"And Then They Came..." (Chapter XXX)
Secretary of State Arizmendi stood behind the podium, his head barely clearing its height. He was flanked by the towering figure of Police Superintendent Alejo Montañez and the not less imposing Fire Chief Francisco Oronoz, both of whom accentuated even more his lack of size. More than fifty reporters watched behind the television cameras, as he finished his 5:00 P.M. report.
“To summarize, the latest Hurricane Center bulletin places Hurricane Fay arriving in Puerto Rico sometime in the late night or early morning of Wednesday, that is two and a half days from now. Most of the spaghetti models, including the European and North American models, are now coinciding that our island is almost certainly going to get hit at least partially by its tropical storm force winds, maybe even directly.”
Double A wiped his forehead unconsciously with his handkerchief, highlighting the few strands of hair plastered across his skull.
“We have ordered the evacuation of all shoreline communities extending from Dorado in the north to Guánica in the south, since depending on the time that the hurricane passes, we may experience a storm surge from four to fifteen feet, in addition to the cyclonic waves. Like our Governor said before, do not wait until the last moment to leave, or it will be too late. Most deaths in hurricanes do not occur due to the storm’s wind but because of the flooding, although in this case Fay may be a Category 5 hurricane by the time it gets here, and its winds will also be a force to reckon with.”
The Secretary of State paused to flip one of the leafs of his notes.
“All public schools will be closed as of tomorrow, so that we can begin to prepare them for the refugees that we expect will seek shelter from the storm," he continued. "All government offices, except for the Civil Defense, and the police and fire departments, and any other personnel essential to get ready for the hurricane, will be closed as of the day after tomorrow.”
Double A cast a glance at the two men standing next to him.
“Anything else you would like to add?”
Montañez leaned toward the podium, and spoke into the microphone.
“I would just like to remind our citizens that they have more than two days to prepare. Make good use of them. Store food and water for several days. But do not panic, there are enough supplies for everyone. Most of our houses are made of concrete, and should be able to withstand the force of the winds. It’s the days after the storm which will be harder for all of us. There may not be power for a long time, and with the absence of power, many communities will be without water. The Police, the Fire Department, the Civil Defense and the National Guard will help as much as they can, but there will be a long span of time where, like the rest of you, we will be unable to move out of our shelters.”
The Police Superintendent, nearly as large as a bear, stared directly at the camera.
“And one last thing. We will not tolerate any looting. Anybody caught breaking into stores or other people’s houses will be arrested, and will be charged to the full extent of the law.”
He paused, directing a long stare at the waiting press personnel standing behind the cameras.
“In my experience, the people of Puerto Rico have always been their best during national emergencies, and I am sure they will rise to the occasion again," he said. "Take good care of your families, but maintain a watchful eye on your neighbors, since they may need your help. In case of any danger, call us at 911 or the numbers being displayed on the screen below, and we will help you as quickly as is humanly possible.”
Montañez took a step back, and Double A regained possession of the podium.
“Any questions?” the Secretary of State prompted.
A chorus of discordant voices immediately flooded the room.
Arizmendi pointed at a man in his fifties wearing a disheveled gray suit. “Mr. Schneider, from the Associated Press.”
“Two questions: how set in stone are the projections that the hurricane will hit Puerto Rico, and how much more strength is it expected to gain before it gets here?” he asked in Spanish with a marked American accent.
Arizmendi nodded in acknowledgement.
“The projections are not locked in, but almost. The main problem is that there’s a high pressure front north of us that prevents Fay from taking a more northerly track, and keeps it generally heading in a west northwest direction toward us.”
Double A placed his right arm horizontally, representing the high pressure front, over his closed fist, representing the hurricane, and showed how he could not raise his lower hand because of the upper barrier.
“Regarding the strength of the hurricane, present projections estimate that the cyclonic nucleus, that is, the hurricane force winds in the center, could go up to as high as…” He looked at Montañez. “How high did they say?…One hundred and seventy, one hundred and eighty miles per hour?”
The police chief nodded.
“That is a high Category 5 hurricane. For that reason, everybody must take Fay ser__”
“And if it’s that serious, where is the Governor? Why isn’t our Governor here?” A voice in the background shouted.
The crowd in the back of the studio parted to reveal the questioner. Arizmendi searched in the glare of the television spotlights, until the man stepped up to the front.
Double A’s displeasure was briefly but instantly apparent.
“Mr. Padilla Cintrón.”
Padilla-Cintrón was not a news reporter per se, but a political news analyst from the Teledifusora Broadcasting Syndicate, a news organization that heavily favored the Governor’s main political rival, Meléndez Rovira. Impeccably dressed and coiffed although slightly overweight, smug, and often arrogant and dismissive, he smiled at the diminutive Secretary of State.
“It seems to me,” the political analyst said, “that at this critical juncture of the history of this island, the Governor should not be missing, concentrating on personal matters instead of focusing on the well-being of his people.”
Arizmendi made as if to answer, then paused, containing his anger.
“The Governor is being directly and constantly informed of everything that happens in__” he began to say as calmly as he could manage, but was interrupted again by Padilla.
“But that doesn’t answer my question, does it?” Padilla-Cintrón called out over him, raising and gently wagging one finger of his right hand, as if scolding Arizmendi, and maintaining his smile.
If there was something that Double A’s enemies—of which he had many—had learned while crossing swords with him was not to underestimate the tiny, chubby man. Arizmendi regarded his questioner with hostility, his face reflecting the same contempt that he would have shown to a cockroach. He hunched his shoulders.
“Do you have any children, Mr. Padilla?” he asked in a low, angry voice.
“I fail to see what__”
“It’s a simple question,” Double A shot out before Padilla could finish answering him.
“No, of course__”
“Then you wouldn’t fully understand how it feels to have your son kidnapped by a bunch of hardened criminals, do you? How really terrible it is to deal with that situation,” Arizmendi interrupted again.
The hands of several reporters shot up into the air, but Double A waited for the political analyst to answer.
“I suppose it must be terrible, but__”
“You suppose? Well, suppose this: somebody has taken away the person you most love in the world. You don’t know where he or she is. The last time you spoke to him, he was heading for school, and you expected to see him later that same day. Now, you don’t even know if you will ever see him again. Sort of distracting, isn’t it?”
“Resorting to sarcasm will not hide the fact that the Governor is placing the well-being of his son over the safety of the people of Puerto Rico,” Padilla-Cintrón objected heatedly.
“Do not underestimate the people of Puerto Rico. They are kind, loving, and compassionate, and unlike you, for the most part they have and care for their children. They understand perfectly well what Governor Pietrantoni is going through. It is because of his concern for his fellow citizens that the Governor has asked me to concentrate on the emergency at hand. Because he can’t. Just as any other parent in the world wouldn’t.”
Padilla tried to smile, but only managed an angry smirk.
“So to recapitulate, the Governor is not handling this emergency because he has to deal with personal matters.”
"You've got that right, asshole," Double A whispered softly to himself.
But by that time, a hundred other questions were being shouted, drowning out his words.
Most were directed at trying to find out what were the latest news on the kidnapping situation. Double A handled most of them by answering that for security reasons, very little information was available, except to assure the press that Francisco was still alive, and that there was a good likelihood that the boy would be released soon, after the publication of the Manifesto.
The Secretary of State left fifteen minutes later. As he walked out, he directed a feral smile at Padilla-Cintrón, who was complaining heatedly to a reporter standing next to him.
( Chapter XXXI will be posted on Thursday, August 6. )