Options Amid Chaos: An Architect’s Story from Post-Maria Puerto Rico

The following interview with architect Gonzalo Ferrer, AIA, happened almost five months after Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico. What he experienced could easily resemble the experiences of others in the island’s A&D community. The story unfurls of how he and his family came through the storm and coped with its aftermath, including offers to leave the island. Leaving wasn’t in the family’s thinking; for those who were born and live stateside, the interpretations offered here help explain why. In Part 1, preparation for the storm, the storm itself, and weeks of survival mode. Part 2, to be published 5/21, will address the island’s unique utility struggles, the early days of Mr. Ferrer’s design practice in the wake of the storm.

In one of the last images from the island’s Doppler radar, Maria’s eye moves on Humacao. Blown away by the storm, it hasn’t been replaced. Photo: Gonzalo Ferrer

Gonzalo Ferrer, AIA, expected two days without electricity in Hurricane Maria’s aftermath. Instead, his family’s San Juan home awaited reconnection to power for 121 days. They lived a month with friends and then at his parents’ house for the rest of their nights away.

What does this mean for an architect? Like everyone else, immediate survival, then, creative problem solving in supply distribution, power access, and the business of getting back to designing.

Without electricity at his office and with most work on hold, he trucked diesel fuel and sold fuel tanks. Stateside colleagues offered housing and workspace as an escape to normalcy. But, leaving at that moment was out of the question.

“We live in a very small community,” said Mr. Ferrer. “My family is here, I was born here and it is tough to abandon ship. Puerto Rico is a nice place to be and a tropical island that comes close to living as you do in the States.”

“I was educated in the States, at Cornell,” he continued. “If I leave the island, I can find a job in architecture or in another field related to construction. I will figure it out, but that is certainly not the case for everybody.”

Those living stateside might misread the intensity of feeling that Mr. Ferrer expresses. Some of those who left had only memories to take along because Maria took their homes and everything inside. Others left behind fine homes in good order, got aboard chartered planes and jetted to places where hurricanes never go.

Life’s conveniences were but a short flight away. What made the Ferrers stay?

Understanding why means examining the Puerto Rican way of regarding each other, caring for each other and remaining unfailingly gracious toward all, no matter what. It’s something Massachusetts-based columnist Jonathan Wright called ‘quintessential Puerto Rico.’ Mr. Wright, a part-time resident of Loíza in Puerto Rico and writer for Northhampton’s Daily Hampshire Gazette, illustrated the resiliency of Puerto Rico’s people using stories from a post-Maria stay.

“When I travel by myself,” he writes, ”I talk to strangers. In Puerto Rico, I smile, greet and ask about their family. It seems natural since Puerto Ricans are all about family.”

In the days after Maria, talk of family members took a dark turn. He learned the answer, “My family is fine” was a way of saying, “No one has died yet.”

Simple things like two cheerful women running a laundry, busily cleaning, sorting and bagging clothes, reminded him of the caring way Puerto Ricans approach everything. Despite everything, his order was cleaned, sorted and bagged. He wrote, “I am overcome with gratitude for this caring when I should be the one delivering care. It is quintessential Puerto Rico – care for others.”

When Irma battered the neighboring islands, that caring instinct moved the Ferrers and a group of friends to head out and help. The group bought ice and supplies, and after Irma, gathered up their leftover supplies surplus and made a relief trip to the British Virgin Islands, giving their extra supplies away to help people on a neighboring island. When they landed on Jost Van Dyke, the relief group saw devastation on a war-like scale.

Luis Ferré-Sadurní called the tiniest of the British Virgin Islands “ravaged beyond recognition.” He wrote in his New York Times article of an isolated people, of 298 residents left with no electricity, phones or running water. A bar that hours before anchored the island’s nightlife was now the “de facto command center and lifeline,” thanks to having the only operating generator.

After Irma battered neighboring islands, the Ferrers and friends made a relief trip for residents on Jost Van Dyke on the Saturday before Maria’s arrival. Photo: Gonzalo Ferrer

The Ferrers made that trip with friends the Saturday before Maria. They did so while Maria, another whirling salvo of Nature’s wrath had sights on Puerto Rico. An urgent matter, but irrelevant when neighbors were in need. When home, they prepared for the coming storm, boarding up some doors and windows. Mr. Ferrer held hope that Maria, like Irma, might shift her path by just enough to sideswipe the island.

Maria would not imitate Irma, nor would she choose sides as Hugo did. Hugo laid down a hard hit, but as Mr. Ferrer recalls, “Hugo cut through half of the island, leaving the other half fully operational. The problem with Maria is that she hit harder than Hugo and belted the whole island,” he said.

The Ferrers kept safe in their home while the storm raged.

“My house faces east. I thought the storm’s brunt would be coming from the east, so we moved to a bedroom facing more toward the southwest.”

Howling winds and rain pummeled the house for hours. “We were dry in that room, but we had water coming in other rooms from wind pressure on the windows. Luckily, we have tile flooring, so nothing was damaged. It’s nothing compared with the damage to other houses.”

Maria delivered wind gusts up to 175 miles-per-hour, close to the 185 mph gusts from 2005’s hurricane Wilma, one of the top five ever recorded, as reported by The Telegraph. Water accelerated to those speeds goes where it wants, even when windows meet requirements for resistance to hurricane-force winds.

The Ferrer’s home was habitable, except for no electricity. Clearing the storm-blown debris and vegetation from their yard was itself a task of several days.

Clearing the storm-blown debris and vegetation from the Ferrer’s front yard. Photo: Gonzalo Ferrer

The havoc following the storm was another matter. What Gonzalo Ferrer remembers is complete chaos for the first three weeks.

“The transformer serving my house detached from the light post and fell down,” said Mr. Ferrer. His home was without power from Maria’s landfall on September 20 until January 20. Otherwise, it was habitable.

For four months and one day, the family checked on their home, inside and out. The length of that time away racked up to a point where Mr. Ferrer considered his options.

“I was ready to buy a transformer from an electrical subcontractor that does big projects, and they were going to install it for me. Then I realized I could essentially connect my house to a nearby transformer that was already in place serving a neighboring home.”

61 lineman and 31 service trucks from WE Energy and Wisconsin Public Service arrived in Puerto Rico in January 2018 to help restore power. Photo: Fox11online.com

The day he was going to do that, a crew from Wisconsin showed up outside his house, looked at the situation and delivered good news. “That same night he was able to get us hooked up, and we had power. It felt like a miracle happened.”

61 linemen from WE Energy and Wisconsin Public Service, accompanied by 31 service trucks, arrived in Puerto Rico during the second week of January. Initially planned as a six-week stay, they extended their time by two weeks so they could get more done. Reporting by the Post Crescent’s Shane Nyman in Appleton, WI, included one lineman’s story.

Craig Kahoun, a field manager from Wisconsin Public Service, said on behalf of the crew that being in Puerto Rico was life-changing. None of his team spoke Spanish, but the generosity of the Puerto Rican people needed no translation. Residents set up tables and chairs, then brought out full meals to feed dozens of linemen.

“The people are unbelievably strong,” he said. “They’re wonderful. They feed us, and they bring us water. I’ve never had so many hugs in my life. Our guys are gaining weight while working 16 hours a day. They treat us like family.”

Between the lucky day power was restored to his family’s home and his earlier realization of what damage Maria did, Mr. Ferrer was blunt.

“After the storm, it was about survival. Our supplies were essentially gone by the third day. With our ice gone and no way to get more, my question was, ‘What are we going to do?’ The grocery stores weren’t open. Getting fuel for the car or diesel for the generator was super complicated. Trying would take three-quarters of a day, without anything to eat in the process.”

After four days, the Ferrers left their house to stay with close friends who generously took in the family without hesitation, expecting nothing in return. “They wanted to hear my plan, our plans. I had to tell them, ‘I don’t have a plan.’”

The Ferrers stayed with friends for four weeks while sorting out their next moves. Finding a way to help others cope with post-Maria realities of life wove its way into Mr. Ferrer’s plans. He knew firsthand of the struggle to find and buy diesel fuel.

“My friend’s family owns an industrial business, so he came up with the idea to set up a truck for selling diesel.” Mr. Ferrer’s friend was a lawyer by profession, but the court system was shut down.

“Here we are, a lawyer and an architect selling diesel. People always looked a bit surprised as we were not your typical diesel outfit,” he said. “People were creative, doing things to keep their lives moving.”

After a month on the fuel truck, returning to architecture became a realistic possibility. Mr. Ferrer’s office had electricity.

When a client needed a fuel tank to supply their onsite generator, Gonzalo Ferrer obtained this 3,000-gallon model with a custom cradle. Photo: Gonzalo Ferrer

“I got a Wi-Fi hotspot so we could get online, and I had a project on standby with Gensler which was about to start.”

Connections between Mr. Ferrer’s practice and Gensler go back to Ithaca, NY, where he and Doug Gensler attended class at Cornell University. They became close friends. Mr. Gensler is the son of M. Arthur Gensler Jr., founder of the firm bearing his name.

“Doug called up after Maria and offered to let me work at any of their offices,” said Mr. Ferrer. “We were blessed with lots of support from people outside Puerto Rico who wanted to give us a hand. They checked on us regularly and could hear in my voice that we were struggling.”

A good friend of Mr. Ferrer’s from Boston was able to source a part for a generator that he wasn’t able to find. First, the friend had to understand the unreliability of Internet service on the island.

“I let him know what I needed, then he told me to go buy it off the web. I couldn’t. The connection was too unstable. You could get online but might not be able to complete a transaction. Once I explained all of that, he understood immediately. He found the part online, ordered it for me and had it shipped to his house and then out to us for FedEx next-day delivery.”

For several weeks, FedEx held incoming packages at their warehouse for pickups, which made for long waits in line. Stateside shoppers nonchalantly expect next-day delivery. Making that happen in Puerto Rico after the storm took some doing.

In Part Two next week, the story continues with the airlift of supplies arranged by individuals and private groups, Mr. Ferrer’s practice in the early days after the storm, the situations facing rural areas and a solution to the island’s public utility woes.