By Ron Driscoll, USGA
Having suffered through the most devastating hurricane his native Puerto Rico has ever seen, Erick Morales prefers to think of the hopeful signs and the lessons learned in the aftermath of Maria’s wrath.
Take, for example, the day that he was going house to house in a remote area of the island, helping to deliver food and water to those in need, when he spied an elderly woman.
“I asked the person driving to stop, and the woman was all scared,” said Morales, 34. “I asked her if she was by herself, did she have water. She said she did, but I could see that the water wasn’t safe to drink. I gave her a couple of bottles of water and she just collapsed, hugging me. To feel her desperation, just letting it out, it was something that I’ll never forget. She was so grateful because I gave her a couple of bottles of water. It still gives me goosebumps.”
Morales, who is competing in his fourth Latin America Amateur Championship this week, has seen a lot of things he never thought he would, like more than 300,000 people fleeing Puerto Rico with more expected to follow, many of whom may never return. The death toll, though still unknown, has been estimated at more than 1,000. Four months after Maria hit, about 30 percent of the island is without electricity.
“I’ve learned to be more grateful for a lot of things,” said Morales. “There’s so much more to it than the material stuff. To help out, it’s so rewarding. There are people out there who have nothing, and you see them with a big smile.”
A former college golfer at Rutgers University, Morales runs a technology company and lives in Dorado, about 25 minutes west of the capital, San Juan, on the northern coast. He keeps a small generator, but like almost everyone on the island, he was not prepared for what happened on Sept. 20.
“I was at my house with a couple of friends and the wind started picking up around 3 a.m.,” said Morales. “At 5 in the morning, it just started, like a roar. It was impressive. By 11 in the morning, we were like, ‘When is this going to stop?’ You saw huge trees flying, roofs flying like you took it with your hand and threw it.”
Morales emerged to find an island that had been ravaged by the impact of the high Category 4 storm, with winds of more than 150 mph. Puerto Rico’s power grid and water supply were crippled by Maria.
“Thank God, we’re lucky to live in a cement house,” said Morales. “I think every house in Puerto Rico had flooding, because the drainage would clog with all the leaves and everything. But that’s nothing compared to what some people are going through to this day. When we went to the interior of the island, my God, you would see entire families of 10 or 12 living in a two-room house with no roof. The mattresses are all that they had. It was really heartbreaking.”
The 10th-most intense Atlantic hurricane ever recorded left damage estimated at nearly $100 billion on the Caribbean island of 3.4 million people, which is roughly the size of the U.S. state of Connecticut. Roads were made impassable by washouts and downed trees, some of which were more than 10 feet high in their uprooted state.
“I went up into the mountains two months after the hurricane,” said Morales. “You still couldn’t get to certain places. The police and National Guard had to walk to communities where there was no access on the road. They had to use ropes to get from one side to the other after bridges fell.”
Services that most take for granted, like cellphones and day-to-day necessities such as food, gas and water, were scarce in the immediate aftermath. Morales recalled waiting in a line for gas for upwards of eight hours.
“I think we have 2,300 cellphone towers in Puerto Rico, and nearly 100 percent of them were down,” said Morales. “There was no cellphone service, no communications, for five days. A lot of people didn’t know about their families for a long time. People would drive hours to get to a place where they could communicate with their families.”
Those friends and families, many of them from the mainland United States, have responded.
“A lot of people from the States have helped a lot,” said Morales. “They would constantly ask, what do you need, are you OK? They sent us power generators, donations, pallets of water, basic stuff. We are extremely grateful for all the help we received.”
Out of the catastrophe, Puerto Ricans have emerged with a new resolve.
“It was really sad to see your people go through that, but in the end, you’ve got to regroup and get the best out of it,” said Morales, who got married three weeks ago. “I think we’re all better persons now than we were before Maria. We’re more conscious of what really matters in life and what we can do to help others.”
Morales knows what turning the calendar a few months ahead will bring: another hurricane season.
“It’s coming again in June,” said Morales, who recalled hurricanes Georges (1998) and Hugo (1989) as the worst previous storms in his lifetime. “In past years we would hear that a hurricane was coming and it wouldn’t hit us. People got too complacent, too confident. Now we’re growing stronger in everything we are doing, and we’ll be – I’m not going to say ready – but more aware of the circumstances that could happen if we were to face another catastrophe like this.”
Morales comes into this Latin America Amateur off a 59th-place finish at last week’s South American Amateur in Buenos Aires. He has played twice for Puerto Rico in the World Amateur Team Championships and three times in the PGA Tour’s Puerto Rico Open, but competing this week after the travails of the past four months brings a new perspective.
“Priorities have changed, and golf was not a priority,” said Morales. “I didn’t play for months, but never in my mind was there a worry of, oh, I can’t play golf. It was, ‘How are we going to get out of this?’ If you saw me out there last week, you wouldn’t notice if I was making birdies or pars or bogeys because I was just enjoying it. I’m blessed to be here, blessed to have my family well and just looking forward to it.”
Again, looking forward, not back, is the key.
“Sometimes we think we have a big problem, and you know what, it’s not a big problem,” said Morales. “Let’s focus on the positives, on how we can grow and get better and be more prepared. We got together as one Puerto Rico. We’ll get back up, you know.”