Puerto Rico: Climbing Our Way Out of Disaster
A small, self-organized brigade of climbers is making a difference.
Puerto Ricans continue to face perils three weeks after Hurricane Maria. The Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are still struggling to provide basic assistance to residents on the island. Eight-four percent of the island remains without power, 40 percent has no access to running water and only 10 percent of the 5,000 miles of roads are open. People are dying from lack of adequate medical care in hospitals that are brimming with patients. Some islanders have even resorted to drinking contaminated water out of desperation.
In the midst of this catastrophic situation, there are Puerto Ricans rising to the occasion and finding creative solutions to the unexpected emergencies they face every day. An intrepid group of climbers—led by the climbing guide and artist, Bryant Huffman, who is also an owner of Climbing Puerto Rico—is taking matters into their own hands and doing whatever they can to help their distressed communities persevere.
Despite communication difficulties, I was able to catch up with Huffman last week to get a sense of what is happening on the ground.
Interview with Bryant Huffman, from San Juan, Puerto Rico
Hey Bryant, would you mind introducing yourself?
My name is Bryant Huffman. I’m 38 years old and I live in San Juan, Puerto Rico. I run Climbing Puerto Rico—it’s a guiding company, but we also work hard developing new climbing areas and organizing events to help the climbing community grow. I’m also a musician and have worked in the art department of the movie industry for the past 10 years.
How are you doing?
The uncertainty about the future can be overwhelming and my mind is racing everywhere, but given the circumstances I’m doing more than okay—trying to help out however I can.
Where were you during the hurricane?
I passed the hurricane in a reinforced concrete structure that withstood the strong winds. The storm felt like there was a giant pressure-washer machine blasting my house, peeling off the surface—water gushed in through every crevice in my apartment. Right after the hurricane passed, all I could think about was the safety of my family and friends.
How are your family and friends?
Everyone I know suffered losses. Some were minimal, others total. It wasn’t until you held your loved ones that you got a taste of peace. Situations like this make you value the importance of friends and family—when they’re okay, you’re okay. One of my good friends and climbing partners lost the top level of his house! You could see his hangboard still attached to the roof lying on a hillside. I’ve been to towns where rivers are full of debris from the ravished homes.
What is it like in Puerto Rico right now? [October 11, 2017]
The situation in Puerto Rico is catastrophic. The island is unrecognizable. It’s as if a nuclear bomb of wind and water blasted the island to pieces. Everywhere you look you see naked mountains—thousands of trees without leaves, tangled on the ground, steel structures crushed into paper balls, houses and buildings without roofs—completely shattered.
Everybody is suffering from the domino effect that started on September 20th. It instantly changed our lives forever. The main problem right now is the lack of fuel. Without fuel, trucks that transport supplies can’t run. Generators that power hospitals and businesses won’t work. The heavy machinery that opens roads and clears debris won’t move. The personal vehicles of people desperate to find any information about their loved ones can’t make it anywhere. It’s a reality check on how dependent we are on this liquid.
The second biggest problem has been communication. There are still people I know who haven’t heard from their family members in weeks. We’re talking about an island that measures around 100 miles long by 35 miles wide. This makes a well-coordinated and efficient relief effort almost impossible.
Does the situation continue to differ between metropolitan areas and rural areas?
The situation between the metropolitan areas and the rest of the island is very different. Let’s put it this way, there are areas of San Juan which got electricity back yesterday and there are areas of the island that probably won’t get power back for another year.
Access to the internet and cell service is almost non-existent outside of metropolitan areas. You can see dozens of people parked on highways, standing on top of their cars, walking on hillsides, even parking their car right in the middle of a road wherever they can get a signal.
The shortage of food and clean water has been another big problem for the rest of the island. Food and clean water has been delivered to a few towns by helicopter because there is no ground access—there were massive landslides all around that swept away bridges and roads. Heavy machinery is needed to move all the mud, sometimes six feet deep, and the debris choking up the roads. The hospitals that survived are over-packed with people, running low on supplies and fuel for energy … and are closing each day.
From my understanding, a lot of people are dying now because of these issues.
How did you survive the hurricane? Were you well prepared?
I thought I was prepared. I had stocked up on water, fuel, gas and food supplies. All my outdoor equipment was easy to access and we had an escape plan and emergency kit ready. This is the third strong hurricane I have lived through, but nothing can prepare you for something of this magnitude and the aftermath. It doesn’t matter how many supplies you’ve gathered and stored—it will run out eventually.
This is where the creativity and ingenuity of people shine through. You can see improvised water pipe systems made out of PVC bringing water from the streams all the way out to the highway. Others have taken advantage of all the downed wood at their disposal—making washboards out of the wood and actually creating a source of income. It amazes me that Puerto Rico wasn’t prepared for a disaster like this—it’s kind of absurd when you analyze our geographical position in relationship to hurricane formations.
How have you been contributing to the relief effort on the ground?
In the midst of all the chaos and suffering, it has been wonderful to see how the whole island has come out to help each other in any way possible. This has made us recognize the importance of every position on a relief effort team. From the one who can get a signal and post news updates on social media, to the ones bringing water to the ones sweating their butts off opening roads. Every single member’s effort counts.
Our relief effort crew is composed of a bunch of climbers and friends that have set out to help in any way we can. Everyday we see how the skills we acquired through climbing are a great help to everyone.
For instance, we know how to apply mechanical advantage to move heavy tree trunks. We are able to build bomber anchors to lower heavy things. We also know the best knots to use for hauling and towing with SUVs so ropes don’t have to be cut and can be quickly reused. Climbing has also given us the confidence and agility to climb trees and cut/release broken branches or access high places in the city to help people.
While patrolling the city, we came across a woman breaking down as she encountered her wrecked home for the first time. In order to gain access to her house and rescue a few valuables, we had to contend with chest high septic water levels. We were forced to do some buildering between gates, window frames and railings that was easily V4 to avoid the nasty water! We’ve also done a lot of buildering to unclog drains and flush out trapped water on the top of roofs.
A few members of the Climbing Puerto Rico crew also work as arborists, so we have the equipment necessary to be effective in opening roads blocked by trees. This is what we’ve been up to, helping out whoever needs help in the form of a small self-organized brigade.
What can people not living in Puerto Rico do to help out?
You can help out in many ways: coordinating a gathering of supplies to send over, being a bridge of information for those that don’t have internet service, or contacting agencies and entities that want to help by donating their products or services.
You can donate to any PayPal/fundraiser you feel like, buying off online platforms from local businesses, etc. Right now donating money is probably one of the best ways to help. I know it sounds superficial to send money, but a lot of the supplies from the current relief effort are stuck in the States, in storage, waiting to be sent over—the stuff is not making it here. A lot of equipment has been confiscated by the government too because it is “needed” by them, so the supplies is not making it to people that need it!By sending money directly to people you research and trust, you are actually putting money directly into our economy and local businesses.
With that understanding, Climbing Puerto Rico is receiving donations through our PayPal account: firstname.lastname@example.org. If anyone wants to contribute, just add the message “Donation Maria”.
We are completely committed to using ALL the donations to bringing help to others. The money will be used to purchase the gasoline needed to reach the affected areas and buy the necessary equipment to help us help others. It will buy the food and water for the ones working. It also helps us buy the essential supplies for people in need that we meet along the way. One thing we can assure you is that IT WILL HELP US! You can also simply spread the word. A lot of people have no clue what we’re going through right now.
What kind supplies are needed most?
People have been asking me what is needed. Yes, definitely food, clothes and water are needed immediately, but we must also think long term. There are many after effects after a disaster like this, mainly with hygiene and health issues. Water filters that kill bacteria and viruses are strongly needed.
Luckily Puerto Rico is rich in water, there is water flowing out as mineral springs virtually everywhere around the area, but right now everything is uncertain. There are many things (dead animals, feces and urine, diesel, gasoline, chemicals, chemical reactions by the materials stashed into piles, etc.) that can filter into the earth and meet the water sources. There has already been an outbreak of gastroenteritis in Aguadilla and several people have died of Leptospirosis due to stream and river water contact.
Electricity won’t be back for a long time in several places so rechargeable power stations, car battery inverters, solar panels and solar powered gear is necessary for a lot of places.
Communication is also a huge problem so long range walkie-talkies and satellite phones have been of great help once you leave the metropolitan area. Because of all the debris and trash stacked up in huge piles all around the island, outbreaks of disease are soon to happen. So insect repellent, first aid kits, medicine and mosquito nets would help. A lot of people lost either their roofs or whole houses so tents and tarps are also really needed. Hygiene products like toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, etc. are needed too.
How have you handled this disaster?
I’ve been facing this disaster like any good climber—with a strong, clear mind and trying to stay fit and healthy for the difficulties to come. I’m also trying to be as effective as possible with every move I make, working as part of a team. The health and recovery of this island is our new project and we’ll do everything possible to “send”.
Tomás Andres Donoso is a climber, photographer and writer based out of Chattanooga, Tennessee. His website is tomasdonoso.com.