listen to music. A small brook babbled far below the building. During Hugo, it had not risen even to the base of the building.

But that day, I could see for myself, from the line of mud four feet up the wall, just how unbelievably high the river had risen. The same was true miles away in Toa Baja, where homes that had never flooded were suddenly under water during the worst of Hortense, their startled occupants seeking shelter on the roof and wondering if the night would be their last.

Georges, the strongest storm to hit the island in 70 years, taught us that we are not safe. That despite our concrete homes and modern systems, we can be left without power and water for weeks. Georges reminded us that we are small, that one major hurricane can reach every corner of Puerto Rico.

Debby showed us again, if we were paying attention, that even a little hurricane can do damage. Maybe not for most of us. The majority of us were back to normal after no more inconvenience than a rainy night, maybe a few downed tree limbs to dodge on the way to work the next morning.

But for some, houses were lost. At least one life was lost, as well, in the preparations for the storm.

On a more mundane note, the storm yielded another tidbit of information that would surprise nobody who has done business in Puerto Rico: About half of government employees failed to show up for work on Wednesday. That comes as no surprise to anyone who has had to do business with the government and has faced the fact that in Puerto Rico the government does not serve the people, but rather the people are expected to adapt to the whims of the government and keep it well fed.

Some of the damage in the wake of Debby was inevitable and can be blamed on topography. Some of it is due to the poor construction practices here, where builders and developers gouge great holes in the earth in every project.

But the final lesson is that until we become stronger, better prepared, smarter and more capable, even a little hurricane can hurt us bad enough to leave a mark.

Lance Oliver writes The Puerto Rico Report weekly for The Puerto Rico Herald. He can be reached by email at:

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