1 year after Maria: Meteorologists recount the nightmare of Hurricane Maria slamming Puerto Rico

By Manuel Crespo Feliciano, Accuweather en Español staff writer
September 20, 2018, 7:28:37 AM EDT

The old clock on the wall read 11:18 p.m. when the first winds of Maria began to enter through the south of the island. Locked in a building surrounded by antennas, full of computers that projected meteorological models, numbers, communications and radar and satellite images, the meteorologists from the National Weather Service of Puerto Rico (NWS-PR) knew that the cyclone's effects would be devastating for the island.

The NWS-PR office had been preparing for months for different scenarios they could confront during the 2017 hurricane season, just like every year: They had trained to know the latest in emergency management and forecasting, accumulated supplies to survive several days and protected their workplace to resist the hurricane.

Despite everything they could have foreseen, this time it was not a simple drill. A revolving disk painted in intense red and yellow was projected on the monitors and was moving, unforgivably, toward the island of Puerto Rico.

The 200-mile-an-hour gusts of Hurricane Maria, coupled with heavy rain, represented an imminent danger and the NWS-PR team was not alienated from that reality. After all, they were fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, equally trapped in what would soon be a broken island, scattered, in pieces.

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(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

"Maria was something we had never seen before. Everything came down, communications ... everything. One of the most difficult moments was when we first contacted the NWS head office and they asked me about the family and a lump formed in my throat, because we did not know... "

-Roberto García, Director of the National Weather Service of Puerto Rico

Roberto García is a man of calm temper. He looks directly into your eyes when speaking, making sure you understand every word that comes out of his mouth. He has been working for the National Weather Service for 28 years and has developed the ability to always walk one step ahead of any situation that arises.

Even so, Maria was a different event. "They were moments of a lot of stress, a lot of tension. It was very difficult because there was no electricity, no water. You have to deal with the damage you had at your home and on top of that you have to come to work because the whole country depends on what you do", said García, while a glint in his eyes revealed the trace left by this atmospheric phenomenon on his soul.

The same imprint was visible in the eyes of Ernesto Morales, meteorologist in charge of coordinating warnings for the NWS-PR. Ernesto is a jovial guy, with his feet on the ground and with his mind set on the things that he is most passionate about in life: meteorology and his family. Not in that order necessarily.

"It was very difficult from a professional point of view and as a parent. This is my mission in life, but I also have the mission to protect my family. As a family, we talk about this kind of situation and they understand what my job is. But even so, it was very difficult to leave my family in an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Maria," he said.


Ernesto Morales in the meteorologist in charge of coordinating warnings for the NWS-PR. (Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

After spending 36 hours locked in the office, they had to assimilate the effect that the hurricane had caused in their own lives. From damage to their homes and roads closed by fallen trees to the news that their families had to be rescued by a helicopter because of the flooding that affected their residences, as was the case of Ernesto.

They also had to go out to discover what Maria had caused in the rest of the island; the work did not end. Part of the NWS protocol after a natural disaster is to mobilize and carry out an exploration of damages around the affected area with the purpose of investigating and documenting the impact of the system in the locality.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

The mission of the National Weather Service is to provide weather forecasts and hazardous weather warnings to the public.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

This office provides forecasts for users across Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

The staff consists of 10 meteorologists, 6 hydro-meteorological and/or meteorologist interns, 2 electronics technicians, among other professionals that work around the clock to ensure accurate forecast information reaches the public.

(Photo/Manuel Crespo Feliciano)

Currently, the NWS office is located in Carolina, Puerto Rico, next to the San Juan/Luis Munoz Marin International Airport.

"We received calls from people asking for help, because we were the only place that got someone to answer them. In communities, we went from being meteorologists to being psychologists because people wanted to tell their stories. 'That was a category 6 hurricane,' they told us," recalled Ernesto, with some nostalgia.

As the date of commemorating the first anniversary of the event approaches, the team of experts has an endless list of stories and lessons learned.

Among the points to improve, they are managing a better coordination in terms of staff security, as well as having greater reserves of fuel. They also coordinate structural improvements because currently they only have a single entrance and exit in the building, which puts the safety of personnel at risk.


From left to right, metheorologists Walter Snell, Travis Washington, Ernesto Rodríguez, Roberto García, Emanuel Rodríguez, José Álamo and Ernesto Morales.

They are a surprising group, that endures and surpasses everything, as Roberto García mentioned. The NWS-PR is the only federal office of the National Meteorology Service that issues alerts in both English and Spanish.

But since Sept. 20, 2017, they are as well the only NWS team that survived the emergency unleashed by Tropical Cyclone Maria: "As difficult as everything has been, it was a very satisfactory process because we saw for whom we are really working, because there are many people who benefit from our work," concluded Ernesto Morales.

Author's note: Karuska Matos Horta and María Fernanda Vivando collaborated in the development of this story.

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