“It looked like Chernobyl,” said Rome native Samantha Cherbony, referring to the catastrophic nuclear accident that took place in Ukraine in the 80s. She was describing her first glimpse of what Hurricane Maria recently did to her little corner of tropical paradise in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico.
“I was terrified,” she said. “It was so massive. I still can’t fathom it.”
The beauty of this tropical island, which she had come to love, was ripped away in the sustained 170 mph winds of this Category 5 hurricane that hit land on Sept. 20. It sounded like a train coming, she said. The outside safety lights had been ripped out and were steadily banging against the home, and TV cables and power lines whipped through the air.
“It literally had a body of its own,” said Samantha of the street signs, pieces of houses, animals and miscellaneous debris whistling past them.
For over 18 hours the hurricane had raged on, progressively worsening with each fleeting moment.
“It just wouldn’t stop,” Samantha said.
As she went outside with her husband, Ray Cherbony, who is from the island and is a retired U.S. Army veteran, the bright colors and verdant vibrancy of Puerto Rico was gone — it looked like winter. It was quiet, eerily quiet. In the moonlight the palms silhouetted in the shape of large scaredy cats. It broke her to even go outside because she couldn’t stand to see the reality of what had occurred.
The palm trees were stripped bare, naked and battered. The stray dogs that are a token of the streets were no longer there, and cows and horses had been washed out with the receding waves. Their neighbor’s roof was in their backyard.
“It was a disaster,” she said. “I don’t wish this on anyone.”
The couple is now in Rome where they plan to stay with their two grandchildren, Raul, 13, and Ray, 11, who are going to school at Coosa Middle. Their daughter and son-in-law remain in Puerto Rico, but they are working to get them out and into Rome. The American Red Cross of Northwest Georgia is assisting them, as they left with almost nothing but the clothes on their backs and had depleted their savings in trying to get out.
However, how they got here is a story of survival and the takeover of one’s will with a fight-or-flight mindset.
“You’re on your own,” said Ray, adding that there was no hospital open, no 911 to call, no power, no running water, just them and the people around them.
And this isn’t a story of the dangers of being unprepared, for there comes a time when no preparations can withstand what is to come.
“We were as prepared as we could possibly be,” she said. “Some of it was just so unreal.”
First Irma, now this
Staying in Puerto Rico was temporary for the two of them, who were accustomed to jumping from place to place due to Ray’s military service. On Sept. 6, Hurricane Irma hit, dumping rain and bringing strong winds, but for the most part, the worst of it had been avoided. Samantha said she had a “woohoo” moment after being freaked out in the run-up to the hurricane’s imminent landfall.
The power had been knocked out and wasn’t restored until the evening of Sept. 10. Samantha received a text from her sister concerning a massive tropical depression forming in the Atlantic Ocean, Maria was coming and gaining strength. Ray had told her not to worry because it could be nothing, so they went about their business stocking up on supplies— batteries, a radio, candles, water, canned meat — mopping up and cleaning.
Everyone had their own take on what would result from Maria, from brushing it off to predicting pending doom, Samantha said. The governor had announced that power would be cut off at 6 p.m. the day before Maria hit. So Samantha and Ray frantically cooked food, which was stuffed in Ziploc bags and put in the freezer.
Then Maria came and ravaged and plundered all in its path. In the aftermath, Ray said that had their home been a wood-frame, it would have been demolished.
The first priority for the couple was to get their son back to college and on the campus of Virginia Tech. A week later they got him out, after waiting on the airport to reopen.
There were lines for everything, Samantha said, including lines for the actual lines. Like most people in the digital age, and since they were in Puerto Rico, they didn’t carry cash on them, Samantha said. They had to wake up early to make it to the ATM, to pull money out before it closed at 2 p.m.
Ray had to wake up at 5 a.m. to get to the gas station, which opened at 9 a.m., and wait in line to get no more than what $15, only in cash, was worth, not just for him but their elderly neighbor as well. It would take eight hours or more.
“You take advantage of the light,” she said.
As the days went on, with no help in sight, the supplies began to dwindle. When they went to the grocery store there was no pleasant shopping, Samantha said, it was grabbing the necessities and getting out. Water was being rationed and the meat had spoiled at the loss of power running the refrigeration. They ate Vienna sausages and canned meat to the point of near complete disgust, Samantha said.
Their food supply only allowed for one big meal each day — Samantha said she didn’t eat for three or four days after the storm hit because she was turned off to everything. They would combine their own with their neighbor and share a meal. Everything was overcharged, Ray said. A case of bottled water they could get for $3.99 was suddenly $32.99.
“Everything was multiplied,” he said.
Ray said that sewer pipes had broken open and run into the ocean, tainting it black and preventing them from going in. The bugs, particularly mosquitoes, were abundant and the temperature inside the house felt like a sweltering 110 degrees, but this was the safest place for them.
One night it was so hot that they took the mattress out into the carport to sleep while her husband slept in a hammock. Samantha said she could hear the click, click, click of the crabs moving across the floor. Ray said that the neighbors would stay up to watch each other’s houses — one would sleep while the other watched and they’d then switch.
Every single day there was a new rock bottom, only to be trumped by what awaited them when the sun rose for a new day, Ray said.
Eventually they were able to drive to their daughter’s house in San Juan, where more services were being restored and help was more prevalent than in rural areas. For five days Samantha had no contact with her family due to cell and phone service being knocked out.
“That’s the thing with an island, there’s no exit routes,” said Samantha, adding that she’d cry five to six times a day. “I couldn’t grasp this lifestyle.”
Their daughter took them to a busted water pipe that had a trickle of fresh water. They’d gather the water in anything from buckets to empty bottles of 7Up and Gatorade. They used it for everything they previously had taken for granted, showering, brushing their teeth and laundry.
Only when they’d collected enough rain in buckets could they shower, Ray said, and they’d have four to five uses for the same water. By the third week, a new routine for the Cherbonys manifested.
“I feel like a different person,” said Samantha, adding she now has the logged memories to be an 80-year-old and say “I can tell you some things.”
Where’s the help
Throughout the whole ordeal from when the hurricane hit to when they made it to Atlanta on Oct. 11, no one came to their door for help. Ray said that FEMA wouldn’t pay for anything that had been repaired after being damaged, so nothing got done.
Each day they’d wake up hoping something would be restored — the power would be on or they could finally get cell service, Samantha said. But that never came.
By Sept. 25, Samantha’s sister had secured their tickets for departure. But even with this, happiness or enjoyment couldn’t be mustered.
“You just didn’t have the energy to be happy,” she said, adding that her concerns escalated when Ray told he was getting weaker from the dehydration and minimal food intake.
Desperation and panic was setting in for the islands inhabitants, especially considering the state people were in before the widespread destruction. Before Maria, there was a 40 percent unemployment rate, Ray said.
“Now we are 90 percent,” he continued, adding that Puerto Ricans see themselves as gritty and tough and fight the idea of getting out.
Gas tanks were being punctured and the gas stolen from cars. Ray worried he’d become a target since he receives a government check due to his disability after retiring from the Army.
When the government didn’t provide help, it was the community that came together. Their daughter lives next to a small store. The owner would get up at 2 in the morning and drive his Honda to a distributor to stock up on Pringles, Cracker Jacks, Cokes, ice and other items.
The owner would come back to San Juan and sell them, but without raising the prices. When the ice came in, Samantha said it was like a gold rush. Having these things was like Christmas dinner, she said.
“Everything became gold,” she said.
A friend of theirs opened up his pizza shop and would sell large pizzas for $10, a “big break from Spam,” Samantha said.
“There was that community feel,” she said.
A welcome home
“We did not realize how hungry we were until we got here,” said Samantha.
She remembers getting two Chick-fil-A sandwiches and wolfing them down, along with chugging over 12 bottles of water.
“It was that bad,” she continued.
Samantha remembers having that youthful urge of wanting to get away from home as soon as she was able. But she is now finding home to be the exact place where she needs to be, finding solace in the safety and happiness of this small Southern town.
“I know how this community works,” she said.
Twenty years ago, Samantha said she would have made fun of the Rome Wolves sign outside Barron Stadium. But she now, with all she had gone through, understands its meaning and its ability to provide a sense of belonging. She has relished in the familiar sights and sounds of home, the Clock Tower and Myrtle Hill.
The two boys are fitting right in with the ways of the South, Samantha said, watching Georgia Bulldogs football games, wearing cowboy boots and getting ready for hunting season. Samantha and Ray took the boys, who arrived on Oct. 15, to Walmart to get them winter clothes, from coats to beanies and gloves, as this latest cold front is a strange thing for two boys from Puerto Rico.
It’s all an attempt to find something normal, she said, and the wanting to have her family feel the comfort in a Southern home and the values that support it.
They are starting over, rebuilding from the unexpected, piece by piece.
“I will always have Puerto Rico in my heart,” she said. “We weren’t the only one’s suffering and certainly aren’t today. They’re going through hell.”