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"And Then They Came..." (Chapter LXI)

Chapter LXI

Secretary of State Alberto Arizmendi stood behind the podium, flanked on his right by the Chief of the Fire Department, Francisco Oronoz—a grizzled, gray-haired veteran with more than thirty-five years of experience—and on his left by Pedro Lamoutte, head of the Puerto Rican Civil Defense—a bearded man in his late fifties, who had previously headed the Puerto Rican National Guard. In the background also stood the present head of the National Guard, the Head of the Power Authority, and the head of the Aqueducts and Sewer Authority, among a few others.

Double A was finishing his 9:00 A.M. briefing on the approaching hurricane.

“Again, we urge everybody in the island to take this threat seriously. Hurricane Fay’s strength is presently up to 170 mph, and those are the sustained winds. There will be wind gusts reaching up to 185 mph. And there will be a surge in the sea level, particularly in the islands of Vieques and Culebras, and in the eastern, and later in the northern and western coasts of Puerto Rico, that could go as high as eleven feet over the sea level.”

Arizmendi paused, looking very small between his two big fellow cabinet members. Despite the difference in height and bulk, however, nobody in the press room thought of questioning Double A’s authority. The man was a human dynamo, who had worked tirelessly during the past couple of days to prepare for the monstrous meteorological threat churning at that very moment towards Puerto Rico.

“For those of you who are still waiting in order to determine if they have to prepare for the storm or to seek refuge, don’t. Hurricane Fay will hit us, and there is no doubt about that. It is expected to weaken slightly as it approaches Puerto Rico, maybe drop to sustained winds of 160, 155 miles per hour, but that still makes it a deadly hurricane that will cause catastrophic damage to the entire island.”

Arizmendi paused, looking at the press assembled in the hall.

“Our next broadcast will be at three o’clock. Are there any questions?”

Every hand in the room shot up, and about a dozen cacophonous queries were shouted simultaneously.

“Yes,” the Secretary of State acknowledged, nodding at a tall man in the back.

“Ismael Cabrera, from El Vocero,” the man said.

“Yes, Ismael.”

“There was a news report in WKPA that the hideout of the people who conducted various acts of terror in Puerto Rico had been found and neutralized by the police near El Yunque. Apparently between thirty and forty men were either apprehended or killed in a massive police raid. Can you expand on this?”

Arizmendi nodded. He had been expecting the question.

“Your information is correct, but there is very little else that I can add right now, since the police operative is still ongoing. I can tell you that following tips from an anonymous source, we were able to locate the terrorist hideout. After a serious gun battle, we managed to capture…” Double A looked at Oronoz, next to him, “Fourteen?”, he asked, receiving a nod from his Fire Chief, “Fourteen suspects, six of them wounded, some of them seriously.”

“No dead?” Cabrera followed up.

“Many,” Arizmendi answered. “In excess of thirty, and we’re still counting. You also may have heard about the shootout that took place in an Hato Rey suburb early this morning. The criminals involved were also part of the terrorist group, two of them, who apparently were trying to attack the Hato Rey police headquarters with explosives. Thanks to some intelligence we received from an alert citizen, we were able to intercept and stop them. Both terrorists were killed in the attempt.”

The room exploded with dozens of additional questions. Arizmendi pointed at an obese woman with a brown, two-piece dress.

“Yes, Ms. Figueroa, from WIPR radio.”

“Any idea of who all those people are, and why they were here?”

“Yes, but I’m not at liberty to reveal that to you at this time.”

The female reporter was about to ask another question when a male voice shouted above her, “Are you at least at liberty to reveal where our Governor is? Or is that classified information as well?”

The question had been yelled by the political analyst, Padilla-Cintrón, an implacable critic of the Governor and a political ally of former Secretary of Justice Melendez Rovira.

During the previous year’s terrorist attack, Melendez had become the Interim Governor of Puerto Rico for one day, after Pietrantoni and Double A had been captured in La Fortaleza. Due to his irresponsible and erratic behavior, however, Pietrantoni had fired him shortly after being rescued.

“Mr. Padilla Cintrón, from the Teledifusora Broadcasting Syndicate,” Arizmendi acknowledged with a patient nod. “Please let Ms. Figueroa ask her question first.”

“Of course,” Padilla answered in a complacent tone. “Please go ahead.”

Figueroa cast him an unfriendly look.

“Thank you, Mr. Secretary,” she said without acknowledging the other reporter. “Do you know when we will be able to find out more about what happened in the El Yunque raid?” she asked.

“The police is gathering as much of the evidence as is possible before the hurricane alters or destroys it. I am told they have captured several computers used by the terrorists, which hopefully will provide us with a lot more information. But unfortunately, we also have to deal with Hurricane Fay. So it may be a week or more before we have more concrete details that we can share with you.”

“And hopefully, that will give the Governor enough time to get back here from wherever he is,” Padilla Cintrón interjected loudly, trying to sound sarcastic and earning another indignant stare from the WIPR reporter.

Some in the crowd groaned.

“Relax, Mr. Padilla. Your turn to speak will come soon,” Arizmendi said in a low, patient voice.

“I wanted to follow up and find out: was the Governor’s son rescued?” the WIPR reporter inquired.

Before Double A could answer, Padilla Cintrón interjected, “Now that is a pertinent question, because it will determine when the Governor will actually return to his duties!”

Several catcalls and “booes" followed Padilla’s latest interruption.

Arizmendi calmly held up a hand, gesturing to those in the room to be silent, and then regarded Padilla cooly.

“Mr. Padilla,” he said in a resigned tone bordering on contempt, “you seem determined to interrupt Ms. Figueroa without waiting for your turn. But I think I can answer both Ms. Figueroa’s last inquiry and your shouted question at the same time, if you will give me the chance.”

“So where is our Governor?” Padilla Cintrón insisted.

“He is in Washington D.C.,” Arizmendi responded.

His revelation caused several hands to go up and even more questions to be shouted. Again, Double A waited patiently, until the room quieted down.

“Governor Pietrantoni is accompanying his son Francisco to the hospital, where the boy will be treated for an ebola infection,” the Secretary of State added, looking at the WIPR female reporter.

“Ebola? The ebola virus?” Even Padilla could not conceal the astonishment in his voice.

The hall exploded in a cacophonous chorus of inquiries. Once more, Double A held up his hand.

“The terrorists deliberately infected Francisco with ebola,” he said after the shouting diminished. “Francisco has been flown to a the Children’s Hospital in Washington D.C., where specialized treatment for this disease is available. As you can imagine, this has weighed very heavily on the Governor, to the point of distraction…”

Double A shook his head, in a gesture of sympathy.

“Only God, and those of us in La Fortaleza who were with the Governor during the past few days, know how much he has suffered, while trying to focus on his work…But even for the strongest of men, some things are just too much. For the good of Puerto Rico, of all of us, he delegated the handling of this emergency to me, and decided to take Francisco to Washington. That’s why he’s not here today, although I spoke with him just an hour ago.”

Padilla Cintrón tried to ask another question, but Arizmendi nodded in the direction of a short, thin man with a neatly trimmed beard. “Bernardo Paz, from Claridad, right?”

“Yes,” the man responded. “I have two questions: Is there any prognosis on whether the boy will recover, and has the Governor been exposed to the virus?”

“The boy has been stabilized, is the latest information that the Governor conveyed to me today. Whether he will recover is still uncertain, but we have high hopes that he will,” Double A answered. “As for the Governor, he has worn a hazmat suit—a protective suit—all the time he has been with Francisco, but as a precaution, he is being quarantined until it can be confirmed that he was not infected. But you must remember, this virus is transmitted by contact with the bodily fluids of the infected person, and there has been no such exposure. So the likelihood of contagion is remote.”

“Is the First Lady going to fly to Washington to be by Francisco’s side?” another female reporter asked.

“Nereida, the First Lady, is flying to Washington as we speak__”

“So the entire first family is fleeing the hurricane__” Padilla Cintrón tried to shout over Arizmendi, but was booed down by many of the reporters in the room. He sat down fuming, snorting in disgust and crossing his arms.

“The Governor should be back in a few days, if all goes well. Nereida will stay in Washington with Francisco, hopefully while he recovers. In the meantime, the Governor has been and will continue to be in close contact with his Cabinet, following up on what is happening in the island. Today he asked me, by the way, to convey to all of you if there was a chance, that his thoughts and prayers are with all of us.”

The last statement was true, but had been embellished by Double A.

“Why wasn’t this revealed to the public before?” asked one of the reporters sitting closer to the Secretary of State.

“Did you all hear the last question?” Double A said into his microphone. “I’m asked why this was not reported before to the public. The answer is that we didn’t want to jeopardize Francisco’s deliverance, or at the same time create an unsubstantiated fear that the population in general was being exposed to the virus.”

“And is the rest of the public at risk of being exposed to the virus?” the same man asked.

“No,” Double A responded without hesitation. “This was a very isolated act of the terrorists. Francisco was deliberately injected with the virus, and kept as an isolated prisoner. The terrorists did it to pressure the Governor to publish their manifesto. During our raid, we were able to locate very fast the room where Francisco was kept, and to verify with the prisoners we captured that he was isolated at all times. As an extra precautionary measure, not only the room where Francisco was kept has been sterilized, but the entire compound as well. We also brought our top local epidemiologists to the sight, to make sure that no trace of the virus remains, even though in any event the ebola virus is incapable of surviving outside of a host for a long time. So rest assured that no risk of contagion exists for the general population.”

“Does the President of the United States know about this? About the Governor’s flight to Washington D.C.?” Ramón Perez, a reporter from the Associated Press asked.

“The President helped the Governor to coordinate Francisco’s transfer to the Children’s Hospital in Washington, and allowed the jet transferring Francisco and Governor Pietrantoni to land in Andrews Air Force Base, where a specialized team of physicians was waiting to transfer them safely to the hospital.”

Arizmendi paused.

“So to answer your question, yes, the President knew. Now, I will answer a few questions about our more pressing problem, Hurricane Fay.”

(Chapter LXII will be posted on Monday, November 23)

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