"And Then They Came..." Epilogue (Chapter I)
Hurricane Fay knocked out the power for the entire island of Puerto Rico.
Surprisingly, only seven people died as a direct cause of the storm, mostly persons who were caught by Fay’s surge, were swept away by the island’s engorged rivers, or were electrocuted trying to set up their own power generators.
Whole towns, linked to the rest of the island only by two-lane bridges that were destroyed by the hurricane’s torrential deluge, had to be reconnected, sometimes by portable temporary bridges, sometimes by helicopter, sometimes by cable lines extending from one side of a river to the other.
Of the five giant cranes used in San Juan Bay to load and unload cargo container ships, one was totally destroyed and three others were heavily damaged by the tornado-like, one hundred and sixty miles per hour winds of the hurricane. Only one of them remained operational, at sixty percent of its capacity.
Scores of sailboats and yachts in the island’s various marinas sank, were piled on top of or against each other, or were swept inland by the cyclonic tide, now lying on their sides in streets dozens of yards away from the water, looking like dead dinosaurs.
The hurricane had continued in a west-northwesterly course after colliding with the island, causing massive damage in the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the western end of Cuba. Its interaction with the land had finally weakened it, its winds dropping to those of a category two storm before it curved northward into the Atlantic. Florida and the Carolinas, usually targets of Atlantic Ocean-formed storms, had been spared this time.
Secretary of State Arizmendi led a heroic effort by the local government to rescue thousands of stranded citizens, deploying during the first few days the National Guard and the Civil Defense, reopening mountain roads that had been blocked by landslides, trees, or other debris, distributing food and water, and providing shelter to the countless residents who had lost their homes.
In fact, Arizmendi acted with such speed, zeal and energy, that in the intervening days his nickname of “Double A” acquired a new, sterling meaning among the citizenry, who began to use the monicker not to ridicule the tiny Secretary of State, but to affectionately praise him.
Double A even managed to reopen the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in two days, a titanic undertaking that cleared the way for the scores of U.S. transport airplanes—including several giant Army C-5’s—that brought urgently needed supplies to the beleaguered island.
Also, the hospital ship USNS Comfort arrived in San Juan during the afternoon of the second day after the storm, and was immediately tasked with relieving the overflow of patients from the already overwhelmed hospitals in the metropolitan area.
By the fifth day, Governor Pietrantoni returned to Puerto Rico on Air Force One, accompanied by President Powell. The two men overflew by helicopter several portions of the island, and were appalled by the destruction they witnessed from the air.
The helicopter made more than a half dozen impromptu landings, overseeing some of the rescue operations, inquiring from the besieged mayors and other lesser government officials what were their most pressing needs, and repeatedly astonishing the harried residents of the decimated neighborhoods with their unexpected appearances,
The President stayed overnight in La Fortaleza, holding a press conference that was covered by all of the local and national news media. He unequivocally vowed to obtain significant financial and technical resources for the island Commonwealth. Even more importantly, he addressed the Puerto Rican people directly, assuring them they would not face the crisis alone.
His statement, “I will not abandon the people of this island, as I am sure your millions of fellow stateside citizens will not abandon you either,” became a rallying cry for all Puerto Ricans, regardless of their political affiliation.
And as the President prophesied, help began to pour into Puerto Rico from every corner of the United States, in the form of power company equipment and employees, religious organization volunteers, and medical personnel. Corporations donated substantial sums money or their products to the local residents, and even private citizens in chartered flights or in their own private planes flew tons of provisions, medications, and supplies into the island.
Inspired by the Puerto Rican and federal governments’ response, groups of local citizens organized neighborhood cleaning and repair crews, clearing out fallen trees or other debris, or distributing food to those who needed it. Portable generators hummed and rattled all day long, often sharing the electricity they generated with their neighbors.
It would be eight days before power started to trickle back into certain limited areas of the San Juan metropolitan area. And even then, the fragile energy grid would often fail, leaving in the dark entire neighborhoods where a few hours or days before the power had just been reinstated.
The repair trucks working on the downed lines were received by the affected residents with thunderous applause and the enthusiastic banging of pots and pans, their crews beleaguered by all manner of home-cooked meals, desserts, and beverages.
Not everything worked in an orderly, cooperative fashion, though.
Ice became a rare commodity, and huge lines formed around the generator-powered ice plants to buy the two-bags-per-person-per-day rations. Sometimes, some people would try to jump the line, or sneak into it a friend or a family member to circumvent the daily quota, and fights would break out. In the end, the police had to be brought in to maintain the general peace and order.
One enterprising crook hijacked an ice truck, which was found empty the next day, parked in front of the ice plant.
Long lines also formed—as early as four or five in the morning—next to the few gas stations that were able to remain open immediately after the hurricane, often extending for dozens of blocks.
Only one in about every ten traffic lights were not knocked down after the storm, and of those, most did not operate initially because of the lack of power. Therefore, getting anywhere became an exercise in patience, caution, and tolerance, where the usually hasty Puerto Rican drivers and pedestrians learned to take turns crossing any major intersections, and where those who refused to wait were rebuffed by the solid blare of angry horns.
At night, the neighborhoods lit up with barbecues, small sterno burners, and the light of a few generator-powered homes.
To avoid the oppressive heat, people would climb into their cars and drive around mostly dark neighborhoods, taking advantage of their vehicles’ air conditioners, trying to find out in what areas the power had been restored, calculating how many more days it would take before the repair crews reached their locations, eyeing with concern those small pockets that remained dark even though the surrounding areas were already illuminated.
It would take nearly two months for life in the island to reacquire some semblance of normalcy. Even so, more than a half dozen towns—mostly in the mountains—would remain without electricity for another half year.
* * *
Power returned to Lucas and Michael’s homes ten days after Fay took it away. They considered themselves lucky.
The huge tree that had fallen across the road and landed in front of Michael’s house ended up blocking not only the street but his main door, so that for the next two days any entry to or exit from the house had to happen through their garage.
Miraculously, the thick branches of the toppled tree spared the beautiful, wrought iron mailbox that stood in front of the house, one thick branch resting on each side of it, and a third hovering menacingly a few feet above it.
Even though it was apparent from afar that the tree was obstructing the road, scores of cars continued to drive up to it and then pause, their drivers staring at it as if it had just fallen out of the sky, and then backing away. In the process, they ruined the grass growing in front of Lucas’ house, churning it into a brown mush.
And when a Civil Defense brigade finally chopped up the fallen tree, the thick branch hovering over Michael and Vanessa’s beautiful wrought iron mailbox fell directly on top of it, and crushed it.
* * *
In the afternoon after Hurricane Fay, Michael managed to get through to Police Superintendent Montañez, informing him about the terrorist attack to Lucas and Jeannie’s house.
Two police squad cars were dispatched to the hospital, one to interview Jeannie, Lucas, and Michael, the second to pick up the keys of their house and take them to the detectives already waiting there.
Jeannie described to the investigators how she had first detected the terrorists as they climbed over her neighbors’ backyard fence, and that eventually led to the grim discovery of the slain couple that had lived in the house behind hers.
As the detectives walked into Lucas’ home, they were astonished by the carnage that they found.
However, there could be little doubt about how the attack had been carried out, and how the residents of the house had defended themselves.
Only one loose end puzzled the investigators.
* * *
Lucas sat up in his bed, his left leg throbbing with the dull pain of his wounds. It was his third day since Michael and Jeannie had gotten him to the hospital, and he was beginning to recover his strength.
He looked resignedly at the food tray on the small table in front of him, while Jeannie removed the transparent wrap from the main plate. It was chicken breast covered in some undeterminable brown sauce, yellow rice, and a side of dressing-less shredded lettuce.
“Don’t make any faces,” Jeannie warned him. “I know this is not your cup of tea, but you’re eating a lot better than most of the people in this island right now, who have no power and must settle for canned food.”
“You’re right,” he answered, while despondently holding on to his fork. “So I’m going to make a sacrifice, and let you have the food.”
He directed a sideways glance at his wife, who stared back at him with a half exasperated, half amused smile.
“Honestly! You’re worse than your children!” she said, trying to sound angry but failing to do so.
She snatched the fork from his hand, and started to cut the chicken, pinching a piece and gathering some of the rice behind it.
Obediently, Lucas opened his mouth and began to chew, while he surreptitiously moved his right hand under the sheet to touch her behind.
“There! That wasn’t so bad, was__”
Jeannie stopped in mid-sentence and, slamming the fork on the plate, stepped away from the bed, directing him an indignant stare.
“You pig!” she said, as Lucas quickly withdrew his hand from her left cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he told her smiling half guiltily, unable to conceal his delight. “It’s your fault for being so sexy.”
“If you weren’t so hurt, I swear__”
A knock on the door interrupted her angry words, causing her to bite her lower lip and shake her head in frustration.
“May I come in?” inquired a male voice.
“Yes,” Jeannie replied, casting a last glance at her husband that promised violence after the visitor departed.
To the couple’s surprise, Police Superintendent Montañez walked into the room.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything,” he said, nodding briefly at Jeannie and then quietly examining Lucas. “I heard you were pretty banged up,” he said to the latter.
“Oh, he’s much better!” Jeannie responded, glaring at her husband.
“That’s good to hear,” the police chief said, oblivious of her apparent anger, or ignoring it on purpose.
“Thanks to her and to Michael, my brother-in-law,” Lucas added, hoping to gain some sympathy points with his wife.
“I’m told you got a concussion, and were shot twice in the leg,” Montañez continued saying to Lucas.
“Never expected to be attacked in the middle of a category five hurricane.”
“And you,” the Superintendent said, turning to Jeannie, and looking at her with admiration. “You fought like a lioness.”
“She__” Lucas began to say, but a sharp look by his wife stopped him in mid-sentence.
“My children’s life…and his, were on the line,” she answered.
Even though the bear-like Superintendent towered almost twice over the height of Jeannie, her response left no doubt that she would fight to the death for the people she had mentioned.
“Sorry about your man. Ojeda, was it not? Of Puerto Rican descent?”
“A Neoyorican, born in the Bronx,” he replied quietly.
He had taken hard the news about his friend’s death. Ojeda had seemed like one of those forever optimistic people who was never supposed to die.
“I am very sorry,” Montañez repeated. “He was a good man. I think Secretary of State Arizmendi made arrangements to transfer his remains to his family in New York. Do you know if he had any children?”
“Two boys, seven and eleven, living with their mother. He was divorced,” Lucas replied. “I am heartbroken. He was such a good, decent man.”
It was strange, but of the three security men assigned to him by President Powell, he had spent the most time with—and befriended the most—Ojeda. And yet, they had never spoken about his family. It had been Myers, the day before, who had informed Jeannie and Lucas that Ojeda had two children.
Montañez shook his head, “A sad loss.”
He paused, observing the married couple.
“I just wanted to see personally how the two of you were faring. You will be pleased to know that we have finished the forensic examination of your house, and have removed the bodies,” he said to them. “We are cleaning everything up, so that when you return to your home, you won’t have to deal with that. Courtesy of the Government of Puerto Rico, express orders from Governor Pietrantoni.”
Lucas already knew. In a prior telephone conversation, the Governor had told him as much.
Jeannie shivered involuntarily.
Except for a brief visit to get some clothes, she had not returned to the house since Michael and her had driven Lucas to the hospital.
The children had stayed with Lucas’ sister, Vanessa, but Jeannie had refused to leave her husband’s side. It was mostly because of her devotion for him, but Lucas knew that she dreaded going back to their home, and that it would cause her a great deal of stress to do so.
“Anyway, I’m glad you’re improving. You should stay here at least until the electricity returns to your neighborhood,” the Superintendent said.
The hospital had been operating at full power for the last two days, with the help of various generators brought by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Montañez extended his hand and shook Lucas’, cautiously at first, then warmly.
“I have a confession to make to you,” the Superintendent said, smiling ruefully. “Last year, during the terrorist attack to La Fortaleza, and later, when you discovered the…” he looked at Jeannie, and stopped momentarily. “…That device that you found in the tunnels, I suspected for a moment that you were somehow connected to those people, since you always seemed to show up in the middle of their activities. I even told Maldonado about my suspicions. But you ended up stopping them, each and every time, so I finally came to the conclusion that you were on our side.”
He paused, raising an eyebrow humorously.
“And I give thanks to God that you were there, because otherwise, a lot of us would probably be dead by now.”
He looked at Jeannie.
“And I guess that applies to you too. So thank you.”
Montañez turned to leave, but hesitating, stopped at the door.
“By the way, I almost forgot one of the reasons that I came here today. Our forensics people confirmed that the terrorists that were killed in your home are the same persons that were holed up in the Hotel Isla Verde. The fingerprints in their room coincided with those of the corpses in your house.”
Montañez’s eyes wandered to Jeannie.
“Except for one. There’s one terrorist that’s not accounted for.”
Jeannie nodded almost imperceptibly.
“That must be the one that I told you about, the one that escaped from the house.”
The police chief nodded.
Jeannie had been purposefully vague about Da’ud’s role and participation in Enrique’s death.
When interviewed previously by the police, she had told them that for some unknown reason, Da’ud had stabbed Enrique to death, and then left the house without uttering a word. She had given them a very vague description of the man, saying that he had remained out of sight for most of the time that the terrorists had been inside the house, and that she had been paying more attention to Nour.
She had not told them—not even Lucas—how he had admitted to planting the bomb that had demolished the jewelry store and killed Lucas’ mom and aunts, or that he seemed to have an idea of where he would hide.
And she would never tell Lucas about it.
Da’ud had saved her children from getting killed and saved hers and Lucas' life. She would not aid the police in the terrorist’s capture.
“Have you found any clues about the man’s whereabouts?” Lucas asked.
“No,” Montañez replied, not taking his eyes off Jeannie. “The man has disappeared. You don’t have any idea of where he might have gone, do you?” he asked her.
Jeannie shook her head.
“I have a feeling that he won’t bother you any more,” the Superintendent said, shrugging. “He killed one of his associates, and left you and the children alone. He could have finished his job then. He won’t come back to finish it now.”
“I agree,” said Lucas.
“Take it easy,” he said. “Just worry about getting well as quickly as you can.”
“Thank you, sir. I’ll try,” Lucas responded, casting a humorous look at his wife.
As the Superintendent left, Jeannie walked back to Lucas’ side, and grasped his hand with both of hers.
She said nothing.
“You know…” Lucas said softly, “I vaguely remember, when I was lying in the terrace, being carried into the living room by man I didn’t know. Did I imagine that?”
Jeannie blinked nervously.
“Michael carried you. You must have been confused.”
“I must have,” Lucas replied, not insisting any more.
(Chapter II of the Epilogue will be posted Thursday, January 28)