Southwestern Connecticut feels Irma’s wrath from miles away

Hurricane Irma has pummeled Puerto Rico and the Caribbean and is on course to strike Florida this weekend. Clobbering the country right after Harvey, the Category 5 storm could become the most expensive in U.S. history.

Though the northeast is expected to be spared the hurricane’s physical wrath, with a rich Puerto Rican community and strong ties to Florida, southwestern Connecticut is already feeling the effects of Irma.

Getting ready for Irma

Both Puerto Ricans and Floridians have prepared for the storm with vigor.

Karen Luneburg splits her time between Greenwich and Coral Gables, FL. She thinks the harrowing images of Harvey had a lot to do with the chaos and panic that has ensued in Florida ahead of the hurricane.

“It’s a nightmare down there. “It’s a nightmare down there,” she said, describing growing urgency as the monster storm drew closer. “Gas lines were bumping into main roads causing traffic jams. Everyone was panicking at super markets. There was no parking. Staples like peanut butter and canned tuna were gone.”

Iris Cordero Taylor, 70, the Director of Family Services for Habitat for Humanity of Coastal Fairfield County has two sisters in Puerto Rico.

“My sister told me they took the high school and made it into a shelter,” Taylor said. “When it was told to them that it was going to be bad, right away they were at stores getting food; they were really prepared. They were spared some of it, but they were nervous, scared, praying–but they were getting ready.”

Luis Vega-Ramirez, 22, came to Danbury from Puerto Rico in July for a co-op program at UTC Aerospace. He said his family cut down trees that would present any threat to electrical lines behind the house.

Stratford resident Gladys Ramos, 68, has been in touch with her niece Jacqueline Arosado in Bayamon Puerto Rico–about 15 miles outside of San Juan– who said people have been preparing all week in Puerto Rico, stocking up on groceries and boarding up windows.

As a tropical island, she said they are always on alert for hurricanes and tropical storms but she believes the fact that seeing the damage Harvey did in Houston scared people into getting serious about Irma.

Luneburg’s Florida home is right on the water so she and her family boarded it up and brought the furniture up to the highest floor. Her husband is staying in a hotel and her son moved inland.

Enid Rivera Osbourn, a New Canaan resident who used to live in Puerto Rico had a property manager properly secure her house in Puerto Rico in anticipation of the storm.

“I was a little worried because it is by the beach,” she said.”But the house is a building and it’s replaceable. I was more worried about the people of Puerto Rico and the damage to the island.”

Stuck in the storm

Luneburg was able to get a flight back to Connecticut on September 6, but it was a “nightmare” she said.

“The airport was a mob scene. People were getting premium prices for tickets, which is a shame. It was absolute chaos,” she said.

Arosado said signs of life are returning in her town as of September 7, but it’s unclear when everything will go back to normal–including when airlines will start scheduling flights again.

She said this will be welcome news to some American tourists who got stuck in Bayamon when their Jet Blue flight was canceled. She said the mayor had taken them to a shelter as Jet Blue did not provide any accommodations for them.

Others refuse to leave home.

Osbourn said when news of the hurricane got serious, her husband called her father in Puerto Rico and told him he was going to put him on one of the two available flights out of there. But her father said he wasn’t going anywhere–and Osbourn knows a lot of other people in Puerto Rico who said they were staying put.

Waiting by the phone

Ramos remembers living through hurricanes as a girl in Puerto Rico.

“I remember as a child the excitement of getting ready for a hurricane and the beauty of the quiet after the hurricane was over,” she said. “All the children would take a bag and go pick up all the fruit that had fallen from the trees–the mangoes and avocados– and help to clean up. It was like a nice gathering after something awful.”

Ramos moved to Bridgeport at age 10 and now lives in Stratford where she is a head of the Stratford Hispanic Heritage Committee.

For her, technology helped her get by as she waited to see how Irma would affect her brothers, sisters and nieces living in Puerto Rico.

“The news was right up-to-date and everyone has their phone and Internet,” she said. “I’m old fashioned so I just used the phone and called family members to make sure everything was okay.”

Arosado said communication on the island has been tricky as many people are without electricity or Internet. She has been able to reach her aunt via her mom’s cell phone, which somehow gets a bit of service.

Taylor has been waiting on updates from her two sisters in Puerto Rico who are without power.

What she does know know is that they are okay.

“There is one man who has a generator and that’s how we’ve been keeping in touch,” she said.

Ramos’ brothers told her of awful winds and rain and fruit trees falling over, but everyone made it through the night.

“We are blessed and thank God that storm hasn’t hit them as hard as we thought,” she said.

So close, yet so far away

For Taylor, being far from her sisters in Puerto Rico has been very difficult, she said though tears.

Taylor grew up in Morovis, Puerto Rico and moved to the United States with her family when she was six years old; she spent much of her life in Bridgeport and now lives in Trumbull. Two of her sisters have since moved back to Puerto Rico.

Since news of Irma broke, she has been anxious about the safety of her sisters.

“It was horrible,”  she said. “I was so scared so nervous especially because they said it’s a category 5, and I kept thinking about the damage that Harvey did and that was only a 4.”

For Vega-Ramirez Not being able to help his parents prepare fro the storm was difficult for him.

“When I talked to my mother,  my dad was getting everything set up, he said. “I felt kind of helpless that I couldn’t give a hand to him. I didn’t feel good at all event though I was safe from the storm.”

Vega-Ramirez is in the states until December, and he said Irma has made him anxious to go back.

“I wish I could go back sooner to help, but my professional career is here,” he said. Vega-Ramirez is studying to be a mechanical engineer.

Luneburg is in Greenwich now, but her husband and son stayed in Florida to tend to the family business.

“I have a lot of anxiety,” she said. “The storm frightens me and I don’t know if it’s after seeing pictures of Houston. We’ve gone through Andrew and some others but this is the most frightening, I have to say.”

Osbourn has been most worried for her 84-year-old father living on the island. But she said she knows he is in good hands. 

“Puerto Rico is a very close and united group of people and everybody has been looking after each other,” she said.

‘A community of faith’

Arosado said there are lots of trees down and some flooding, especially in the area of Culebra, Puerto Rico, but all-in-all the damage is nothing they can’t come back from.

“The people of Puerto Rico bounce back. They are resilient,” said Osbourn.

Ramos and Taylor are both members of the Puerto Rican Day Parade of Fairield County. On the night of September 6, the group met to organize an event, but first they all sat in prayer for their families and friends in Puerto Rico.

“We were all very nervous and very very scared that it would be so catastrophic that we would lose lives,” said Taylor. “It helps when people say they were praying for the island. Everyone has been very nice about that.”

“We are a community of faith,” Ramos said. “So praying seems to have helped a lot of us.”

Osbourn said the hardest day for her was when it was announced that Irma had become a category 5 hurricane.

“Just to think if they had the brunt of the eye–I just prayed,” she said. “I really feel like a miracle happened. It shifted north in the nick of time, and I feel like God answered our prayers. It’s truly a miracle.”